An Iron Hand

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Borough Furnace takes handcrafted, cast iron kitchen tools from its frontier roots to the frontlines of American-made cookware.

Written by Jenn Thornton

Cookware enjoys a rare consistency, with some form of it in every kitchen in the world. In the cast iron category—a staple of classic John Wayne cowboy culture—Borough Furnace is no back-burner business. Its use of traditional foundry techniques updated for contemporary times has the culinary world fired up.

Founded in 2011 by partners John Truex and Liz Seru, the design studio and metal casting workshop is, like John Wayne Enterprises, a family-owned business and, if comparing its rise to the actor’s trajectory, then Borough, while having not yet attained mega-stardom, is solidly in the second phase of his career, when Marion Morrison appeared as John Wayne in 1930’s The Big Trail. When Borough originated as a micro-foundry, it was the only U.S. producer of cast iron, other than the much larger-scale Lodge in Tennessee, and produced two sizes of cast iron skillets. Truex, an industrial designer, took “self-made” to heart and actually built Borough’s first set of machinery, a furnace nicknamed “Skilletron” that ran on waste vegetable oil from local restaurants and recycled iron, and reached a scorching 3,000 degrees. “We started describing our products as ‘hand-cast and finished’ to highlight our small-scale foundry practice and the intimate way in which our products are made,” says his partner Seru. 

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It worked. Endorsements came from seemingly anyone with influence: The New York Times, The Wall Street JournalSaveur and other outlets; as well as chefs, like Milk Street Kitchen’s Christopher Kimball, who called the company, “The Tiffany of cast iron cookware.” Even the late Anthony Bourdain—the culinary world’s favorite straight shooter who once took to Twitter to tout John Wayne in The Searchers as “Irreplaceable”—came calling. Bourdain met Borough for a segment of Raw Craft and the no-BS cook received a memorable lesson in creating no-fuss, high-performance cookware made with care and broader concern.

Borough Furnace has since scaled its operation, expanding from its hand-built workshop to a 20,000-square-foot factory in upstate New York, a growth its founders credit to their personal commitment to environmental sustainability. Now powered by electricity, the furnace runs on wind-offsets while Truex and Seru work towards financing an on-site solar array and battery bank to run the full operation. The product, however, is nothing if not consistent, borrowing the best aspects of the classic American skillet design, modernized to include gently sloped sides, balanced large handles, and a long handle on frying skillets that stay cool to the touch on the cooktop and can be held barehanded. The surface of each skillet is hand-sanded smooth then micro-textured for optimal seasoning. Next Borough is bringing to market oven-to-table bakeware and a Dutch oven—the only enameled cast iron made in the United States. All is the result of Borough’s deep connection between design, craft and production, as well as its ability to machine its own tooling and make its own castings to prototype their products.  

The Borough way is a good metaphor for cooking itself—some things just take time. And those things as usually worth the wait. Traditionally, cooking was a slow process, involving not every gadget under the sun, but a certain, specific, mindfully designed tool. For Borough, that’s one—maybe two. Throw in a few cowboy songs, and what could be better? 

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Photos courtesy of Borough Furnace