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Annals of commerce: product downgrades – The Reality |

Annals of commerce: product downgrades – The Reality

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?


Category: Skillets  Tags: ,  Comments off
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