I'm generally not into the whole DIY artisanal food trend. Rarely do you find a product from some young-and-passionate-but-inexperienced upstart that can compete with commercial-grade products coming from high-quality companies that have been doing their work for years. So I was a little skeptical when I received this email:
I'm an avid reader of your blog and I just wanted to pass along a link of a friend of mine who is trying to start a foundry in upstate New York. They've been perfecting their cast iron skillets for the past year or so with a little homemade furnace they constructed in their backyard and now they've moved to Syracuse and are running a Kickstarter campaign to get their work into production. I think you all will be very impressed with the quality of work, craftsmanship and design.
I wrote to the guys at Borough Furnace asking if I could give their skillets a test run. They gladly obliged, and after putting the pans through their paces, I came away thoroughly impressed. (Unfortunately I had to return them after my tests.)
For now, they're available in two models. A nine-inch skillet with a long handle and helper handle, and a 12-inch braising pan with two small handles on each side.
Right off the bat, the frying skillet performed excellently in a sear test with pan-seared steaks. At one-third of an inch of solid cast iron, the bottoms retain a massive amount of heat—more than any of the widely available commercial skillet on the market. This means that with ample preheating time, you can drop a couple of steaks in there with a minimal drop in temperature, leading to faster, harder sears, and less overcooking in the center.
Good cast iron cookware needs to be easy to clean and season. Over time, with proper care, the cast iron will develop a non-stick surface as oils and fats polymerize and bond with its surface (this happens much quicker and more easily than most people think it does—check out our guide here). Borough Furnace's pans come preseasoned with lard or flaxseed oil, and as promised, they were as slick and nonstick as any teflon-coated skillet I've tested.
Above is a photo of the pan right after frying eggs with no wipe out, rinse, or scrub. Beside one tiny bit of caked-on white, the eggs slid right out.
For my last test, I used the braising pan to make a large paella—a test which should show both its braising ability, as well as its ability to evenly distribute heat over the bottom surface. What I was looking for was evenly cooked rice, and a nice, crusty soccarat across the entire bottom surface.
Good and bad news on this front. While most of my rice cooked evenly, it turns out that even heating is not its forté. This is a problem endemic to cast iron, which is a relatively poor conductor of heat. What this means is that the regions of the pan directly above the flame or burner element tend to show hot spots—the heat doesn't spread to other areas as easily as it does with, say, aluminum.
I was hoping the thickness of the metal would help it perform better than a regular cast iron pan in this respect, but it showed no noticeable advantages.
This alone is not a deal-breaker for me, as it's something that happens to all cast iron pans, and there are ways around it. Ample preheating time is the best remedy. Ten minutes or so over the burner allows the temperature differential between hot and cool parts to normalize and provide more even cooking.
"the handle stays cool to the touch."
And as far as heating goes, here's one distinct advantage the Borough Furnace pan design has over more traditional designs like Lodge or Griswold's: the handle stays cool to the touch. With relatively little material in the bridge between the pan and the handle and a hollow handle designed for high surface area to allow for cooling, I found that even when heated and held at 500°F for 15 minutes on a burner, the handle stayed at a cool 80°F. Good news for anyone who's ever burnt their hand reaching for hot cast iron.
The real hurdle now? Unfortunately they're not in full production mode, casting pans one at a time in a small furnace. They're trying to raise money through a Kickstarter campaign in order to put them into full production, which should drive the price down significantly. Currently, you can only get your hands on them if you donate to the fund.
If you're into seeing more quality cast iron on the market, you should consider donating.
(Best of luck to the guys at Borough Furnance).