A few years back I received an oddly wrapped, rather heavy gift from my three daughters for Mother's Day. The shape of it was suspiciously similar to that of a skillet, and I was secretly disappointed that I may be getting a frying pan for Mother's Day! Jewelry, yes; perfume, yes; flowers, yes; chocolate, most definitely. But a kitchen tool? Hello, this was the new Credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/midwestsky/6778215029/millennium and women (i.e., this woman) didn't want presents that delegated them to the role of happy homemaker. Anyway, I opened it up and surprise, it was a frying pan. Me: "Oh, it's a frying pan." My three daughters turned and simultaneously glared at my partner, "But you SAID that's what she wanted!" Not wanting to spoil the joy of the moment for my daughters, and not wanting my partner to be blamed suggesting a gift I didn't remember I wanted, I quickly responded, rather unconvincingly, "Oh, yes, a CAST IRON pan! Of course. I wanted one. Really. I did. I do. Thank you!" My daughters thrust another gift in my hands and we put the pan to rest.
So I took it home and stuck it in the oven where I put the other pots and pans I don't normally use. After a conversation with daughter number three, who reminded me WHY I had said I wanted a cast iron pan (because she had gotten one and raved about it), I Credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/duffalo/6390116527/considered the idea of actually using it, even though, one, it weighed a ton, and two, you had to "season" it (seasoning a pan was a foreign notion to me. I related seasoning to applying salt and pepper to foodstuffs, not to inanimate objects), and three, iron rusts. The whole process seemed to be extremely complicated and after all, if cast iron cookware was so great how come no one used the damn things any more?
One morning not long after, I decided to make pancakes. And bacon. And eggs. And I began to fry the bacon in a big skillet and I started to scramble the eggs in a little skillet, and I mixed up the pancake batter and realized, I didn't have another skillet. So I whipped out the cast iron pan from its resting place (actually, "whipped out" is an exaggeration, since this cast iron skillet is pretty hefty. Now I understand why hitting someone over the head with a frying pan could kill them. That is, if you had the strength to actually lift it high enough and swing it with enough force to make contact with a head, that may do the trick. But by the time you mustered up the strength to do that your would-be victim would be on the next flight to Mexico) and read the little card with instructions on how to season it:
"Wash well and dry thoroughly. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Warm pan over low heat on the top of the stove. Remove from heat. Wipe cooking oil over the entire surface with a paper towel. Coat the entire surface. Put pan in oven for about an hour. Remove from oven. Wipe off excess oil. Repeat as needed after use."
That's it? My fear of seasoning was about applying oil with a paper towel? Hell, I can do that, I thought. I better be able to do that. If I can't do that I'd better remove myself from the kitchen and stay away from all cooking endeavors. Permanently.
So I seasoned my pan and proceeded to make my pancakes and was quite pleased with the results. They didn't burn like they do when cooking with stainless steel pans because cast iron distributes heat evenly. With a brand new pan it is advisable to make a few meals with oil, Credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/13715378@N00/3111891339/like bacon and fried chicken, yum, so that the iron absorbs the oil and it will begin to darken, creating a natural non-stick surface. Non-stick pans without the cancer causing plastic stuff!
I found cleaning them was a snap: Wash with a scouring pan and water. Don't use stainless steel or dish detergent. (I know, I know. Sounds disgusting. But trust me. After a few uses and with proper care they do really come clean with just water and a scouring pad. Just don't tell your mother.) Dry thoroughly. Keeping cast iron dry is important because it can rust. Worse case scenario is you have to use a little steel wool to remove the rust and then reseason. Extremely do-able.
I tried all kinds of cooking with my cast iron pan: fried plantains, scrambled eggs, stir fry, grilled steak. It also worked great in the oven. Unlike nonstick pans you can go from stove top to oven without worrying about noxious gases escaping from the non-stick surfaces and killing your parakeet. If you cook something with a lot of acid, like a tomato based dish, or with balsamic vinegar, the oily build-up can wear off so you may need to reseason. So a few Credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/sutfun/2221239232/times a week after washing the pan I add a little more oil, wiping the excess with a paper towel. That helps to keeps the surface nice and slick.
Some time after I received my cast iron pan I was in my favorite thrift store and I found a vintage iron skillet, a little smaller than my 12 inch one, for only ten bucks. I snapped that baby up and now it's my second go-to pan when I don't need to use the bigger one. I don't even use all my other skillets any more.
All in all, cast iron is better than any other high-quality pots and pans on the market because:
It's inexpensive - only twenty bucks for a large size skillet. Used ones can be found in vintage stores and estate sales for even less.
It isn't as high maintenance as you think - season, don't clean with dish detergent or steel wool, keep dry, reseason as necessary.
It goes from stove-top to oven, and tolerates the high oven heat without giving off noxious fumes.
It is an even distributor of heat, so your food won't burn.
A bonus feature for the ladies: cooking with cast iron gives us trace amount of iron in our diet!
So go ahead, take the plunge and try cooking with cast iron. You will not regret it. You may even find yourself asking for it as a gift! For Mother's Day.