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Cast iron is a very slow conductor of heat and forms hot spots if heated too quickly, or on an undersized burner; however, it has excellent heat retention properties, and the entire pan will eventually become extremely hot, including the iron handle or handles.
An American Dietetic Association study found that cast-iron cookware can leach significant amounts of dietary iron into food.
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A seasoned pan has a stick-resistant coating created by polymerized oils and fats.
Seasoning is a process by which a layer of animal fat or vegetable oil is applied and cooked onto cast-iron or carbon steel cookware.
Because cast-iron skillets can develop a "non-stick" surface, they are also a good choice for egg dishes.
Other uses of cast-iron pans include baking, for instance for making cornbread, cobblers and cakes.
However, frequent use of acidic foods such as tomato sauce can remove the seasoning faster and the cookware will need to be re-seasoned frequently.
This can be lessened if initial season is better at polymerizing than standard fats/oils.
However, the durability and reliability of cast iron as a cooking tool has ensured its survival, and cast-iron cookware is still recommended by most cooks and chefs as an essential part of any kitchen.
Cast iron's ability to withstand and maintain very high cooking temperatures makes it a common choice for searing or frying, and its excellent heat retention makes it a good option for long-cooking stews or braised dishes.
In Europe, before the introduction of the kitchen stove in the middle of the 19th century, meals were cooked in the hearth or fireplace, and cooking pots and pans were designed for use in the hearth.
This meant that all cooking vessels had to be designed to be suspended on, or in, a fireplace.
Many recipes call for the use of a cast-iron skillet or pot, especially so that the dish can be initially seared or fried on the stovetop then transferred into the oven, pan and all, to finish baking.