To my count, there were no fewer than five different cast-iron skillets of varying shape, size, weight, and provenance strewn across Christopher Muscarella's sun-dappled New York City living room on a recent Saturday morning. In the kitchen, where Chris's brother Stephen was frying up a breakfast of thick-cut bacon, maple-glazed kale, and oozy, golden-yolked eggs, there were four more, half of them in use at that moment. Later, Chris confided that there were more than 20 others, both new and vintage, secreted around the apartment.
Such a quantity of cast-iron skillets may seem like overkill, but to the Muscarella brothers, who for the last year and a half have been on a quest to engineer the perfect lightweight cast-iron skillet, it's all in the name of research. An exhaustive analysis of the pans' strengths and weaknesses played into the final design of the Field Skillet, a 10.5-inch cast-iron pan that, at 4.5 pounds, is lighter than a 13-inch MacBook Pro. An ongoing Kickstarter campaign to bring the Field Skillet to market has caught on like a runaway grease fire: With still 15 days to go, it's raised over $400,000, more than 13 times the original goal of $30,000.
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It all began with a single skillet. "Literally in this kitchen, there was this pan," Stephen told me, hoisting up a massive, rusted-over specimen with two hands. "This pan is heavy as shit, and Christopher said, 'I just bought this skillet and I don't like it as much as the one mom gave me. Why isn't it as good?'" Stephen motioned to a thin-walled vintage pan, a family heirloom that was Christopher's go-to in college. I picked it up, and it felt good in my hand—solid, but light enough to easily grip it one-handed. "I think with every business that has ever been started, there's a moment when you look at each other and you have this moment," he said. "And I think we had that in the kitchen."
Chris and Stephen agreed that they just don't make cast-iron skillets like they used to. In their opinion, modern iterations are too heavy, unwieldy, and don't hold a finish well. What if they created a cast-iron pan of their own?
Neither sibling had previous experience with metalworking, but tackling large-scale projects sans trepidation appears to be a family trait. Stephen, a woodworker by trade and the proprietor of Left to Right Furniture, doesn't blink at the prospect of producing eight-foot-long cherry wood slab tables by hand. Chris, a software engineer, is the co-founder of Kitchensurfing, a service that makes it easy to book a private chef on the (relatively) cheap, and Mobile Commons, a mobile marketing and text messaging platform designed for businesses, nonprofits, and political campaigns. For good measure, Chris also dabbles in boat restoration.
But mettle aside, it didn't take long for the brothers to realize they were in over their heads. "This is the part where being a crazy person helps," Stephen said. They drafted a model for their ideal skillet—lightweight, easy-to-grip, durable, and attractive—and called more than 200 foundries across the United States. The vast majority told them the design was an impossible one from a production standpoint: It was madness to produce a skillet with such thin walls, a requirement for getting the overall weight down.
There's a lot of dickheads like us that have wanted to make vintage thin-walled pans, and they've all failed to do so, more or less.
Unfazed, the Muscarellas hunkered into their own research. They stumbled on a research paper with a mouthful of a name—"Thermophysical Properties of Thin Walled Compacted Graphite Iron Castings"—and hooked up with its author, the Krakow-based scientist Dr. Marcin Gorny. Bowled over by Gorny's know-how, Stephen hopped on a plane and flew the 11-plus hours to Poland. He stayed for a week, learning firsthand the inner workings of cast iron.
"Poland is like our Rocky training montage," Chris said. "We didn't even know the questions to ask, [but in Poland] we learned all the science that we needed to know. We learned exactly how the process worked, and what details actually mattered. Then we were able to go to American foundry folks who had previously stonewalled us."
The Muscarellas settled on a design that begins with walls poured a quarter-inch thick, which then are machined down to a modest three millimeters, giving the skillet a smooth, polished finish. Like their mother's vintage skillet, it's a one-handed instrument; Stephen says the Field Skillet is a full pound lighter than most standard pans of an equivalent size. Arguably more compelling, it's less expensive than other premium skillets at a projected $100 a pop. For comparison's sake, Sur La Table sells a 10-inch Staub skillet for $159.99, while a nine-inch Le Creuset enameled skillet goes for $149.99 at Macy's.
Chris is angling for e-commerce to be in full-steam by Labor Day, but those itching for a Field Skillet sooner than that can contribute to the Kickstarter. Although the first and second production runs are currently sold out, those who pledge $90 or more will receive their Field Skillet by July. (If you're really antsy, a pledge of $175 or more gets you one by June.)
So why has it taken so long for someone to crack the secret to a super-thin, lightweight cast-iron skillet? Stephen has a theory.
"There's a lot of dickheads like us that have wanted to make vintage thin-walled pans, and they've all failed to do so, more or less," he said bluntly. "If you want a t-shirt, you call up a t-shirt factory and get it however you want it. It's not the same for cast iron—everyone in our supply chain, we've had to convince to do this project." That's where being a little bit nuts comes in handy. "I can guarantee you that we will always be refining and making this thing better, forever," he said. "That's who we are as a company, and who we are as people."