Here is a thread I can definitely throw down some knowledge on.
I started using cast iron a few years ago and KNEW NOTHING about it. And went through all the stuff the newbies go through trying to figure it out.
For starters — my first cast iron pan was a Lodge. And YES — THEY SUCK — but the pan itself is great, the pre-seasoning coating SUCKS BALLS. I can see people lined up in some factory with respirators and smocks, spray painting them with this garbage as they come down the line!!! And yes — the cooking surface is terribly rough.
Put it this way — if you try and cook an egg on a new Lodge cast iron pan GOOD LUCK WITH THAT! Unless you like em burned and scrambled hahaha...
The quality of steel is fine, it is the coating that makes them horrible. I see friends of mine with pans of such poor steel quality they bought at discount shops that eh… I think they would look like a Nestle Bar if you cracked one in half and saw all the air bubbles inside LOL.
If your pan does NOT make a nice "BOOOOooooooooong" sound (like a gong) with a little bit of reverb when you hit it and instead makes a dull THUD with no reverb then the steel is some chinese bubble-filled garbage that probably will not last very long before it just cracks from stress.
OK NOW — I have several cast iron pans and stainless and egad... a couple of teflon based ones (one very high quality and one flat grill my girlfriend loves to death that her grandma gave her). Otherwise I am stainless and cast iron all the way (or pyrex etc).
The ABSOLUTE BEST cast iron you can possibly get is the Griswold cast iron pans. The company is no longer in business but I see them on Craigslist ALL THE TIME (and a regular #9 frying pan will sell for $50 - $100 on there). I live in Pittsburgh and Griswold was based in Erie so they are easy to find here. Griswold machined the surfaces of their pans to a superb smoothness which helps greatly. However, in time and lots of use, any pan will eventually become smooth if you use it correctly.
THE VERY FIRST THING YOU WANT TO DO whenever you get a cast iron pan is completely remove all seasoning and get it down to the bare metal. I bought 2 RUSTY Griswold pans at thrift stores for about $5 each and it is rare that a pan will have so much rust it cannot be cleaned off.
EZ-OFF oven cleaner is the number one easiest way to clean off a pan. SOAK it in oven cleaner, and leave it inside of a plastic bag overnight. Wipe off all the cleaner, dissolved seasoning, and rust. You might need to repeat this process 3 or 4 times before you get it all. However you won't get it 100% this way.
The next step is to take steel wool and elbow grease to remove whatever bits of seasoning are left on the pan. Then — once you do this IMMEDIATELY — and I mean IMMEDIATELY throw it on a hot gas burner of your stove to dry it. You will see that it will almost start to rust immediately after taking it out of the sink! This helps stop that process.
Wipe as much iron dust as you can from the pan and then the next part is up to you. THE ABSOLUTE BEST OIL to use for seasoning is bacon grease. Whenever I cook bacon and I know I am going to re-season some pans I save the grease. When you use bacon grease, it forms the hardest, slickest cooking surface in the carbonization process.
You can also use Crisco (any LARD based oil which is solidified at room temperature is better than an oil that does not solidify at room temperature). The thicker the oil the better…
As soon as the pan is dry, (I use a rubberized basting brush to do this, but you can use anything that works) — coat the entire pan with oil. You do not want to leave a coating so thick that it lumps up, but it should not be super thin either. You want an EVEN coating, and you want to make sure any excess drips off the pan. Once you carbonize the oil, any place where the oil was too thick is going to peel right off the pan. It is a bit of an art form getting the perfect thickness.
After coating the pan with grease and giving it a shake or two to make sure to get any excess off the pan, you should already have your oven pre-heated to 500 degrees. Place a layer of foil on the BOTTOM oven rack to catch oil drippings from the pan. Place the pan on the top rack upside down (important) and let it bake in there for at least an hour. When the smoke stops filling my kitchen — I usually let it bake for another half hour or so and then turn off the oven and let it cool gradually.
When it is cool enough to pull out of the oven with your bare hands — you have a BRAND NEW freshly seasoned pan MUCH MUCH MUCH better than that spray-paint garbage they throw on the Lodge cookware.
You may notice that the non-stick properties are not quite where you think it should be at this point — especially if you just re-seasoned a new Lodge pan. No big deal, USE THE PAN and USE IT A LOT.
NEVER NEVER NEVER NEVER NEVER NEVER NEVER use ANYTHING but a METAL SPATULA (preferably stainless) on that pan (or metal utensils). SCRAPE THE HELL OUT OF IT while you cook.
If something DOES stick, SCRAPE it off with the spatula. Unlike a teflon pan, cast iron is the opposite as you WANT TO scrape up the surface as you cook.
What this accomplishes is 2 things — it forces food particles into the small "holes" of the pan, AND scrapes off the iron "ridges" at the same time. The constant scraping with a spatula over time smooths out the surface of your pan DRAMATICALLY.
In fact — because I have used my LODGE pan more than the Griswold I own the LODGE pan actually works better for eggs and sticky things! I have gotten my Lodge pan worn so smooth and with so many layers of seasoning that nothing really sticks to it anymore… But it took over a YEAR of constantly using it before it got this good!
Which leads me to part 2 of maintenance.
NEVER NEVER NEVER NEVER clean your pan with soap. EVER.
If food is stuck on the pan which happens sometimes, SCRAPE it off with a METAL spatula. If it is REALLY BAD, heat up a pan of water to boiling on the stove and then scrape away once the water is hot and the food starts to loosen. Then make sure you dump out the water and set it on the hot burner until all the water is evaporated. Standing water on your cast iron is a big no-no.
Not much out there will destroy your pan — but any mistakes you make like that will cause you to have to re-season it.
Never drop a pan into cold water if it is hot, that COULD destroy your pan from the temperature change and warping of the iron which will break before it flexes.
Now at some point you will start to wear off seasoning, or you can scrape off a chunk of seasoning here and there… OR you can take the pan camping and leave it in a box with too much moisture and seasoning wears off with rust showing up etc.
If it is just a spot of rust on the handle you can scour that area off, coat the ENTIRE pan with oil, and bake it at 500 degrees again. The NEW layer of seasoning will just build on top of what is there, and that rusty spot will be protected. My handles typically get worn off and I end up scouring them down and seasoning the pan. Every time you season the pan without removing the existing layer your pan will get better and better. Make sure you cook a bunch with it between seasonings though.
If your pan gets neglected and turns to RUST on the cooking surface then unfortunately you need to take it down to bare metal and re-do the whole process again. But no worries, the pan will still be better than when it was new because the surface will be smoother to begin with (especially a Lodge pan).
One more item of note. ALWAYS wipe your pan clean when you are done cooking… AS SOON as you are done cooking.
Keep a few dish towels SPECIFICALLY FOR CAST IRON (as they will turn black with crud) and use them to wipe the pans. Wash these in the washing machine as necessary and just keep those towels specifically for cast iron wipe-downs. I typically scrape as much as I can out of the pan with the spatula and then use a towel for the rest. However, depending on what you cooked, you could completely gunk up a towel in one meal clean-up (i.e., biscuits and gravy LOL).
If you use a paper towel EVER — you will be sorry as paper fibers will cover your entire pan. It must be a cloth and terry-cloth is not very good. Use dish towels that are not terry-cloth and won't leave fibers all over the pan.
ALSO — take a spot of olive oil and coat your entire pan with just a touch of oil when you are done. This keeps any exposed areas like the handle and such getting rusty between uses. Trust me, cast iron rusts so fast you can literally watch it with your eyes without a time lapse camera. That is the main battle you fight with cast iron. Olive oil is fine for that but even though you can use olive oil to season a pan, the low smoke point and thin-ness of the oil does not make a good surface.
I've taught several friends how to use cast iron who had no clue (one was WASHING their pan CLEAN with soap and water down to the bare metal and then wondering why it rusted so fast LOL… Others had bought the Lodge garbage and just started using it out of the box, wondering why everything sticks to it and then gave up).
I typically season my cast iron stuff every few months as the seasoning wears down with heavy use. And I almost ALWAYS need to season my pans after a camping trip because cooking over an open flame tends to burn the seasoning right off on the bottom of the pans or handles. The harsher environment and moisture of a camp trip they get exposed to means that if I keep them in my kitchen box too long upon return they need a good deal of maintenance.
However, the Griswold company went out of business in 1957! And my best pan is a Griswold, so my FRYING pan is MUCH older than ME.
I assume my great great grandchildren will be using my cast iron pans if they don't turn out to be complete morons (or if we still have a society by then).