A properly seasoned Cast Iron Skillet is like a badge of honor. It demonstrates that you have done your time in the kitchen, or have a lineage of cooks in the family. When I meet someone with a well seasoned skillet, I know I'm in for some good home cooking. A cast iron skillet has become far too rare in our country these days. I feel that this is in large part due to the fact that cooking, like many other hands on skills in our technology driven world, has become intimidating due to lack of knowledge.
I won't lie, it's a serious tool, but with a very brief education, you too can have access to the ancestral flavors a greasy skillet brings to the kitchen. It holds a tremendous amount of stable heat (volumetric heat capacity), but it also adds color and iron(!) like no other pan. I use my skillet for everything from searing a steak to baking a cake. Here are the simplest tricks for a well seasoned and happy skillet:
Seasoning your Skillet
When people say 'seasoning' in regard to cast iron, they aren't talking about herbes and spices, so much as they're referring to the buildup of polymerized oil bound to the pan. This is a product of frequent use of your cast iron, and heating oil in the pan. This essentially leaves a coat on the skillet. To season a new skillet or reseason a skillet that has seen better days, use a neutral oil like olive oil, or better yet a lard such as pig fat. Coat your skillet and bake it in a 350 degree oven for an hour.
Cleaning your Skillet
Never ever let a cast iron pan soak in the sink. Cleaning your skillet is serious business. You need to be quick and loving about this entire action. Everyone has their own preferences on cleaning their skillet. I personally like to scrape out as much debris as possible, and then pour a heap of salt (about 2 tablespoons) into the pan to absorb excess oil. I then scrape out any other particles left in the pan with a paper towel and trash the excess salt. Finally, I add a bit of oil or lard to the skillet and just wipe it into the pan. I like my skillets to rest somewhat greasy, but it is not entirely necessary. I try to avoid using soap on my cast iron. I really like having the remnants of old flavors like chicken or pig fat left on the skillet, but you can use soap, especially if say the farm dogs licked the skillet clean. Just be sure that you are quick about this soaping and leave the skillet dry after you're through, either using a rag or the heat of the stovetop. To prevent rusting, simply coat with a bit of oil.