Update: April 2013
Tramontina has discontinued our Best Buy Dutch oven and plans to relaunch it in the fall with a new design. We will test the new model at that time. Our Best Buy recommendation is now the Lodge Color Enamel 6-Quart Dutch Oven.
A good Dutch oven (variously called a stockpot, round oven, French oven, or casserole) is a kitchen essential. They're heavier and thicker than stockpots, allowing them to retain and conduct heat more effectively, and deeper than a skillet, so they can handle large cuts of meat and cooking liquid. These qualities make Dutch ovens the best choice for braises, pot roasts, and stews, especially as they can go on the stovetop to sear foods and then into the oven to finish cooking. Their tall sides make them useful for deep-frying, and many cooks press Dutch ovens into service for jobs like boiling pasta.
For our most important test, we prepared a beef stew that starts on the stovetop and then moves to the oven. In each pan, we browned cubes of beef in batches, and as the meat seared, we observed whether the pan heated evenly and consistently without burning the drippings. After the long, slow cooking in the oven, we tasted the stew to see if the meat had become fork-tender and the broth had reduced to intense flavor. Of all the tests we did, this was the most important, because it focused on the unique abilities of Dutch ovens.
We noticed a few trends. Our favorite pots were wide enough (at least 8 inches) to brown 3 1/2 pounds of beef in three or four batches, something narrower pots couldn't do. And pots that were too light browned the meat unevenly.
For the next test, we put two quarts of canola oil in each pan, clipped on a deep-fry thermometer, and cooked a pound of frozen French fries to test heat transfer and retention. The best pans retained heat well enough to prevent the temperature of the oil from dropping too precipitously when food was added.
An unexpected issue emerged during this test. Fries cooked in one of our cast iron pans tasted rusty; evidently, the preseasoned surface had failed. Cast iron is a great choice for a Dutch oven, because it holds onto heat so well. But cast iron will also react with many foods. Some manufacturers coat their cast iron with a layer of brightly colored enamel. Other manufacturers preseason their pots—basically spraying them with oil and baking on the seasoning. But, as we discovered, it's possible to wash away the preseasoning. An enamel coating on the cast iron surface will last a lifetime and makes a Dutch oven much more versatile.
We tested eight inexpensive Dutch ovens (priced under $100), along with previous test kitchen winners made by All-Clad and Le Creuset (both priced in excess of $200). Ratings of good, fair, and poor for three kitchen tests (beef stew, french fries, and steamed white rice) were given to each pot; the stew test was given extra weight in determining overall rank. We also boiled water in each pot.
We measured the interior cooking surface.
We weighed each pot in the test kitchen, including the lid.
Testers prepared beef stew, browning 3 1/2 pounds of meat in batches, browning onions, and finishing the stew in the oven. Testers noted browning and tenderness of meat as well as flavor and consistency of sauce.
Testers deep-fried 1 pound frozen French fries in 2 quarts canola oil, noting the time needed to heat oil to 350 degrees, the drop in temperature after fries were added, the time needed for oil to return to 350 degrees, and appearance and taste of the fries.
Testers prepared 3 cups of plain white rice and assessed the appearance and taste of the cooked rice.