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.
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.
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.”
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.
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).
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.
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website, and then confirmed by Isaac himself) that a smooth-surfaced cast iron skillet is how these pieces were originally made, over 100 years ago.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.
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.
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.)
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 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.
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!