Small Batch Cast Iron
By Micah Cheek
Even in a world of advanced nonsticks and lightweight aluminum saute pans, cast iron maintains a strong presence for functionality and strength. There is a whole internet subculture dedicated to finding and restoring vintage cast iron, in part because vintage cast iron was polished to a smooth finish after being cast. This increased the cast iron’s nonstick properties, but significantly raised the cost of production. Gradually, consumers turned to less expensive options with a rougher, more pebbly texture. Now, consumers are looking for higher quality cast iron with a more refined surface.
One cast iron producer, Stargazer Cast Iron, was started out of an interest in vintage cookware. “I got into cast iron as a hobby, I was collecting it and obsessing with it,” says Peter Huntley, Chief Executive Officer of Stargazer. “I thought I had something to contribute here. Even with the vintage ones, there were some design changes to be made, so that’s where my design came from.” Huntley used his background in both design and dinnerware industries to build his ideal pan from the ground up. One big factor was the smooth surface that older designs had. “I had experimented at home with different materials. It seemed attainable to me. It seemed like the kind of thing that should be done in production rather than the end user having to,” says Huntley. “The surface finish is what got the ball rolling, but we’ve made some other changes. One of them is weight. We kept weight in mind in every step of the process. The weight of cast iron is what makes it retain heat, but we’ve made it very manageable.”
Luke Trovato, Chief Marketing Officer of Stargazer, notes that the growing market for high end cast iron has to do with utility and sourcing. “Initially we were figuring out which demographic would be there, we’ve found that we sell across all demographics, a lot of people are interested in American-made products,” says Trovato. “It’s branched out a bit. We haven’t had a ton of advertising, but it’s definitely growing from the cast iron group. There are some people who are looking for their first cookware. A younger crowd buying cookware for the first time is looking for a workhorse for the kitchen. There’s a rededication for cast iron, so that’s something we’re looking to build on.”
The folks at Stargazer were also surprised to find how often cast iron was being bought as a gift. “From the social media aspect, it caught on and people spread the word. When people get their orders, there’s a ripple effect out of that,” says Trovato. “We’ve had people who get theirs, like it, and then buy a couple more as gifts.” The community that forms around cast iron is also always looking for new ways to cook with the material. “Dutch ovens and griddles are popular ones, we’ve had requests for a wok as well. We’ve had requests for lids, we’re looking at something like a universal lid that can fit everything,” says Trovato. “Some guy wanted some huge pot from us, he even gave us dimensions and it was enormous.”
New buyers of small batch cast iron might be confused at the color of the cookware that comes out of the box. The deep black color of most cast iron comes from two stages of production. After the casting process, mass produced pieces aren’t polished and retain a rough finish. After that, preseasoning takes place. At an assembly line, a thick layer of seasoning oil is applied by a sprayer and treated at high heat to speed up the process of seasoning. These factors combine to make the dark grey and black surfaces that cast iron is known for. But, Trovato notes, this doesn’t have to be the case. Stargazer’s polishing and hand-seasoning makes a pan that looks different from mass produced models. Stargazer pans have thin, hand-applied layers of oil seasoned at a lower heat, which makes the finished pans distinctly lighter in color. “Ours start a little bronzer. People are curious about why it looks different. A lot of people don’t realize it starts silver, just like any other metal, and as you cook with it more it’ll turn black,” says Trovato.
Another appeal of cast iron is a distrust of nonstick cookware. “You’ve seen a lot more concern about where [customers’] foods come from. Those concerns tie into the health concerns around nonstick coatings,” says Trovato. “I’ve had more than a couple customers mention things like ‘space age nonstick coating,’ there’s some skepticism around it. The more natural feel of cast iron is something that really appeal to them.” Consumers are also looking for something that will last longer. “I do think in general there’s a shift away from disposability, people will know they’re going to be replacing [aluminum nonstick pans] in two years,” says Trovato. “If they invest in cast iron they’re never going to replace it. People just want something more permanent.”