Cast iron pans have long been the workhorses of the kitchen. These beasts can go from open flame to hot coals to broiling ovens and still come out perfect. The shiny black surface is naturally non-stick (no toxic teflon worries) and gives food a great flavor. They last for decades when properly cared for, and even old abused cast iron pans can be brought back into serviceable condition with just a little work, ready to cook for decades more. The trick to having cast iron cookware that outlives you - and your grandchildren - is to use it a lot (to build up the seasoning), and care for it properly.
When you first buy a cast iron pan, consider the source. Brand-new pans bought from the store will most likely have "pre-seasoning", in which the manufacturer sprayed oil onto the pan and baked it multiple times. Some, however, will not be seasoned but will have a very thin wax coating on them to prevent them from rusting. Pans that are previously loved, such as from a yard sale, eBay, or a relative, will most likely already be seasoned. When a pan is well seasoned, it will be black, shiny, and slick to the touch. Pans that are grey, or sticky, should be cleaned well and re-seasoned. Pans that have rust spots need to have the rust scrubbed off (use fine sandpaper or steel wool) and then go through a thorough re-seasoning.
Seasoning Your Cast Iron Pan
After making sure your pan is free of rust, wash it thoroughly in hot, soapy water. The soap will help break up any old grease that is still down in the rough surface. Once it is completely clean, dry it well with a soft towel. Then heat the pan up over a flame or electric burner until it is completely dry. Allow it to cool down naturally before proceeding.
Once your pan is cool to the touch, generously coat it with a solid oil or fat. Good options are bacon grease or solid coconut oil. You can even fry up a batch of bacon in it and immediately use that grease to season it (be sure not to touch the grease until it's cool). You must grease the entire pan, including the bottom and the handle. If your pan came with a lid, grease both sides of the lid as well.
Note: Some friends may advise you to use Crisco or vegetable oil. I do not recommend these for the initial seasoning, as they will become sticky over time. Also, if the outside of your pan is coated in enamel, do not season the enamel - only season the grey/black metal parts of the pan.
Place your cast iron pan upside-down on the top rack of your oven with a baking sheet covered in aluminum foil underneath of it to catch the drippings. Be sure to open the windows and turn on the vent fan - there will be smoke! Bake the pan at 500 degrees for an hour. The reason you are baking it at such a high temperature is to get the pores in the metal to open and expand so they can properly soak in the grease. Lower temperatures (such as the oft-recommended 300 degrees) are not hot enough to accomplish this. At lower temps, instead of ending up black and shiny, your pan will be brown and sticky. At the end of the hour, turn the oven off but do not remove the pan. Allow it to sit in the oven until it has cooled down completely.
Don't want to heat up your house? Fire up the grill with coals, get it as hot as you can, and then bury the pan and lid in the coals. Close the lid and allow the coals to burn themselves out and the pan to completely cool down.
When your pan is cool to the touch, wipe it down with a paper towel and store it in a dry place.
Cooking In Your Cast Iron Pan
With a new or re-seasoned pan, it's best if your first few meals cooked in it are high in fat. Bacon and hamburger are great for this.
If your pan is not yet non-stick, don't fret. Simply give it a light coating of any type of oil or cooking spray and cook as usual. Cook on medium heat and allow the pan to heat up; it will heat evenly if you don't blast it with high heat from the start.
Contrary to popular belief, you can indeed cook acidic food (tomato-based, vinegar, citrus) in your cast iron cookware. Take one look at any chili competition and you'll find that the best cooks are simmering their chilis in huge cast iron pots and dutch ovens. The secret is to hold off cooking acidic foods until the pot or pan is very well-seasoned. This way, the seasoning protects the pan from the acid and keeps the food from changing flavors due to being in contact with metal.
Only use wooden or plastic utensils with your cast iron pan. Metal will scrape the seasoning off and have the potential to scratch into the iron itself.
Cleaning Your Cast Iron Pan
To clean your cast iron cookware, allow it to cool down completely. Never put a hot pan into water, it could crack. Then simply wash it out with hot water and a soft washrag or sponge. If you have stuck-on food, try putting some water into the pan and heating it back up until the water is boiling. Let the water boil until the food is loose (remember to keep adding water if necessary). If that doesn't work, burning the food off works well. Heat the pan up to 500 degrees or more (putting it in coals works very well for this) and leave it in the heat until the food is completely burned and flakes off.
Don't use soapy water or abrasive scrapers to clean your cast iron cookware. You'll take off the seasoning.
Once the pot is clean, lightly oil it down (any type of oil will work) and store in a dry place. A paper towl "liner" placed into the pan will absorb any moisture and keep the pan from rusting. However, if you do develop a rust spot, simply clean it off with fine sandpaper or steel wool and re-season.
When compared to cookware made from other materials, cast iron cookware come out on top every time. It won't need periodic replacing like aluminum does. It's safer than teflon, as there is no risk of toxic fumes if the pan gets too hot. Best of all, your pan can go from burner to oven to even open coals - no switching pans and dirtying up extra cookware! Used lovingly, your cast iron pan or cookware will last your family many generations.