September 15, 2013, was a fateful day for Dennis Powell. That was the day the Maryland architect cracked his grandmother’s cast-iron skillet and began a journey that would lead him to found Butter Pat Industries, a modern maker of hand-molded cast-iron skillets. But on that day almost five years ago, when the vintage skillet that had been passed down to him from his grandmother, Estee Hilton Rudd, slipped out of his hands and bounced down the stairs of his home, all he could do was mourn.
“My grandmother was a looming force in our family, a real inspiration to us all,” Dennis explains. In the 1920s and ’30s, at a time when opportunities for women to work outside the home were very limited, Estee had been a butcher who owned a meat market in Charleston, South Carolina.
“Because of her, the women in our family have never thought there was anything they couldn’t do,” Dennis says. “I was brokenhearted that I would not be able to pass on to my sons the skillet I loved so much, that I had cooked in for 40 years.”
“CUSTOMERS PERSONIFY THESE PANS IN A WAY THAT I REALLY HADN’T EXPECTED,” DENNIS SAYS.” THEY WILL CALL ME UP AND SAY, ‘I COOKED CORNBREAD IN JOAN LAST NIGHT.’ THEY NEVER CALL THEM HS OR JS OR LS. THEY ALWAYS CALL THEN BY THEIR NAME.”
Dennis’s first thought was to repair the skillet, but when he realized that was impossible, he vowed to make two new skillets for his two sons, Roan and Grayson. “I had no plan to start a business,” he says. “When I started to look at how old cast-iron pans were made, it was purely an educational pleasure.”
He spent hours and hours at the Library of Congress looking at vintage foundry photographs and manufacturing manuals. He visited foundries and talked with seasoned cast iron collectors. “After a year and a half, I started to think I would make the pans commercially.”
Dennis founded Butter Pat Industries in 2015. When he first set out to make skillets, Dennis defined three criteria that had to be met: The pans had to be smooth; the walls of the pans had to be equal to or less than 3/32 of an inch thick; and they had to be made in the United States. “It turned out that those three things were almost impossible to achieve,” Dennis says.
The inspiration for his first Butter Pat skillet was a vintage Favorite Piqua skillet made between 1910 and 1935. “We measured all the vintage pans—Wagner, Griswold, Lodge, Martin, Birmingham Stove & Range—and the Favorites were the thinnest and the lightest,” explains Dennis, who also owns a business that refurbishes vintage cast-iron cookware for restaurants. “On the back of some of those old Favorite pans, it says, ‘The Best to Cook In,’ and I had found that to be true.”
Dennis wanted to reduce the weight of his cast-iron skillets by making the walls thinner than the bottom, which is called the heat plate. In every pan he measured, however, the thickness of the walls was exactly the same as the thickness of the bottom of the pan. Pans with heat plates thinner than ⅛ inch were prone to have hot spots on gas and electric coil ranges, he discovered.
“We knew that we needed to make the heat plate thicker than the walls of the pan,” he says. Everyone he asked said it was impossible. In green sand casting, the traditional method of making cast-iron cookware, the mold has to be the same thickness all the way through the piece, he was told.
There aren’t many people around who understand how green sand casting was done more than 100 years ago. (The sand used to make the molds is not actually green in color; it’s just damp sand that has been mixed with clay to help it hold together.) Cast-iron skillets that were manufactured in the heyday of companies like Wagner and Griswold were made by hand, and the skillets had a very smooth surface because the molders first layered a very fine silica sand around the pattern.
“That superfine sand formed the surface that came into contact with the molten iron when it was poured, and that’s why vintage pans have a smoother surface than cast-iron cookware manufactured today,” Dennis says.
The Environmental Protection Agency no longer allows cast-iron foundries to use that fine sand. To meet his specifications, Dennis had to come up with a completely different way to make his molds for casting iron.
“The chemistry of our pans is exactly the same as cookware that was made at the turn of the 20th century,” he says, but the Butter Pat process does not use green sand to make the molds. “It was the only way to get that smooth finish by the manufacturing process we’re able to use these days.” His process now has a patent pending.
The first Butter Pat skillet, Lili, named for Dennis’s wife’s grandmother, was introduced in 2016. The Joan and Heather skillets followed, all named for important women in Dennis’s life.
Although Butter Pat finishes its skillets with beeswax and coconut oil to keep them from rusting, Dennis says seasoning the skillets is not as necessary as it is with other manufacturers’ pans. He gave some completely unseasoned pans to chef Sean Brock of Husk in Nashville, Tennessee. “He cooked with them at a demonstration without any seasoning at all,” he recalls. “He put just a little bit of oil into the pan, and he cooked crab cakes to show that our surface would release the crab cakes even without any seasoning.”
Its easy-release qualities make a Butter Pat skillet handy to have in the kitchen. “My wife and I use our skillets to roast chicken or vegetables. They are a great pan for cooking delicate proteins, such as scallops, where you might be afraid of sticking,” Dennis says.
His sons, Roan and Grayson, now have their skillets. Roan uses his almost every day, but Dennis is keeping Grayson’s skillet, the first one of the Butter Pat production line, until his son has a more settled lifestyle. “Grayson is a professional forager,” Dennis explains. “He travels around the country foraging mushrooms and other produce; he doesn’t want to carry that big heavy pan around with him.”
And now almost five years after that fateful day when Dennis Powell cracked his grandmother’s skillet, Estee has a skillet named after her. All four Butter Pat skillets, including the 8-inch Estee, are available at butterpatindustries.com.