Cast iron, these two words can strike fear into the new cook, but it isn't as scary as one thinks. If you is lucky, you can inherit the CI pan passed down thru the generations and need not worry about it, it is in such fine condition that everything cooked in it is successful.
If you are not so lucky (as I was, my dad was NOT going to part with any of his pans and my mom won't either), you will have to start from scratch or with luck, find a nice pan 2nd hand.
In my case, trying to find CI 2nd hand is next to impossible as people around here are unwilling to give them up, so I keep an eye out at my favorite local cooking/hardware/garden/sporting goods store, otherwise known as TriState here in Moscow. They carry several lines of CI, most in the sporting goods department, but I am very picky about my CI and I stick with Lodge, which they have on a nice display in the kitchenware department. When I am ready for a new piece of CI and they have a sale, I'm right there.
Now, Lodge carries a new line called "Logic" which is cast iron that has been pre-treated. It is more expensive, but for the truely newbie cook who is unsure of CI, may be worth the investment. The Logic line will still need conditioning, but you have a jump start with it.
Me, I prefer to buy the regular CI and start from scratch with my own seasoning. Depending on what brand of CI you get, you start with cleaning. Many of the CI sold in the sporting goods department is coasted with wax, so you need to start by subjecting the CI to high heat, over a gas or charcol grill to remove the wax. Lodge CI isn't waxed, so the first thing when getting it home is to wash it. This is the only time CI should be subjected to dish soap. Once it is washed in good hot water and soap and rinsed, it is time to dry the CI and start the seasoning.
All pieces of new CI should come with instructions on seasoning, but it is quite simple. I usually heat my oven to 350F and slather the piece inside and out with a light layer of solid vegetable shorting and into the oven it goes for an hour. Once the hour is done, I turn off the oven and let it sit. I usually like to do this a couple times and then I simply start cooking in it, usually anything that needs plenty of oil to cook in or start frying up bacon as often as possible. Everytime you cook with it, the seasoning builds up and one day it develops that lovely black patina that says "non-stick".
Until the piece develops the right amount of seasoning, things can and will stick. Cleaning is easy, simply run it under hot water (or if food is really stuck on, pour in water and bring it to a simmer, using a metal spatuala to help lossen the stuck on food) and use a good stiff brush what has never known soap. Once it is clean, dry it thoroughly (I like to pop it on the stove top and turn on a burner) and then apply a thin layer of shortening and wipe off the excess. Now just store the piece in a cool dry place.
Never let it sit for long with water in it, it will rust and then you'll have to strip the seasoning and start over again.
Cast iron is pretty tough stuff, I thought at one time I'd destroyed my CI dutch oven. A trick I had been taught was to pour water in and simmer it after cooking and pour the water out, scrub, add more water and simmer again. Do this several times and on the last time, the piece should be clean and pour in a bit of cooking oil. When you pour out the water, the oil stays and simply wipe dry.
Well, to make a long story short, I no longer do this as I forgot one night and left the ditch oven on the burner on a low simmer. Woke up the next morning to a smoky house and a dutch oven that was glowing red hot. I turned off the burner and left the dutch oven to cool where it sat. Once it cooled I saw what looked like glass at the bottom. I thought my dutch oven was totally ruined, so I set it up on a shelf and didn't look at it for a year.
I can across the oven while cleaning and looked at it again, what had appeared to be "glass" on the bottom was now ruubery and I suddenly realized it was the seasning that had been in it that had cooked put of th metal. I cleaned it out, scoured the inside with a scouring pad and then started seasoning it all over again. It is now in great condition and I have vowed never to space off cleaning my CI ever again like that.
There are many schools of thought on cleaning CI, with some people saying you should never wash it under water, instead useing paper toweling and salt to clean. I've done this on occasion, but find that the hot water, stiff brush and light coating after works for me.
Now I like my stanless steel and magnalite cookware, but nothing beats a cast iron skillet for cooking good fried chicken.