Cooking technology has come a long way from open flames. We now take for granted convection ovens, microwaves and even sous vide machines in our homes that were unimagined in the past. However, there are certain cooking tools that simply can’t be improved, namely cast iron cookware.
While manufacturers have tried to further optimize cast iron pans over the past 50 to 60 years, many cast iron die hards don't believe anything can compete with the pans from the beginning of the 20th century. Why is that though? According to Dennis Powell Jr., the founder of cast iron cookware company, Butter Pat Industries, the entire evolution of cast iron can be explained with one simple event: the switch from a smooth finished surface to a pre-seasoned, much rougher one.
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If you happen to own a very old cast iron pan, maybe one that you’ve inherited from your grandmother or purchased at a yard sale or antique market, the first thing you notice is that the surface is completely smooth. However, most modern cast iron pans are not. According to Powell, this is where the divide began. “Up until the 50s, every cast iron pan ever sold in America was created without pre-seasoning,” he says. “Then Lodge started selling their pans pre-seasoned because they knew that people no longer insisted on doing the seasoning themselves.”
The entire concept of seasoning cast iron, which acts as a leveling agent so the proteins won’t adhere to the pan, was a result of home cooks trying to fill in this new, rougher surface. The roughness that you feel on much modern cast iron is sand, which used to be removed during the cast iron production process. However, that step has since been removed by many modern manufacturers. “A lot of cast iron today is produced in 90 minutes,” says Powell. “But at the turn of the 20th century, cast iron would sit in molds for upwards of 48 hours before then being tumbled for 24 hours before it then received its final packaging.” As a result of this, vintage cast iron was incredibly smooth.
While many home cooks get frustrated with the cast iron seasoning process, and the issues that can come about when you don’t season your pans properly, there are new manufacturers, like Butter Pat Industries, that produce modern cast iron with a method more similar to the one used at the turn of the 20th century. When Powell began this project in 2013, he came at it not with the idea that he was going to create a company, but that he wanted answers to the oldest questions about cast iron, like, what makes the modern conventional pans so rough and why were the pans made at the turn of the last century so smooth? Now, three years later, Butter Pat produces some of the smoothest cast iron available, the recepient of great praise from chefs, like Sean Brock, Linton Hopkins and John Currence.
Besides producing incredibly high quality cast iron cookware, though, Powell also wants to educate consumers about how simple it really is to maintain and clean smooth cast iron. “The smoothness on our pans is what releases food from the surface of the pan, not seasoning,” says Powell. “We do preseason our pans, but we do it in order to prevent rust more than anything. If your cast iron has a smooth surface, though, you can clean it with water, use steel wool on it and scrape things off of it with a paint scraper without damaging the cooking surface.” Compare that to the theories you hear about grandmothers never removing the fat out of their cast iron pans or people today who swear by using salt or potatoes to clean their cast iron and the difference in quality becomes pretty clear.
More than 100 years after its peak production, cast iron cookware is more popular than ever. However, the frustration of proper seasoning and how to clean it correctly continues to frustrate cooks around the country. Maybe it’s time to embrace this new, old take on cast iron, which improves upon a century-old process. You know how they say, “they don’t make them like they used to anymore”? Well, in the case of Butter Pat Industries’ cast iron, maybe they do.