American

An All-American Cast Iron Skillet Made the Vintage Way

January 24, 2017

When I got Isaac Morton on the phone and heard his Southern drawl, I knew I was in good hands. Nevermind the fact that I hail from the South myself; Southerners know good cooking. Especially the kind that crackles and crisps and sputters in a cast iron skillet.

Isaac is the founder and creative force behind Smithey Ironware Co. and their beautiful, handcrafted cast iron skillets—which are newly available in our Shop.

But before I delve into Isaac's story (plus how a Smithey skillet is made and how to season one), I want to share why exactly we're so excited to be adding Smithey's cast iron skillets to our Shop's shelves.


why smithey

  • 100% U.S.A.-made, Smithey skillets are reviving the American tradition of cast iron manufacturing, the way they were made over 100 years ago. Started in an Indiana foundry, and finished by hand in their Charleston, South Carolina workshop, each piece is handcrafted with care.
  • The inside of a Smithey is glassy smooth in the style of vintage cast iron—this creates an especially easy-to-use surface for the most finicky of foods, like eggs.
  • A Smithey skillet is pre-seasoned and nonstick right out of the box. The polished finish makes for a superior nonstickness and ease of cleaning (a light scrub under warm water will do).
  • A Smithey is full of thoughtful (and useful) details: a second carry handle with 3 holes—they reduce weight, allow you to hang the skillet from a rack, and give your fingers and thumbs a place to grip when you're pouring; a pour spout with precision; and an angled wall sharp enough for frying and serving as a sauce pot, and open enough for every day use.
  • And a Smithey has all the things you know and love about cast iron skillets: Cast iron is best known for its ability to hold temperature. It's typically thicker and denser than, say, copper (which heats up and cools down extremely quickly, useful in making a roux or sauce) so it absorbs a lot of heat and retains it. As Isaac says, “Cast iron hits back!" He's talking about that moment when you throw a steak into a hot cast iron pan. Instead of the pan immediately losing heat, the temperature stays up. That retaliation is what creates a crispy, well-seared piece of protein. Cook dinner in a cast iron skillet and bring it right to the table—it'll stay hotter, longer.
Smithey skillets are reviving the American tradition of cast iron manufacturing, they way they were made over 100 years ago.

how smithey came to be

Growing up, Isaac Morton's appreciation of cast iron dovetailed with his love of the outdoors. He spent a lot of time hunting (and subsequently cooking) wild game. Even I, who have never hunted in my life, can picture a gathering around the fire following a day with eyes to sky. The bird in a cast iron pot, dangling over the impish flames. Isaac agrees: “Cast iron goes quite well with a lot of wild game dishes.”

Meet Isaac Morton (and his awesome cast iron skillets). Photo by Kirk Robert Chambers

And then eight years ago, his sister-in-law gave him a vintage cast iron skillet. “I was blown away by the quality," he remembers, "The difference I noticed, right out of the gate, was the pieces cast 100 years ago had this satin smooth surface.” Like many, Isaac had associated cast iron with a rough, sandpapery feel.

The difference I noticed, right out of the gate, was the pieces cast 100 years ago had this satin smooth surface.
Isaac Morton, Smithey Ironware Co

I can attest to that: Last summer, I helped my family clear out my grandmother’s old cottage kitchen, sifting through charming and pointless kitchen treasures, like green-topped electric milkshake makers and hand-cranked egg beaters. When I dug out a small (I call it tortilla-sized), visibly worn cast iron pan and touched its smooth surface, my first thought was, “Smooth? This must not be a very good cast iron pan. The good ones are scratchy on the insides!” My prejudice aside, I took the pan home (yes, in my suitcase, which I had to unpack in front of everyone on the airplane, along with the aforementioned egg beater, in order to get it to fit in the danged overhead compartment).

Join The Conversation

Top Comment:
“I'd long thought that surely it must be possible to make a modern cast iron pan that outperformed Lodge's current offerings and had the virtues of vintage cast iron pans. It's a testament to how bulletproof cast iron cookware is that there's so much of it is still around after 50 or 100 or more years. I don't think you'll see much of a market for most contemporary cookware 100 years hence--or even 20 years hence! ”
— sfmiller
Comment

That pan proved me wrong—it is now a part of my everyday life, frizzling the edges of a fried egg, fusing a cheese crust on my quesadillas, and rendering seeping-red chorizo.

The cast iron skillet I inherited from my Grandma's Lake Michigan cottage kitchen.

So, fancy my surprise when I learned (through Smithey’s website, and then confirmed by Isaac himself) that a smooth-surfaced cast iron skillet is how these pieces were originally made, over 100 years ago.

While some people claim that a rough interior guarantees a better sear, Isaac touts the superior nonstick qualities of a smooth surface—for foods that require more finesse, like fried eggs, or ones that you want to plop out with no crumb left behind (skillet cornbread!). Plus, that gleaming smooth surface, especially after years of use, is undeniably prettier.

The Smithey logo is imprinted into each cast iron skillet. Photo by Kirk Robert Chambers

After the gift from his sister, Isaac began to delve deep into eBay archives, hunting down vintage pieces from Griswold and Wagner, and poring over collector's books. He started to notice a gradual uptick in the asking prices for these gems, and that’s when the seedling of an idea began to germinate.

“I thought, I’m paying a lot for rusty pieces!," he remembers, "That got me wondering whether there was a viable way to bring back some of the characteristics of vintage cast iron to a modern piece.”

Isaac began work with an industrial designer, perfecting his prototype over a year—fussing over and testing wall angles, pour spouts, handles—until it was just right. And then came the search for a foundry that would take on Isaac’s skillets.

A modern foundry, almost exclusively, is a place where castings for industry are made—typically very heavy-duty equipment like engine blocks and other large machinery pieces. Taking on something that required a small-scale attention to detail, for perhaps an iffy financial return, proved a hard sell to many foundries.

"There are intricacies in a skillet that aren’t applicable to an engine block. I got laughed out of the room by most of them,” Isaac shared with a chuckle. Cookware is something that foundries produced long ago—very few are producing cast iron skillets and pots on a large scale. But Isaac kept on, and eventually he found one that would take on his skillets, convincing them that his design really worked and the resulting business would ultimately benefit the foundry and their reputation.

Isaac in his Charleston, South Carolina workshop, polishing a skillet to a gleaming shine. Photo by Kirk Robert Chambers

How A Smithey IS Made

The biggest difference between what Smithey is doing and what a company like Lodge is doing is the small team of craftsmen whose handiwork goes into each piece. Smithey uses scrapped iron—old railroad ties, castings that foundries that buy from scrap yards—so the majority of the material in their skillets is recycled metal. Isaac broke down their process into four stages for me, confirming that each step involves both a machine and a human hand.

1. Casting: The foundry creates a sand mold, wherein the molten iron is poured. The pouring is manual, a foundryman carrying the magma-like metal to the mold. Then the machine comes in—shaking off the excess sand as the skillet cools. It’s then passed back to a group of foundrymen that ground down the parting lines (the angles where the piece changes direction, like from the base to the wall). This entire process takes an incredible amount of human labor and time. (This initial stage of the process is similar to how our enameled cast iron Staub pots, which have different benefits, are made—watch that here!)

2. Machining: The raw castings are sent on to Smithey's workshop. A craftsman (hey, Isaac!) begins to sand and smooth down the interior surface, removing any roughness. That silky smooth surface begins to make an appearance…

3. Polishing: Next, a pneumatic brush (see image above) is used to further touch up the cast iron. Once that’s done, into a machine the skillet goes. Isaac equates this process to a “sandpaper bath”—it shakes 10 to 20 pieces at a time against rocks, which helps to smooth down and de-burr the castings.

4. Seasoning: Finally, two to three layers of seasoning are added. Isaac said they’ve used flaxseed oil in the past, but are currently using grapeseed oil. For the cast iron nerds out there, Isaac has sent out packets of different seasoning to try out—including beeswax, which is great for darkening the skillet. (More on seasoning below.)

A line-up of the handsome cast iron skillets, ready for you to make some cornbread. Photo by Kirk Robert Chambers

Smithey’s Charleston workshop is, as Isaac puts it, “really, really busy.” Their little team of three hums along with a lot of room to grow and with big dreams on the horizon. He mentioned that they love to hear from customers about what they want next—a Dutch oven? A bigger size? A smaller size? He'd be happy to hear from you—just shoot an email to [email protected]!

Isaac has already gotten Smitheys in the hands of some pretty big name chefs, who've quickly become fan of the skillets. Sean Brock of famed Charleston restaurant Husk cooks on a Smithey. Hugh Acheson was an early advocate, highlighting it in a travel piece about touring and eating his way through the Lowcountry. Southern food writer Virginia Willis, Anne Quantrona of Atlanta's Star Provisions, Anya Fernale of Bel Campo Meats in California all use a Smithey. Tartine in San Francisco has contacted Isaac expressing interest.


Seasoning, that 9-letter word

Seasoning. That dreaded word. It is a topic of great debate among the cast iron community—Smithey’s opinion is so long as you’re getting whatever oil you choose at or near its smoke point, you’re getting the job done.

Isaac also noted, “If you’re not a collector and you’re just cooking with it, you’re seasoning it!” As the food heats up, the oils and fats from the food polymerize (they join into larger mega molecules, mixing with bits of carbon and other impurities, and create a tough, impermeable surface—science!!). It’s almost like paint drying on the skillet. This layer protects the cast iron from exposure to oxygen, preventing rust.

And as a very important bonus, seasoning imparts a natural nonstick effect. Isaac says some of his favorite customer interactions are over seasoning, whether it’s a first-timer intimidated by the very word, or someone particularly passionate about a specific oil and methodology.

Every last detail is considered in a Smithey skillet. Like a hole to hang and the imprint of the logo. Photo by Kirk Robert Chambers

Isaac has noticed, and you may have, too, a rise in cast iron interest over the last few years. There are several other small companies rethinking and re-designing cast iron skillets throughout the country. But we think Smithey has a leg up.

Many of these new-school skillets are made with a lightweight design, like Field's. Isaac stands by a heavier design: "A cast iron skillet needs to have enough heft (wall thickness) to sear with authority, otherwise it is basically a slightly more dense steel pan." Some don't feature pour spots ("For the life of me, I don’t know how one pours off hot bacon grease or other oil without spouts.")—Isaac shares that including a pour spout adds a complication to the machining process. But Smithey knows the details are important, even when they require extra time and labor.

Others still, like Finex, design a handle intended to protect the user from handle heat by using additional metals. "When you incorporate different metals ... in a single handle, it creates more room for wear over time. All those different materials expand and contract at different rates. There is a greater likelihood of breakdown and rattle. I’ve never seen a cast iron skillet last 100 years with anything other than an iron handle."

In short, we fell in love with Smithey: not just for their careful consideration of every structural detail but also their gorgeous, vintage-inspired design—down to the sweetly imprinted bird logo (that's a California valley quail, in case you're wondering).

Think of your Smithey as a living, breathing thing: It will carry the history of every hand that has touched it and every meal that is cooked in it. And it's also a lifetime-upon-lifetime investment: "It's not just for you," Isaac says, "It's for everyone that comes after you."

People treat themselves to high-quality experiences all the time—whether at a restaurant or purchasing a piece of good furniture or electronics. Something that you'll use every day, like cast iron, shouldn't be any different. Made with care, with rough, industrious hands, with thought, and with the idea that it will be a beautiful heirloom for a family to share, a Smithey is “as much a piece of art as it is a piece of cookware." Leave it on your cooktop, or hanging from your pot rack, where it will always be in arm's reach.

Do you have a vintage cast iron? Did you know that cast iron skillets weren't all scratchy? Share your stories with us!

38 Comments

Cynthia P. November 26, 2017
I LOVE cooking with cast iron and we have a collection of old ones - including the Griswold I grew up with in our family camping kitchen, and an unnamed heavier one (with a smooth finish) that I got at a yard sale for 25 cents back in the early 1980s. I've always been torn about the new ones - really liking that they are made in this country where I have at least some say in the laws that govern workers' wages and safety - but not liking the pebbled finish. Our #12 big one is the only pebbled one we have out of the five that are in regular use in our kitchen.<br /><br />A year or so ago I saw someone else who was marketing a newly made smooth pan, but for cost reasons he had eliminated both the pour spout and the hole for hanging - both of which seem necessary in my kitchen. So glad so see someone is making them again like this even if it does cost more. I agree with the commenter who pointed out how little over time the cost is if you keep it for a lifetime. These would make wonderful wedding or house-warming gifts.<br /><br />We season ours after every use by heating them up and rubbing a very light coating of olive oil onto it with a small bit of paper towel. We don't worry about scrubbing the dickens out of it or using soap or whatever else that a lot of people say you shouldn't do. We've been handling ours this way for decades.
 
Dayn R. July 4, 2017
I'd like to make an obvious comment about pricing. From what I can gather this is made here in the States. It is crafted, not just "assembly-lined" so many others. It's basically under or around $2.00 per year to own it provided you actually care for it, pass it along and pass it down and keep it for 100+ years. Will it last that long? Good question. How much "stuff" do we purchase made elsewhere in the world then turn around and complain about quality or horrible working conditions of those other places, etc? Not trying to soapbox here but in a way, yeah, I am. The term here is Craftsmanship. I'd like to believe that is what made all those vintage pots and pans last as long as they have and do. Say what you will but I have several generations of Saladmaster cookware that I've personally used for 30+ years and it was old when I got it! Different company for sure and I don't always agree with the current owner's manufacturing ideas... Craftsmanship. That's gotta be worth a lot on Scrabble, right?!
 
Priscilla L. February 24, 2017
Is it necessary to have two pans - one for sweets and one for savories?
 
Jim February 24, 2017
I've never used two pans. If properly seasoned, a cast iron surface isn't that porous.
 
Rachel January 30, 2017
In 1980 I worked in northern California, near Mt. Lassen during a year break from college. The thrift store in my little town yielded up over the year a graduated set of 4 ancient and smooth cast iron skillets. These served me well for years and traveled all over the country and beyond. When I married a man with enamel cast iron skillets and received All Clad for our wedding I gave away my old skillets to someone I thought would appreciate them. Big mistake, giving the skillets away. Happily, the marriage was not.
 
Holly D. January 29, 2017
I'm so excited about this! I inherited a small (6 or 8 inch maybe?) pan from my great grandmother and it's a COMPLETELY different pan than my more modern lodge cast iron skillets. I've always wanted a bigger one for more every day cooking so I'm thrilled to know there's someone out there who's making them!
 
Brian January 29, 2017
I was given my first cast iron pan when I went away to college. My roommates and I abused it not having any idea how to care for it but we loved how we it cooked steaks and game meat we got from one of our Dads. When I got my first apartment I liked the Griswold insignia so I cleaned it up and hung it on the wall and spent a bunch of money Calphalon pans I had to be every two years. We then were given a Le Creuset and started to get the bug. As I got into grilling and smoking I would use the Griswold on the grill. I swapped out the grates on my grills to cast iron and started to look into how to properly clean and season my Griswold pan. In that research I learned about all the logos and the history of the companies and determined the pan I have been abusing for 15 years was from 1935 and that flaxseed oil was the way to go to season it. I stripped the pan down to the bare steel and hit it with a wire wheel and then put on 7 coats. Best non stick pan ever. I now have a small Wagner from the 50's and a larger Sears and Roebuck pan from the 60's which may be about the last smooth finished pan made, I make pizzas with that one and take it camping. I use my Cast Iron on my glass top stove every day no issues just be careful not to drop it. I am so happy to hear about Smithey. Cast Iron cookware is such a great American tradition I hope I will get to see Isaac's place if I am in SC and thinking I am in the market for a dutch oven.
 
Timothy M. January 29, 2017
I'm 60 years old and I have my grandmothers Griswold iron skillets: 12", 10" and 6". The bottoms are smooth as glass. They are as black as pitch. I never understood why anyone would want these new Lodge "pebbled-bottomed" skillets. I thought these superior old grandpas were a thing of the past. So great to see this.
 
Marit G. January 29, 2017
Love my cast iron pans (one old and one new) and will use them as long as I am able to lift them, getting older they seem heavier
 
Allison January 27, 2017
I notice you're selling these in the Food52 shop. Is this article an ad / sponsored content?
 
Author Comment
Olivia B. January 27, 2017
Hi Allison--No, not an ad or sponsored content. We simply wanted to share why we're so excited to have launched these skillets in their Shop (mentioned at the top of the article), and the great story behind them.
 
Allison January 27, 2017
Awesome - I appreciate the response!
 
sfmiller January 24, 2017
Very good piece. I wish Isaac Morton the best. I'd long thought that surely it must be possible to make a modern cast iron pan that outperformed Lodge's current offerings and had the virtues of vintage cast iron pans.<br /><br />It's a testament to how bulletproof cast iron cookware is that there's so much of it is still around after 50 or 100 or more years. I don't think you'll see much of a market for most contemporary cookware 100 years hence--or even 20 years hence!<br />
 
barbara N. January 24, 2017
I'm staying with my American made Lodge, they're plenty smooth enough and work on any stove top except glass. If I'm going to spend $200 it's going to be enameled.
 
Laurel January 24, 2017
Initially, I balked at the price of these pans but then I read Isaac's story and realized this is actually s great buy. Of course it helps that he's so handsome AND has one blue eye and one brown eye. I'm sure these pans are s unique as he is!
 
Louise T. January 24, 2017
My neighbors moved out last summer, and threw out all manner of everything. They were in a rush, so I asked if I could take things to Goodwill. They threw out working electronics, space heaters, Doc Martin boots, clothes, blankets, towels, dishes, jewelry...on and on. I made 4 trips to Goodwill. Then, I found the pan.....a crud-encrusted pan that seemed heavy enough to be cast iron, but was so abused it was nearly unrecognizable, as such. I found instructions online,. cleaned it up (a three-day process)...An expert online with whom I shared photos said the pan was manufactured in the USA between 1840 and 1920. And it has a rare wood handle. It is now my most prized pan :-). And mu first cast iron one, other than my glazed dutch oven.<br />
 
Author Comment
Olivia B. January 24, 2017
What a diamond in the rough!
 
miniangel February 23, 2017
What an awesome story!
 
Poppygold January 24, 2017
Your link to tell Smithey that a Dutch oven would be a great addition to his line is broken/not found [He mentioned that they love to hear from customers about what they want next—a Dutch oven? A bigger size? A smaller size? He'd be happy to hear from you!]<br />His site has no 'contact us' link to let them know Dutch ovens would be a great addition as they would indeed. <br />Finally, I look for old Wagner's and Griswold's all the time and still feel that the Smithey a good price given what the vintage ones are priced at and I smile when I think of the Smithey being cherished and handed down to my son...
 
Author Comment
Olivia B. January 24, 2017
Ah, thanks for letting me know—I've updated the text (the e-mail is [email protected]).
 
Poppygold January 24, 2017
Thanks!
 
Blair D. January 24, 2017
I was fortunate enough to inherit my mother's cast iron skillet that originally belonged to my grandmother. It is at least 50 years old and I love using it. I purchased a Lodge and the surface finish of the bottom is so rough that I have always felt I need to make it smoother. Thanks for confirming my suspicions. Great article and nice looking pans. If I "need" a new one I will definitely check out Smithey
 
Nancy S. January 24, 2017
I am so excited to see this! I hope the have great success. I am letting all my friends know about these CI. Now I am getting that CI itch again.
 
Author Comment
Olivia B. January 24, 2017
Me, too... I think my grandma's cast iron might need a (larger) cast iron friend!
 
Smaug January 24, 2017
Maybe he was looking in the wrong place- tool companies do a lot of very precise cast iron work- tool tables that need to be done to tolerances in the thousandths (that's right, 5 straight consonants) of an inch, with polished finishes that could pass for stainless steel. Recycled metal isn't necessarily a bad thing- Japanese craftsmen seek out, at huge cost, old anchor chains from sunken ships as the ideal secondary metal in their (world's best) laminated chisels and plane irons.
 
Jim January 24, 2017
Looks nice, but at $160-200, I think I'll keep shopping thrift stores and garage sales for an old Griswold...
 
LD M. January 24, 2017
Wow are they really THAT pricey??? I just watched a U-Tbube video and you can take Lodge 10" cast iron pan with an Avanti Pro Quick Strip and a 3/8 or 1/2" drill in a half hour you have a smooth bottom and wall of your cast iron pan.<br />The buffing wheel is $6.50 at Home Depot and if you don't have a drill you can rent one from their tool dept. $20.00 for pan $6.50 for buffer wheel + a 1/2 hour of your beer drinkin' time beats $160-200 doesn't it ?If I were really lazy I might spring $40-50 for a polished cast iron skillet but not $160-200 !!!
 
Jim January 24, 2017
Yes, they really cost that much. I love cooking in cast iron, and I prefer the smooth machined interior to Lodge's pebbled bottom. I just can't see the difference being wirth $180, though, especially when older, used pans (with smooth bottoms) can be found for MUCH less money.
 
Smaug January 25, 2017
If you plan to try this (which I really wouldn't recommend) PLEASE wear a dust mask and eye protection. All around eye protection.
 
Jim January 25, 2017
The recommendation about personal protection equipment makes sense. Besides that, though, why would you not recommend someone try creating their own smooth-bottomed cast iron pan?
 
Smaug January 29, 2017
Trying to get a smooth finish from a hand held drill doesn't work very well- edges dig in, the machines tend to skitter etc. You could possibly do something with a (fairly powerful) random orbit machine, but you'd be limited to using sandpaper far as I know, or maybe an angle grinder, but once again difficult to keep it really even- a small divot or less than flat surface can have major consequences as far as cooking. In general, it's the sort of project that you get half way through and start to regret it, and then it turns out that you were really only a quarter of the way through. And then you have a bunch of fine metal dust to clean up- over a wide area, if you used a drill- always a joy.
 
HH January 24, 2017
Can they be used with a glass cook top or induction cook top? I know that the material is ok for that, what's crucial is the flatness of the pan. I have an old one which is kind of round at the bottom and it will not heat up evenly, which is in general a culprit with cast iron pans.
 
Kristina W. January 24, 2017
We've been using a Smithey in our test kitchen, which has a glass induction range, and it works great!
 
LD M. January 24, 2017
Not certain but, I don't see why it wouldn't work on glass stove top but the induction, yes. Any pan or skillet you can stick a magnet to will work on an induction cooktop. Aluminum or stainless won't work.
 
KR January 24, 2017
I love my lodge cast iron, and all other pans have really taken a back seat. Having never owned one, I thought as I cooked with it and cleaned/seasoned properly I'd eventually get hat beautiful silly smooth texture that my mom's and grandmothers has. After doing some research about this a few days ago I found that, that's not how it works. So I've been put on the waiting list for my moms- which was a gift from my dad years and years ago. She told me "when I'm done making biscuits, you can have it" which was her nice way of saying. "You can have it when I'm gone" because that women should never stop making her cast iron biscuits! Of course, this article pops up and I'm immediately drawn to it- and now plan to drop the $$ on it immediately! It's not even 7am, and I'm making the purchase! Thanks for showcasing this! And I wish years of business growth to the Smithey's team!
 
Author Comment
Olivia B. January 24, 2017
So glad to hear that, KR! (And wish I was starting my day with those delicious-sounding cast iron biscuits.)
 
foofaraw January 25, 2017
Would you mind to share your research why it is not possible to get smooth texture even with long enough cleaning and seasoning?
 
Smaug January 29, 2017
It has to be milled smooth to begin with.