Monday, January 2, 2012

An Open Letter to Calphon: The Importance of Operational Definitions

Dear Calphon,

I've been using your products ever since I received a set of Calphon pots and pans as a wedding present, about a year and a half ago. Though there are many things about your products to love - attractive, interchangeable lids to fit every sauce pan and skillet, oven safe - the "non-stick" aspect is laughable. Not only do I have to use obscene amounts of olive oil to prevent my food from enacting a death grip to your product, even then, the food is practically pulled apart as I try to pry it off.

Now, I was about to just post a snarky message on Facebook about the lack of non-stick on a non-stick product and leave it at that, but realized that there must be a logical explanation for the problems I'm having with your product. And, as I thought about it scientifically, I realized what we have here is a difference in operational definitions.

"Operational definitions?", you say, "What are those?" Allow me to explain.

Operational definitions are definitions that allow a concept to measured or manipulated. In research, especially social science research, we often try to study variables that are elusive, like love, intelligence, and aggression. We can't simply hold a ruler up to someone and say, "Their love score is 18." We have to define how we will determine a person's "love score", or IQ, or whatever we're studying, whether that be through a standardized measure, observation of behavior, or some other way. In fact, if you look around, operational definitions are everywhere, because we regularly measure things, even outside of research, that must first be defined.

For example, everyone who lives in the state of Illinois can tell you the operational definition of "intoxicated".

Look familiar?
The signs are posted on highways throughout the state, so we know that the operational definition of intoxicated in Illinois is a blood alcohol level of .08 or higher (and currently, that's the legal limit in all US states, though in the past, there have been some differences in how states have defined intoxicated).

There are other operational definitions floating around out there. For example, the Seinfeld episode in which the gang debated whether soup was a meal involved a discussion of what is (and is not) a meal. And many people have debated what makes something a "date" - for example, what activities should be involved, who should pay, time of day, and so on. Ever been to a social gathering and heard someone say, "This isn't a party. It's not a party unless…"? Those are operational definitions.

A good operational definition should be clear enough that anyone can walk in to your study (or conversation) and, based on the established definition, correctly identify a specific case. Of course, people may disagree on what makes a good operational definition - this is why operational definitions should be discussed and established before beginning a study. And for many variables, there are any number of operational definitions.

For example, blood alcohol level is one way to define intoxicated, but you could also have gone with ability to walk a straight line or say the alphabet backwards. Different operational definitions, however, may cause you come to different conclusions. A person may be classified as intoxicated if they are unable to walk a straight line but sober if their blood alcohol level is .02. (And by knowing the two pieces of information - unable to walk a straight line but blood alcohol level of .02 - we can come to a different conclusion: sober but uncoordinated.)

And this is where our misunderstanding comes from, Calphon. We have different operational definitions of non-stick. Mine is probably something like this:

Non-stick = Food can be removed with no pieces being ripped off

Yours must be something like this:

Non-stick = Food can be removed with great effort and large pieces being ripped off, so that my beautiful goat cheese-stuffed chicken breast looks more like chicken and goat cheese cobbler

See the problem? So based on my definition, your pan would not be considered non-stick, but based on your definition, it would. This is the problem with using undefined words like "non-stick". Now I'm wondering about that whole "oven-safe" bit. There probably isn't any room on your packaging to offer a good operational definition of your terms, but that's all right; you're more than welcome to put that information on your website. It would be most appreciated!

Thoughtfully yours,


  1. I have had this same problem off and on for years. There are a few things I have found that help. First, pat the meat dry with a paper towel (water on the surface will encourage sticking). Then preheat the pan to at least a medium heat (but not *too* hot, especially if it is a non-stick pan), and coat the pan and/or meat with an appropriate oil/fat (olive, canola, pork). Finally, the hardest part, if you are trying to move/flip the meat and it is stuck, then just let it ride. It will move when it is ready. Hopefully, this will be when it is a beautifully browned, goat-cheese stuffed chicken breast, and not a blackened, smoking chunk of carbon.


  2. Interesting. Another friend told me it's because I didn't have the pan hot enough! Guess more experimentation is needed on my part. :)