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You always hear people talk about old cast iron vs. new cast iron: the old stuff is lighter, smoother, and generally better, while the new stuff is heavy, pebbled, and generally a poor imitation of what cast iron ought to be.

So fans of cast iron go to great lengths to find the old stuff, pay good money for it, and look down on Lodge Logic and similar pans.

So here's my question: why is this?

If we can make high-quality knives at a relatively affordable price, why can't we make cast iron pans as good as the old ones? We're not exactly talking about Damascus steel.

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    Are you sure that there really is such a difference? It sounds like a standard "Everything was better when I was young" rant. Why on earth would you want your cast iron pans to be lighter? The whole point of them is that they are heavy enough to hold the heat. Cast iron is terrible when it comes to applications which need light pans. – rumtscho Mar 22 '15 at 13:39
  • I have pans of both kinds, and yes, I'm sure. Though I'm also parodying the rant of the cast iron enthusiasts a bit. – crmdgn Mar 22 '15 at 15:52
  • I was at a Lodge outlet store a few months back, and one of the sales people mentioned that they've been working on it. She didn't have any info other than that, though. Of course, they're also making carbon steel stuff now, too. – Joe Dec 8 '17 at 4:03
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I'd say that it's not that we can't make cast iron pans as good as the old ones. It's that for most companies that's not where the money is. A company doesn't make money by making super high quality cast iron ("like the old stuff") that costs $100-200 per pan and selling them to a few cast iron enthusiasts (those prices are random, I don't actually know how much those would cost if they were made, but it would be a lot more than the current price). They make money by selling $15-30 cast iron cookware to loads and loads of consumers. Back in the day when manufacturing wasn't as automated and people were involved in the process at a lot of steps, it didn't add much incremental cost to also sandblast and polish the surfaces, yielding the super-smooth surfaces that you used to see. Now, when lots of the manufacturing process is automated, adding in the additional time adds significantly to the cost of the product percentage wise.

So, could we do it? Yeah, sure. But big companies won't. I just suggest making your own :)

As a side comment, newer cast iron isn't as nice as the old stuff for a number of reasons, but I use the newer style cast iron all the time (my mom has not yet bequeathed me her old cast iron pans) and it works great. Not as non-stick, heavier, and so forth, but still excellent for cooking.

  • Easy enough to take what you can get and polish it up, even grind it down if you want lighter (though I rather like the heat-spreading aspect of thicker.) Le Cruset seems to do just fine selling their version of $100-$300 cast iron, though it's not the cast iron that @crmdgn wants. – Ecnerwal Mar 22 '15 at 15:47
  • I don't know much about manufacturing and fabrication, but I'd have thought automation would lower the cost. Isn't that the point of automation? To put it another way, couldn't you have a factory full of CNC machinery to mill, surface, & polish the pans? (I mean, I'm sure that's what Lodge does have.) – crmdgn Mar 22 '15 at 15:56
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    I believe it's more about the incremental cost. Yes, the cost of sandblasting them and polishing them would go down with automation, but the cost of making them in the first place has gone way down with automation. So for example surfacing and polishing the old cast iron would maybe have added 20% to the overall cost, but doing that today would add 75% to the overall cost (again, numbers just picked for examples, I don't know the actual values). – Duncan Mar 22 '15 at 15:59
  • Hm. It would actually be really interesting to research what the actual values are, though I'm sure those are trade secrets and not accessible to mere mortals. It also makes me wonder about manufacturing costs for, say, woks---most of which are made by a different process, I know, but which are still very light and very smooth by comparison with, say, Lodge Logic. Which is true AFAIK even for cast iron woks. – crmdgn Mar 22 '15 at 16:04
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    Also, mind that real "high-quality knives at a relatively affordable price" will usually NOT be from a big-name brand (these tend to have medium quality at affordable price, and high quality at ridiculously inflated price). – rackandboneman Dec 8 '17 at 1:58
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"Back in the day", cast iron pans were manufactured in a much more labor-intensive way. Each sand mold (minimum of 2 per item) was hand-rammed around a form, which was a wood (later aluminum) "positive" of the pan to be produced. The forms were slightly larger than the finished pan to allow for the shrinkage of the iron as it cooled. Molten iron was poured by hand into the forms, which is as much art as science to do properly. After the iron hardened the frames of the molds were removed, and the "raw" pan was ready for machining. First the "gates" on the edge of the pan were removed by nipping/grinding. The pan was then placed in an apparatus similar to a brake drum lathe and turned. A counter-turning grinding burr (shaped as a truncated cone) was run across the cooking surface of the pan. The quality of the result was due to the fineness of the sand used in the mold, the age/quality of the grinding burr, and the skill of the machinist. The bumps didn't get "smoothed out with use". To my knowdledge, none of the major hollow-ware manufacturers sand-blasted any if their products.

In the late 50's, early 60's, domestic manufacturers had to compete with imports if cheap overseas manufacture. Labor overhead made the old manufacturing methods economically unviable. The surviving manufacturers, BSR and Lodge, retooled for automated casting. This led to the thicker, unmilled pans that are with us today.

The spiel about "the rough surface is for pre-seasoning" us pure marketing BS. I bought Lodge dutch ovens in the 70's that had the rough surface and NO PRE-SEASONING. They were, however, shipped with a thin coat of paraffin wax to prevent rusting. Lodge came up with the "pre-seasoning" story years after they started selling un-milled pans (and people complained about how tough it was removing the wax coating).

Older, smoothly milled, properly seasoned pans are WAY slicker than you can get any rough surface iron. My daily egg-fryer is an unmarked Lodge #5 from the 40's. It was a $5 crusted-up wreck of a thrift store find. Degreased in a lye bath, further cleaned by electrolysis, and re-seasoned with 6 baked coats of flax seed oil. With a wipe of oil, over medium heat, the cooked eggs slide around in the pan, nearly as slick as Teflon.

Furthermore, cast iron does NOT do a good job distributing heat, but DOES do a good job retaining heat. Copper, and even cast aluminum, are better heat conductors/distributors. A thinner cast iron pan works just as well as thick one. The only thing that thicker, rough finish cast iron does better than the smooth pans is sear meat.

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    because cast iron is a terrible medium of heat transfer thin cast iron develops more hotspots compared to a thicker cast iron pan (put some flour on the pan, put it on the burner and check if you do not believe me!). I find that after a bit of sanding, just to take off all the rough bits sticking out, modern thick cast iron is as good as it gets – user1256923 Feb 15 '17 at 16:24
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(yes, I know this doesn't answer the question directly ... I'm hoping this is still useful)

It's possible that the exact composition & technique might have been lost (similar to Damascus steel) ... but that doesn't mean than you can't get old cast iron, as the stuff is nearly indestructable.

The best place to get it at a reasonable price are yard sales and estate auctions. If you have a local thrift store, talk to whoever does their incoming processing, and tell them that you'll buy any cast iron pans, no matter the condition for a given price (eg, $10/$20, I should be near what they sell other pans for, and enough so that it's worth their time to remember your request). It's important to say any condition, because cast iron can typically be salvaged even when it looks completely foul. You can often find old cast iron pans at antique stores, but if they know what the they're doing, they'll clean them up themselves and mark up the collector's items accordingly.

We rescued my neighbor's grandmother's skillet ... it had been moved to the basement at some point, and was so disgusting that her mother & aunts had planned on throwing away, but it's now back to almost daily use after a pass through a fire pit, a wire brush and a re-seasoning.

If you rescue enough old pans, sooner or later you'll find some of the $200+ Wagner and Griswold pans, and maybe even some of the $500+ "ERIE" Griswold pans. You can then give your cleaned up cast iron pans away to friend who cook, or give them back to the thrift store to sell once your friends & family are sick of you giving them pans.

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The old pans are usually smoother mostly because they have been use a lot over time, and the little bumps have been scrapped off

Cast iron pans are just that, cast. Casting does not produce a beautiful surface

Old style casting was very rough, and to produce anything resembling a pan surface they had to be ground and sand blasted

Modern pans have a smooth finish direct from the casting machine. They should not require further finishing. Just proper seasoning, and some normal use with metal implements

Most of the imperfections are voids (holes). High heat and seasoning will fix this with the polymerised oil filling the void, and covering the sharp edges of it. Any imperfection that are bumps are rare as it would be a flaw in the casting mold!

In new style pans, most of the bumps you see are grinder splatter from the finishing of the mold release points (usually around handle and edges). These splatter marks should come away with a decent wash and scrub, or just from normal use with metal implements

If you do have a very rough pan, new or old, take it to the local engineering shop, they should be able to smooth it out

  • I'm pretty sure that older pans were sandblasted and polished after being cast to be smooth, not just worn away over time. Modern pans aren't, so that's why they're pebbled. – Duncan Mar 22 '15 at 22:24
  • That what I said? They where not polished mirror smooth, that is what happens over time – TFD Mar 22 '15 at 22:42
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    My interpretation of your post is that old pans are smoother "because they have been used a lot over time, and the little bumps have been scraped off". This is not the case. The smoothness comes from the sandblasting. And when you said "it wasn't an option" in the third paragraph, I interpreted that to mean the sandblasting was not an option, though you may have meant something else. – Duncan Mar 22 '15 at 22:48
  • Thanks. Removed that bit, not sure where it was from? – TFD Mar 22 '15 at 22:56
  • Just saying the old pans even after grinding etc where not that smooth (I have some unused antiques), and probably not much better than modern pans. The old pans that have been used for 50+ years are very smooth, and very nice to use – TFD Mar 22 '15 at 22:58
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Yes. You can still buy a machined and polished cast iron skillet. As of this writing, those skillets are cast and machined in Milwaukie Oregon and finished in Portland Oregon. The finishing involves re-machining any defects, polishing, seasoning, and putting on the handles. The octagon shape may take some getting used-to, but it allows you put on a lid that seals or rotate the lid to let out some humidity.

I'm not very familiar with the company, but if you go to the location in Portland to buy a skillet, they'll give you a tour of their small factory. My skillet was still warm from seasoning when I walked out the door carrying the cardboard box.

Rescuing an old skillet is probably a more thrifty option, however.

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The answer, other than cost which has been described already is that the smoothness of griswold for example ended up not providing as much add value as you would suspect.

No cast iron is going to be as non-stick as Teflon, advocacy or not, and I am a cast-iron advocate and use cast iron to near exclusion of everything else.

Once you develop a nice seasoning, and this takes time no matter what brand of pan you have, they all behave the same. The principle difference between super smooth and not so smooth is how long it will take to develop this nice seasoning. My lodge 10inch is baby skin smooth, it started out dimply, but it's not anymore.

I however use that skillet a minimum of daily, and scrub it gently but thoroughly with a green scrubby which knocks the tops off the seasoning bumps, and oil and heat the pan dry at the end of each day it's been used (I said daily use didn't i?) my other cast irons bits are two 8 inch griddles which get used about twice a week for breakfast, and another 8 inch skillet which gets used when I need two skillets on the stove at once.

I also have a lodge wok which I adore for stir fry, just preheat it like everything else and it makes perfect fried rice every time. That wok is still very dimply since there really isn't a spatula that fits the curve exactly.

  • The issue isn't smoothness ... it's weight. Today's cast iron is significantly thicker and heavier than older cast iron. I don't know if that's because automated processes are less gentle and need a more sturdy pan to make it through the process without breaking, or if there's something else going on. – Joe Mar 23 '15 at 15:17
  • I am sorry, but you can scrub all day on a piece of steel with a green scrubby and you will not scrub the pebbly surface off. This is just not possible. What you have done is filled up the holes in the surface with carbonated food. I install 48" diameter steel pipelines and we use grinders to smooth off slag, not green scrubbies. – user45821 May 17 '16 at 20:15
  • @Loverofsmoothcastiron. Can you please point out to me where I said a green scrubby will knock down iron? – Escoce May 18 '16 at 2:50
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The new cast iron is better in most ways. Except for the old cast iron needed much more graphite in the iron to keep from sticking to the old molding methods. So a different alloy of iron than today.

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Just ran across a Kickstarter company. That uses a slightly different process to achieve the lightness and smoothness of old cast iron (wax loss). And yes, they are a bit pricey...

https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/innovative-cast-iron/marquette-castings-superior-cast-iron-skillets

https://www.marquettecastings.com

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