Annals of commerce: product downgrades

Not everything you buy is getting better. Here are a couple of pet peeves:

I. Unfinished cast iron cookware

Cast iron skillets have been popular for decades. Properly seasoned and cared for, they last pretty much forever, are easy to clean, and are especially good at browning meat owing to the Maillard reaction that is catalyzed by iron. They used to be made with two well established technologies. The first is sand casting, and it’s the same way the engine block of your car is made. First, a wood pattern is made in the shape of the desired pan, but larger by about 1/8″ per foot because the pan will shrink as it cools. This pattern is embedded in damp sand in a mold with two parts, removed without disturbing the sand, and molten iron is run into the space it leaves.

The result of this process is a (1) rough casting with a very scrabbly surface of mill scale, ready to machine to the required dimensions and finish (the second technology). Back in the day, the skillet was (2) put on a lathe and  the inside turned to a perfectly flat inner bottom and smooth sides. This removes the hard, sandy layer on top and exposes the cast iron. You can find these pans at garage sales and on Ebay, and if they’re not too old and used, you can still see the spiral track of the lathe tool on the pan.

The skillet you will find today at your hardware store is probably Lodge, a company that used to make its wares correctly, but they have discovered a wonderful way to cut corners: just skip step (2), give the rough casting a coat of black paint, and call it “pre-seasoned”!  Here is what a new skillet made this way looks like.

You might make this smooth trying to get your fried eggs off it with metal spatulas–after a century or so.   

There is a workaround, but most people aren’t equipped to execute it. My lathe isn’t big enough to chuck a 12″ pan even with the gap bed open, so I broke out the angle grinder with a coarse flap wheel and cleaned it up the hard way.

Wear eye protection!  A second pass with a finer grit wheel left this finish:

The fine scratches are not a problem, and all the exposed surface is clean cast iron:

Here’s what such a pan looks like after a couple of months’ use:

Now you just have to season it for real, which is not a big mystery,simply a matter of heating it up with a generous coating of cooking oil to frying temperature and letting it cool. Never wash it with detergent, just hot water and the least aggressive scrubbing pad that works, first choice plastic.  If it gets rust spots, just sand it and do the hot oil thing again, and keep cooking (always with an oil coating).

If you can get an old one used, and Ebay has lots, that’s probably the best move. If it isn’t seriously pitted, all it needs is a light sanding to be ready for another century.

These guys seem to have it right (haven’t seen one up close, but the pictures look OK) however at a very hefty price, and “lighter” is not necessarily a virtue for cast iron, whose mass and thermal inertia is a feature, not a bug.

II. Men’s trousers…

properly made, as they have been since I’ve been wearing them, have a zipper about eight inches long. My favorite haberdasher (Costco, of course) now seems to stock chinos with only 6″ zippers, which are really awkward for their intended use. 8″ zippers cost a little more than a dime; how many pennies per pair can this sleazy trick save?


Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.

10 thoughts on “Annals of commerce: product downgrades”

  1. "“lighter” is not necessarily a virtue for cast iron, whose mass and thermal inertia is a feature, not a bug." I'm going to think about this one – one of our go-to pans is a notably light cast iron frying pan which is nicer to take off the hook from which it hangs than the very heavy adjacents. On an induction burner, it seems to respond very nicely.

  2. I have used both machined and rough cast iron skillets. I prefer the rough ones. The smooth metal surface of a machined skillet or griddle does not hold seasoning as well as the cast surface IMO.

    Seasoning is a little more involved than you say. The purpose is to form a layer of varnish on the metal, and highly unsaturated oils work best. It is necessary to bake several coats onto a clean dry pan, in a hot oven. I recently stripped one of those "pre-seasoned" Lodge skillets (with easy-off) and reseasoned it with 4 or 5 coats of flax seed oil. Some people claim that cast iron treated this way can stand up to dishwasher cleaning, though I have not tried that.

    1. In my experience, after I give the pan a head start with a hot oil soak, subsequent use builds up the varnish pretty fast.

      Dishwasher detergent is very alkaline, I bet it would saponify the seasoning right off and down the drain. Oven cleaner takes that brown varnish off scorched pots and baking pans, right? (Best done outside, don't breathe lye mist) Might be OK for getting the old gunk off the outside of the pan once in a while.

    2. I tend to agree — although good cooks like nothing better than to argue, it's what we do! Wait until a fine Spring day, open all the windows, turn on the fans, and burn the bejesus out of that bad boy at 550, for, like, 3 hours. I go with grapeseed oil. And then of course oil it after each use. Grapeseed oil is expensive, but worth it. In Mexico, where I live, a great many cooks insist that their molcajetes have flavors dating back to La Revolucion, and I feel the same way about my three cast-iron skillets and cast-iron Dutch oven. It's probably all projection, but there's a pleasure in thinking that you never really cleaned that rib-eye fond all the way off, and it will bestow its glory on your next sautee.

  3. Must resist commenting on smaller zippers …..must resist obvious juvenile jokes … must resist

  4. I have probably cooked north of 2000 meals using cast iron skillets. I have three I use regularly, with a massive unwieldy 14" one getting almost all the use. I also have a massive cast iron wok that gets a lot of use. These are both older Lodges but work for me as expected. You need a lot of BTUs to work expeditiously with these big pans. My smallest 10"er I inherited from my grandmother. It is at least 75 years old, and AFAICT, like new. I can remember meals being cooked on that at her small house 50 years ago.

    I am puzzled why Lodge would go stupidly cheap. They're already stupidly cheap! Apparently this has happened to Pyrex measuring cups too:

    About the seasoning (oh, I'm enjoying this evergreen). I'm basically in the same philosophical camp where I get my knife sharpening practice. KISS. I use the skillets for anything non-acidic, but occasionally just on account of immediate convenience I'll add the wine or vinegar or citrus juice and knowingly destroy the oil coating. What to do? Well I wash the pan, as usual with the aid of a righteous steel scouring pad, and then… cook something in oil. Frying a chicken or some tempura works smashingly. If it's not immediately convenient to fry something, I'll just add a little vegetable oil (cheapest grocery brand works fine, or possibly I'll just reach for the cheaper bottle of olive oil), and let it simmer on my gas burner for say 15 minutes. The next omelette (always cooked with enough oil) will slide right out of the pan.

    When I extricated myself from the Bay Area and landed where I could afford to install The Range and buy The Pans and The Knives, I invested a large-to-me fortune in the tools I thought would keep me forever. When I cook using the cast iron pans, I can glance over at some beautiful copper chef pans which I use solely for acidic dishes, and there's some La Creusets under the counter that I do use regularly, just not every day. What I use most, are pans that cost me well shy of $50. It still feels weird, and but very right.

  5. OK. So I have a cast iron pan, but the surface is gunky and uneven. What do I do?

    Also, in the past when I have tried various methods for seasoning a new, not "preseasoned," pan I have ended up with a gunky mess. Now, I'm enormously inept when it comes to lots of manual tasks, so I must be doing something wrong, but maybe the enthusiasts who proclaim the simplicity of it all, and all use different "fool-proof" methods, are leaving out some secret ingredient. What is it?

    Oh, and Michael. When you talk about sanding, is that with actual sand paper, or steel wool, or what?

    1. I wish I had a better idea, but getting that inside bottom flat is a matter of grinding (see the link for the appropriate grinding head, and the photos for the angle grinder tool). If the pan is just gunky and dirty, but flat and smooth underneath, try oven cleaner.

    2. If you get the old grease off and it's just a matter of rust and minor defects, medium steel wool or plain sandpaper (aluminum oxide) should do fine.

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