I'm interested in using cast iron cookware, but not sure where to begin. What are the differences between using cast iron as opposed to my everyday nonstick skillet?
Amanda, nonstick and cast iron are very similar in some ways. They are both good for frying and sautéing, and both are sensitive to sharp instruments like forks and knives. You want to use wooden spoons or rubber spatulas when using both sorts of pans.
Having said that, cast iron has some significant advantages. First of all, it's cheaper than all but the most cut-rate, flimsy nonstick skillets. Secondly, it doesn't have the health issues attached to nonstick coatings. (Some are suspected to be carcinogenic.) It is also much better for a wider range of cooking. A cast iron pan is much heavier; it can go straight from stove to oven, and you can even use it under the broiler. They are extremely durable. It's pretty hard to destroy a cast iron pan!
A cast iron pan does have different care instructions. Cast iron pans build up a layer of seasoning, which is a baked-on film of oils and liquids that protects the pan from rusting and also creates a nonstick effect. Most new pans come pre-seasoned, but you still need to season them.
Cast iron should never be cleaned with soap; the residue can get into the pores of the metal and make food taste soapy. You also don't want to clean it with harsh, abrasive steel wool. Instead, clean it in very hot water, letting it soak first if necessary. You also want to avoid acidic foods like tomatoes, which can damage the seasoning.
Those are the basic facts about cast iron. We'll turn it over to the readers now. What advice would you give to a first-time user of cast iron?