Cast iron cookware is cheap, versatile, and practically indestructible. If you treat it right, not only will your cast iron last pretty much forever, it will also develop an excellent nonstick surface.
Benefits of Cooking with Cast Iron
Cast iron can get very hot, and it holds heat extremely well, making it perfect for searing meats. It can also go straight from the stovetop to the oven. Foods like steaks and pork chops turn out great cooked this way, because you want to get them brown on the outside but not overcook them in the middle.
Cast iron also happens to be terrific for deep-frying (or pan-frying, as in this buttermilk fried chicken recipe), because it holds the heat so well. One of the tricks to deep-frying is making sure the cooking oil stays at the proper temperature. If the oil isn't hot enough, the food can come out greasy.
In fact, a cast iron skillet is so versatile, you can use it for baking brownies, cornbread, pies, crumbles, cobblers, and even pizza.
You can also plunk it straight on the grill, which is great for caramelizing onions or even braising, when you might not want to heat up your kitchen.
By the way, another benefit is that food cooked in cast iron will actually absorb trace amounts of iron, which is an important nutrient and one that many people are deficient in.
Potential Drawbacks of Cast Iron
One downside of cast iron is that it takes longer to heat up than other types of cookware, and it also takes longer to cool off after you're done cooking.
It's also heavy — especially when it's full of food.
Using two hands, with two oven mitts, can be essential. And if you have one of those glass cooktops, be careful not to scratch or crack it.
And of course, cast iron does need a bit more maintenance than ordinary cookware, but it's nothing too intense. (Contrary to what you might have heard, it's perfectly okay to use soap on cast iron.
See How to Clean Cast Iron Cookware for details.)
Cast iron cookware wouldn't be my first choice for long braises involving tomato-based sauces or any other acidic ingredients. The acid can react with the iron and give the food a metallic taste. However, a cast iron Dutch oven with an enameled coating is perfect for that sort of thing.
Is Cast Iron Really Nonstick?
Let's compare the nonstick properties of a cast iron pan with a pan that has a nonstick coating on it (i.e. a Teflon pan).
A new cast iron pan takes time to develop its nonstick properties. When oil is heated in a cast iron pan, it reacts with the iron and forms an impermeable layer that bonds to the surface of the pan. Over time, this nonstick layer gets thicker and thicker, which is called seasoning.
Once that seasoning is in place, it'll stay there as long as you take reasonable care of the pan.
On the other hand, a Teflon pan starts out nonstick but gradually loses its nonstick coating over time, as it's scraped and scratched and otherwise abused. Not only that, but high temperatures cause the Teflon to break down and release fumes into the air.
Leaving aside the question of whether breathing these fumes is harmful to your health, if the coating has turned into fumes, then it's not on the pan anymore.
In short, Teflon pans become LESS nonstick over time, and eventually have to be replaced, while cast iron ones become MORE nonstick over time, and can last forever.
More About Seasoning Cast Iron
You can buy cast iron pans seasoned or unseasoned. Unseasoned means you have to season it yourself, which can be a messy process, and if you've never done it before, you might end up with a brand new pan covered with sticky burnt oil. As such, my recommendation is to buy your pan already seasoned.
It's a very slight seasoning, to be sure — nothing like what will build up after years of use — but it's enough to get you started. You'll want to use a bit of fat to cook (oil or butter), just as you would with any other pan. The more you cook with your cast iron, the more that seasoning will develop, until you can actually cook eggs in it without them sticking.
Here's a 12-inch pre-seasoned 12-inch cast iron skillet, which is a good size for pretty much anything you might want to do.