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December/January 2017

Dutch Ovens

Our favorite Dutch oven costs $360. We needed a practical alternative.

How We Tested

A Dutch oven just might be the most important—and versatile—cooking vessel you can own. Dutch ovens can go on the stove and in the oven, making them ideal for braising meat; cooking soups, stews, and sauces; boiling water; frying; and even baking bread.

These pots come in all shapes, sizes, and materials; over years of testing and using them every day in the test kitchen, we’ve come up with some preferences. We like round Dutch ovens (oval ones hang off of burners) that hold a minimum of 6 quarts. And we like heavy pots made of enameled cast iron, which conducts and retains heat well and is easy to clean and maintain.

At the center of the Dutch oven universe is a pot we love that meets all of our criteria and looks good doing it: the Le Creuset 7 1/4 Round Dutch Oven. This beautiful pot performs magnificently and, with proper care, should last a lifetime—but it costs a whopping $359.99. And lately, we’ve seen some newer cheaper options on the market. So we decided to see if the Le Creuset was still worth its price and to see if we could find a great Dutch oven for less money, setting a price cap of around $125.00 (about one-third of the price of the Le Creuset) for a new testing of these workhorse pots. We chose seven challengers, priced from $24.29 to $121.94, to pit against the Le Creuset, using each pot to boil water, cook rice, fry French fries, braise beef, and bake bread. To test for durability, we washed each pot repeatedly with an abrasive sponge, whacked their rims with metal spoons, and repeatedly slammed their lids onto their bases.

Did any of these cheaper pots make the grade? After weeks of rigorous testing, it became clear that all of the pots can cook food acceptably, but some make it much easier to do so. And while the Le Creuset is still in its own class, we did find some great alternatives.

What mattered? First, material. We included two light aluminum pots in our lineup because one of the most common complaints we hear about enameled cast-iron Dutch ovens is how heavy they are. But cooking with these two light pots only reinforced our preference for cast-iron cores, as the aluminum pots were prone to scorching and dented easily.

For pots this hefty, we found that handles were another critical factor: Big, comfortable ones were a must, and pots with skimpy handles were downgraded accordingly. The interior color of the pots mattered, too. All of the cast-iron pots, save one, had a light interior that made it easy to monitor browning. The outlier had a dark nonstick finish that made it easy to clean but hard to see how the food was browning. Our testing also bore out a preference for pots with shorter sides, as tall sides made it more awkward to add food to hot oil in a safe, splash-free manner when frying.

But what really made some pots easier to use was their shape. Broad bases with straight sides were best. Two pots had rounded sides that curved in at the base, reducing some of their potential flat usable cooking surface. Larger cooking surfaces fit more food, so we could brown beef for stew in two batches versus three or four, a savings of up to 15 minutes. Aside from the time savings, prolonged browning can mean that the fond (the flavorful brown bits that form on the bottom on the pot) is more likely to burn, which can render your dinner inedible.

In the end, we still feel that the Le Creuset is a worthwhile investment. But we’re excited to have found a good alternative. The Cuisinart 7 Qt. Round Covered Casserole performed like a champ in all of our cooking tests, and it costs just $121.94. It has the same advantageous shape and features as the Le Creuset—broad with straight, low sides; big comfortable handles; and a core made of cast iron. The trade-off? It’s 3 pounds heavier than the Le Creuset (which is a hefty 13+ pounds when empty), and it chipped cosmetically along its rim during our abuse testing. But for a third of the price, it’s an excellent alternative that we highly recommend.

Methodology

We tested seven inexpensive ($125 and under) Dutch ovens against our winning Dutch oven, the Le Creuset 7 1/4 Round Dutch Oven, using each to boil, cook, fry, bake, and braise. We rated them on the food they produced as well as their durability and how easy they were to use and clean. We purchased all models online and have listed the price we paid; they appear below in order of preference.

COOKING: We rated each pot on the food it made; pots that produced perfectly cooked food within recipe time ranges rated highest.

CAPACITY: We looked at how much food the pots could fit; those with wider cooking surfaces allowed us to cook food in fewer batches.

EASE OF USE: Broad, relatively medium-weight pots with comfortable handles and lower sides rated highest.

DURABILITY: Pots that remained functionally and cosmetically intact rated highest.

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The Results

Winner
Recommended

Design Trifecta 360 Knife Block

$33.31*

Design Trifecta 360 Knife Block

Admittedly expensive, this handsome block certainly seemed to live up to its billing as “the last knife block you ever have to buy.” The heaviest model in our testing, this block was ultrastable, and its durable bamboo exterior was a breeze to clean. Well-placed medium-strength magnets made it easy to attach all our knives, and a rotating base gave us quick access to them. One tiny quibble: The blade of our 12-inch slicing knife stuck out a little

Winner
Recommended

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

$33.31*

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

Our old winner arrived with the slickest preseasoned interior and only got better. Broad enough to cook two big steaks, it browned foods deeply, and its thorough seasoning ensured that our acidic pan sauce picked up no off-flavors. Though its handle is short, the pan has a helper handle that made lifting easy. It survived abuse testing without a scratch. An excellent pan, at an excellent price, that you’ll never have to replace.

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

$33.31*

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

Our old winner arrived with the slickest preseasoned interior and only got better. Broad enough to cook two big steaks, it browned foods deeply, and its thorough seasoning ensured that our acidic pan sauce picked up no off-flavors. Though its handle is short, the pan has a helper handle that made lifting easy. It survived abuse testing without a scratch. An excellent pan, at an excellent price, that you’ll never have to replace.

Winner
Recommended

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

$33.31*

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

Our old winner arrived with the slickest preseasoned interior and only got better. Broad enough to cook two big steaks, it browned foods deeply, and its thorough seasoning ensured that our acidic pan sauce picked up no off-flavors. Though its handle is short, the pan has a helper handle that made lifting easy. It survived abuse testing without a scratch. An excellent pan, at an excellent price, that you’ll never have to replace.

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

$33.31*

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

Our old winner arrived with the slickest preseasoned interior and only got better. Broad enough to cook two big steaks, it browned foods deeply, and its thorough seasoning ensured that our acidic pan sauce picked up no off-flavors. Though its handle is short, the pan has a helper handle that made lifting easy. It survived abuse testing without a scratch. An excellent pan, at an excellent price, that you’ll never have to replace.

Winner
Recommended

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

$33.31*

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

Our old winner arrived with the slickest preseasoned interior and only got better. Broad enough to cook two big steaks, it browned foods deeply, and its thorough seasoning ensured that our acidic pan sauce picked up no off-flavors. Though its handle is short, the pan has a helper handle that made lifting easy. It survived abuse testing without a scratch. An excellent pan, at an excellent price, that you’ll never have to replace.

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

$33.31*

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

Our old winner arrived with the slickest preseasoned interior and only got better. Broad enough to cook two big steaks, it browned foods deeply, and its thorough seasoning ensured that our acidic pan sauce picked up no off-flavors. Though its handle is short, the pan has a helper handle that made lifting easy. It survived abuse testing without a scratch. An excellent pan, at an excellent price, that you’ll never have to replace.

Winner
Recommended

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

$33.31*

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

Our old winner arrived with the slickest preseasoned interior and only got better. Broad enough to cook two big steaks, it browned foods deeply, and its thorough seasoning ensured that our acidic pan sauce picked up no off-flavors. Though its handle is short, the pan has a helper handle that made lifting easy. It survived abuse testing without a scratch. An excellent pan, at an excellent price, that you’ll never have to replace.

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

$33.31*

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

Our old winner arrived with the slickest preseasoned interior and only got better. Broad enough to cook two big steaks, it browned foods deeply, and its thorough seasoning ensured that our acidic pan sauce picked up no off-flavors. Though its handle is short, the pan has a helper handle that made lifting easy. It survived abuse testing without a scratch. An excellent pan, at an excellent price, that you’ll never have to replace.