Joining the Cult of Cast Iron
There’s been a lot made lately about cast iron cooking. The heavy old pans are back in a big way. There’s Field Company, which just raised like $17 zillion on Kickstarter. There’s Smithey out of Charleston S.C. There are, of course, a few Instagram accounts associated with cooking with cast iron. The Times has even got on the story.
Now, enter Butter Pat Industries, the latest and perhaps most interesting of the new breed of cast iron pan manufacturers. Cast iron fiends will be interested to know that Butter Pat’s pans are not milled, they are cast thin and smooth, then polished. So goes the common complaint of modern day cast iron, that because of a loss of foundries here in the U.S., it’s just not possible to make them the way they used to. The team at Butter Pat, after years and many unsuccessful attempts, figured a way around that though (You can read more specifically about that here) and are now making pans here in the U.S. - not quite like they used to, but with similar or even better results.
Suffice it to say, it took a certain amount of stubbornness and obsessiveness to essentially reinvent cast iron manufacturing. It’s a story truly worthy of a much longer feature story (wink wink Wall Street Journal). It did help that the founder of Butter Pat was able to get his hands on some foundry engineering manuals that were used in the late 1800s to make thin-wall cookware.
I was able to get my hands on a Butter Pat pan in exchange for some consulting work I did with the new company (so yes read this article with that in mind). I received one of their 10-inch J type pans, a.k.a. the Joan. Over the last few months, I've been field (kitchen?) testing it with fish, short ribs, stir fry and pretty much everything else we regularly cook.
Cast iron is praised for its durability, how it evenly diffuses heat and for it’s “seasoning”. The major con is of course the weight. My experience with cast iron is pretty limited. At my family’s summer house we have a few old Lodge pans that I use to cook eggs and bacon. When my uncle brings venison from Vermont, we cook it up in cast iron as well.
For the most part, the benefits of cooking with cast iron have been pretty much lost on me. I haven’t geeked out on cast iron before, but when the Joan landed in my hands, I was certainly more than a little intrigued. The first thing that strikes you about the pan from Butter Pat is the incredible smoothness of the cooking surface.
To get a sense of how smooth this pan is, watch this scrape test below.
Cast iron pans are also heavy (The Joan is 6.9lbs). Also, so much is made of cleaning and seasoning them, I’ve never quite known the right way to care for one. Luckily, the Butter Pat people say it’s fine to use a little soap and a sponge, then just oil it up a little after (which I usually forget to do). I have also seasoned the pan a few times by oiling it and baking it at high heat. Though, I’m still learning to master this practice since my pan has ended up sort of gooey as a result. Not ideal.
So does the cast iron meet the hype?
For some things, absolutely yes. Cooking a whole fish in the pan has been my favorite use. The iron heats very evenly so the whole fish cooks through and the cleanup is actually really easy. Searing short ribs in the cast iron is also far better than in the All-Clad. The ribs easily got a quick dark seer.
But for meals that require a lot of pan movement, like stir fry, it’s not ideal. The pan is heavier and gets too hot to hold onto without a potholder, so throwing the veggies around isn’t that easy. My 10-inch All-Clad is preferred in this situation. That’s ok though, it’s unnecessary to cook stir fry in cast iron anyway. Really, I should be using a wok. We haven’t baked anything in the pan yet, but we will sometime in the near future I’m sure.
I haven’t tested this Butter Pat pan against any other pans currently on the market. Though from previous experience, I can say the surface is so much smoother than that of a Lodge and actually far closer to a steel pan than any cast iron pan I've used before. The pan does come with a high price tag ($365), but it is made in the USA and also has a 100 year warranty. My guess is that the people who are purchasing Butter Pat pans are the same chefs who spend big on knives and Viking Ranges, not those looking for their first cast iron pan.
At this point, I’m approaching cooking with cast iron as sort of a life-long learning mission. There’s so much that can be done in a cast iron pan - basically, everything. So this is just the beginning. In 30 years I’m sure I’ll have many more recipes that will work well in cast iron, and also, the same exact pan to cook them in.