I’ve been cooking since I was 10. I believe most would say that I’m a good cook, and I certainly don’t have any fears about being in the kitchen. I know how to make a smooth white sauce, I can cook steaks on the grill, and I can even bake a decent chocolate cake. I don’t mind cooking, but it’s not the center of my life. Instead, I want to get into the kitchen, eat, and clean up with the least mess. Because of this, some may call me the king of the one-pot meal.
I’ll use any tool at my command to achieve my simple goals. For example, if I know that I’ll be out for the day, I toss some ingredients into a slow cooker, and if I only have an hour before dinner, it’s common for me to plug in my InstantPot. Both of these methods produce good results, but I cook in a dutch oven for even better results.
Cooking in a dutch oven offers many advantages as well as some disadvantages. A dutch oven is probably the most versatile pot in any kitchen, as you can sear meats on a burner and then place the same pot in the oven to complete cooking. A dutch oven can be used like any other pot in the kitchen, but its thick walls and tight lid make it an ideal slow cooker. Its heavy mass holds the heat, which allows for good searing, and its hot surface promotes the formation of a caramelized fond on the bottom of the pot. This residue adds a delicious complexity to the dish being cooked. If you have a dutch oven that is big enough, it is even possible to bake in it directly on the stovetop. You place a trivet on the bottom of the dutch oven to hold your baking pan. Cover and adjust the burner, and off you go. Of course, you can also directly bake in a dutch oven to make bread, cakes, and cornbread in your range’s oven.
However, dutch oven cooking does have some disadvantages. The pots are heavy and bulky and may be too difficult for some. In addition, they have to be handled with a certain amount of care. This is especially true for enameled coated dutch ovens, which can chip and crack if treated harshly. Lastly, many meals involve time and a bit of handling. A recipe may take three or four hours, and during that period, you may need to stir the pot or do some other maintenance task. You will be rewarded with a richness of flavor that can’t be achieved in a slow cooker or pressure cooker, but you will need to commit to being around the house during the hours-long cooking process.
You may ask, what is a dutch oven? It’s a heavy pot with a secure lid. A dutch oven can be made of many things: clay, aluminum, stainless steel, and even ceramic. But, by far, the most common material used for dutch ovens is cast iron. This is because cast iron acts as a giant heat sink. It absorbs heat and slowly radiates it back into the food. Ovens and electric stovetops constantly turn off and on during cooking, and their temperature can vary widely. Cooking in cast iron evens out this cycling, which results in better and more consistent results.
You’ve probably seen someone with a traditional dutch oven if you’ve ever gone camping. These pots are often big, black, and the cast iron is without any external coating. Raw cast iron pots can be used for home cooking, but they have limitations. First, aesthetically they are not very attractive. In addition, cast iron can react with acidic foods and give them a metallic taste. Lastly, raw cast iron can rust if washed and not immediately dried.
A long-standing solution to this problem has been to place an enamel coating on both the inside and the outside of the vessel. This isolates the food from the metal and provides a beautiful and colorful finish to the pot.
The outside of an enameled pot can be any color, but its interior color is typically cream or black. Cream-colored interiors allow inexperienced cooks to visualize what they are cooking a bit better. Black interiors allow for somewhat better searing. Some pots have very smooth interiors; others have rougher finishes. Although manufacturers emphasize these differences, I have found that all of these ovens work well.
Enamel is vulcanized glass. It is sprayed on cast iron, which is fired at a high temperature. This fuses the glass to the cast iron for a long-lasting finish. Different companies have their own formulas and techniques for this process, and some claim that their procedures produce a more durable coating.
There is no absolute size determiner to define a dutch oven. Some people believe that a dutch oven has to be 5 quarts or larger in capacity. However, the vocabulary for dutch ovens is fluid. Some manufacturers sell dutch ovens that start around 1.5 quarts and move upwards. Other companies will call their smaller dutch ovens casseroles and their shorter ones braisers. Staub refers to their dutch ovens as La Cocottes, which translates to casserole in English. The bottom line is don’t get hung up on a definition.
Enameled Dutch ovens come in several shapes and designs. Dutch ovens can sell for as little as $40 or more than $400 for the same size. The most expensive dutch ovens are manufactured in France. Le Creuset and Staub are two elite French brands with very loyal followings. Le Creuset is especially good at romanticizing its products, noting that each one is unique and that some consumers have even legally stipulated who gets their pot when they die. Strong statements for a piece of cookery. Is this all hype, or do they make a significantly better product to justify the magnitude jump in their price compared to other brands?
Chiefs and reviewers love these French brands and often give them top ratings based on finish and design features. However, remember that there are only so many shapes for a dutch oven, and there are many copycat brands that have reproduced the designs of these French pots.
I own dutch ovens from both Le Creuset and Staub and other brands, including Lodge and Tramontina. So I feel that I had the tools to determine honesty from hype.
If you own an elite brand, I have some good news. If you can’t afford these brands, I have some good news. This is a win-win post!
To strip away the hype, we need to understand a little science. I mentioned that the most common dutch ovens are made from cast iron. But what is cast iron? You may think that it’s iron, but that is incorrect. Cast iron is an alloy. In other words, it consists of several substances mixed together. Cast iron is made of iron with a small amount of carbon added (2%-4%). Different formulas of cast iron may add other substances, like a bit of steel, into the mix. These elements are heated at a very high temperature until they become liquid. The liquid can be poured into a mold to form a pot or a lid. Steel is another alloy made of iron and carbon. However, the concentration of carbon is lower than it is in cast iron (less than 2% carbon). This small change gives steel different properties from cast iron.
Steel has more tensile strength (can be bent and stretched without breaking), but it is difficult to cast molten steel into a mold. Most steel pans are made of stainless steel, which has additional ingredients added to make it corrosion resistant. Quality stainless pans are stamped from several layers of different metals bonded together. It is hard to stamp a complete pan, so handles are made separately and then bolted to the pan’s body. All of these additional steps add to production expenses.
Cast iron liquifies at a lower temperature than steel. It has less tensile strength, so it is difficult to stamp, but it has better flowing properties. Cast iron is cheaper to produce, and because of its flowing properties, it can be molded into any 3D shape by casting it into a mold made of sand. You can add handles and helper handles directly into the design, which adds integrity to the pan and lowers manufacturing costs at the same time.
Sand is used for the mold as it has a higher melting point than cast iron. Every cast iron pan is unique as the sand mold is destroyed to remove the pan. Don’t feel too sorry for the sand, as it is reused for the next mold. Cast iron is brittle, so pans made of it have to be thicker than those made of steel. This adds weight to cast iron pans, making them too heavy for some. However, this additional mass makes cast iron pans so fantastic to cook with.
Contrary to popular belief, cast iron is a poor conductor of heat. However, it will completely heat up if you heat a pan slowly. Because pans have to be thick, they become virtual heat sinks. If you drop a steak onto a cheap stainless steel pan, the steak absorbs the pan’s heat, and the pan quickly cools down. Because of cast iron’s great mass that doesn’t happen, which is why many chefs prefer cast iron when searing or browning foods. In addition, this same property regulates temperatures, resulting in more even and consistent cooking.
Cast iron’s roughness allows oils to polymerize on its cooking surface, making a natural non-stick surface that only gets better with continued use.
Some boutique cast iron manufacturers make pans lighter and smoother than typical pans. They tout this as a major achievement and charge an inflated price. However, Lodge manufactured thinner, lighter, and smoother pans in the 1930s and 1940s, and Le Creuset continues to use thinner cast iron in their cookware line-up.
Lodge switched to thicker and bumpier cast iron in the 1950s. They say that they went with bumpier cast iron because it developed a patina (non-stick coating) quicker. They don’t state why they also went with a thicker-walled pan. However, thicker cast iron would differentiate their products from stainless steel or aluminum products, as its greater mass would offer the cooking advantages mentioned above.
As stated above, raw cast iron pots do have some notable disadvantages. They can rust if left wet, so they must be thoroughly dried after washing. Cast iron can be washed with dish detergent but never in the dishwasher. However, many, including myself, hold on to the tradition of washing only in water and drying on a range’s burner. During the drying/heating process, I’ll often add a small amount of cooking oil which I’ll spread over the pan’s surfaces.
The fact that cast iron may add a metallic taste to acidic foods may be objectionable to some. Lastly, others may be put off with cast iron’s practical (i.e., ugly) appearance.
These problems were solved in the late 1800s when manufacturers started to bake a coat of enamel on their cooking vessels. Spray enamel consists of tiny particles of glass mixed with clay, pigments, water, and other things. It can be applied to a pot similarly to spraying paint. The pot is then placed in a hot kiln where the glass is melted and permanently bonded to the vessel’s surface. Since enamel is a form of glass, it is subject to chipping and cracking; each manufacturer has its formula to make its enamel more durable. Durability can also be enhanced by applying a thicker coat of enamel and also by applying more than one coat.
Enamel solved many of raw cast iron’s problems. Enameled cast iron won’t rust, it doesn’t impart a metallic taste to foods, and it can turn ugly duckling cast iron into a beautiful swan.
The downside to enameled cookware is that the enamel can chip. In addition, rapidly heating a pot can result in fracture lines in the enamel. Enamel is a fairly fragile coating that must be treated similarly to Teflon. Only wood or plastic utensils should be used. In addition, enamel cookware should be hand washed as washing in the dishwasher could pit and dull the glaze turning a beautiful pot drab.
Now that you are an expert in cast iron science, we can look at Le Creuset dutch ovens with a knowledgeable eye. Let’s explore some of their claims:
- All of Le Creuset’s dutch ovens are made from a unique mold that is destroyed after the pot is cast. This makes their pots and pans sound like one-of-a-kind works of art. However, what they describe is casting cast iron in sand, which is how all cast iron pots are made.
- Le Creuset is so desirable that some people list who will inherit their dutch oven in their will. This may be true, but so what? I cherish a dimestore Ecko soup ladle from my mom. It has no monetary value, but I kept it because of the many lovely stews and soups served using it. One of your kids may want your dutch oven. However, I think that most adult children don’t want their parents’ old pots and pans.
- Le Creuset comes in many beautiful colors and has the widest selection of enameled cooking vessels. This is true. Most Dutch oven brands come in several colors, but Le Creuset dutch ovens can be purchased in almost 20 different colors. In addition, some colors are retired while new ones are introduced. Le Creuset also produces exclusive colors for special retailers (Williams Sonoma, I am talking to you). If you are into colors, Le Creuset is the way to go. In addition, Le Creuset makes many different sizes, types, and shapes of cookware.
- Le Creuset dutch oven’s enamel is more durable than other brands; it won’t chip. Despite claims, Le Creuset can chip just like any other enamel cookware. Its cream-colored interior is subject to staining, and its glossy finish can dull over time. If you don’t believe me check out vintage Le Creuset on eBay. These items are often procured from estate sales, and they show quite a bit of wear and tear. However, I believe that Le Creuset pots may be slightly more durable than some other brands.
- Le Creuset uses three coats of enamel. This is a bit of an exaggeration. Le Creuset uses a clear bottom enamel layer and adds a tan layer for the interior and a colored layer for the exterior. That is only two layers per surface. Lodge also uses a two-layer enamel process.
- Le Creuset has a lifetime warranty. They will replace a defective dutch oven for life. This is true, but the devil is in the details. They will replace a pot only if the damage is not caused by abuse and only if the damage impacts the pot’s function. Chips on the rim or outside the pot are the most common damage for any enamel dutch oven, but they are not covered. Likewise, unsightly fracture lines don’t impact the pot’s cooking ability. However, a significant chip inside a cooking vessel could further flake; swallowing glass (enamel) is not a good thing. In such cases, Le Creuset will send you a replacement. Lodge also has a lifetime warranty.
- Le Creuset pots are lighter because they have a secret cast-iron formula. Le Creuset pots are lighter because they cast thinner than other dutch ovens. The downside is that they have less thermal mass and, therefore, less thermal regulation. However, this isn’t a very significant problem. Lodge made thinner cast iron in the 1930s and 1940s and deliberately switched to thicker cast iron in the 1950s.
- Le Creuset’s superior and smoother enamel coating prevents food from sticking. Food sticks on all enamel, but that produces a fond, which can be deglazed and adds to the dish’s flavor. However, all enameled cast iron is surprisingly easy to clean. Although Le Creuset may produce a pot with a slightly smoother finish, that finish does not seem to perform differently from other dutch ovens that I have used.
- Le Creuset’s light interior makes it easier to determine when food is properly seared. Most dutch ovens have a light interior. My Staub has a black interior, and Staub claims that this allows it to sear better. Its inside coating is rough, and Staub says this allows its pots to be seasoned like regular cast iron. I have used light and dark as well as smooth and rough interiors, I don’t see a significant cooking difference. However, a dark interior doesn’t show stains.
- Le Creuset’s straight sides provide a more searing surface than pots with a curved bottom. This is true but not very important for a home cook searing family-sized amounts of meat. In contrast, pots with curved bottoms are supposedly better when making soups and stews. In practice, either shape works great for all foods. If you are stuck on a Le Creuset shape, be aware that many clones are sold at a fraction of the price.
11. Le Creuset pots are made in France, and that is cool. Yes, that is cool.
Beyond the hype, the most important question is, does food taste better cooked in a Le Creuset dutch oven than in some other brand? The answer is no. I have made dishes in many different dutch ovens, and they perform similarly.
So is Le Creuset worth the money? That depends.
Le Creuset pots are impeccable. They come in really beautiful colors, and their finish is a notch above other brands (except for Staub, which is equally expensive). They are made in France by craftsmen. Their glaze is a bit more durable, and with care, they will probably look a bit better 20 years from their purchase date compared to a Brand-X Chinese unit. If you are into pots and have some cash burning in your pocket, go for it!. However, I would not buy old beat-up Le Creuset pots on eBay; remember that they are just old beat-up pots selling for crazy prices.
If you don’t have a boatload of cash, rejoice! You can buy a five or six-quart dutch oven for $40-$100, and your dishes will turn out just as well as in a $400 Le Creuset. Yes, the glaze may dull slightly quicker, but my 15-year-old Lodge still looks pretty good. Remember that form follows function.
If I could have just one brand, would it be Le Creuset? They are very fine dutch ovens, but I would probably go with Staub. I prefer their black interiors. Staub features fewer outer colors, but their enamel seems to be slightly higher quality than Le Creuset pots. If I couldn’t afford the luxury of a French dutch oven, I would have no problem using a Lodge or a Brand-X dutch oven. Cast iron dutch ovens are more similar than they are different.
With proper care, most enameled dutch ovens can last a lifetime. However, with improper care, most dutch ovens will be destroyed in short order. Here are some tips:
- Always heat your dutch oven slowly when you’re using it on the range. Heating quickly can result in cracked enamel.
- Dutch ovens work best when the burner is set no greater than medium-high.
- Never wash your dutch oven in the dishwasher; even if the manufacturer says it is dishwasher safe, it will dull its finish. Hand wash with warm soapy water.
- Never use metals like steel wool when washing your pans.
- Treat your enamelware like you would a Teflon pan. Only use plastic or wooden utensils when cooking in it.
- If your dutch oven has a white or cream interior, it will eventually stain. Some people will add a few tablespoons of bleach to water and allow it to sit in the dutch oven for 20 or 30 minutes. This can remove some of these stains. Note that stains don’t impact a dutch oven’s functionality.
- Dutch ovens often get burnt-on food in their Interiors. However, their glassy surfaces allow for easy cleaning as long as you soak them for a bit in hot soapy water before you scrub them out.
- Be careful of thermal shock. If you rapidly cool a dutch oven, for instance, by filling a hot dutch oven with cold water, you can cause it to crack. Wait until the hot pan cools to warm, and then fill with hot water to soak.
If you follow these simple tips, your dutch oven will retain its beauty for many years. However, remember that it is just a pot and not a design piece in your home. Therefore, a dutch oven should show some wear over time; that is normal and is also a good thing.
As stated above, my favorite dutch oven brand is Staub, followed by Le Creuset. Both are beautifully made classics. If you have the cash to spare, you will not be disappointed in either of these brands. If you already have these dutch ovens, you are likely very pleased with your purchase. However, if you can’t afford a status brand, I believe that you’ll be just as happy with an off-brand or a Lodge. Remember that most cast iron brands are more similar than they are different. You can obtain fantastic results with a $40 dutch oven that will be indistinguishable from the food coming out of a $400 one.