The Best Dutch Oven
You could spend a lot more on a Dutch oven, but for $75 the 6-quart Lodge Color Enamel Dutch Oven offers everything you need to make great braises and stews, and even bake no-knead bread. This durable, well-designed pot kept pace with ovens four times the price from well-known French manufacturers. It seared, braised, steamed, and caramelized foods better or just as well as more expensive competitors, and it features great handles and dimensions that make the Lodge perfect for many cooking tasks. Last year, we chose the Lodge as our top Dutch oven after 18 hours of research and testing. This year, we spent 50 hours investigating and testing six top-rated models, cooking our way through nearly 5 pounds of rice, 18 pounds of onions, 12 pounds of beef chuck, 5 pounds of carrots, and two bottles of wine (for cooking, honest!), and the Lodge remains the clear winner.
All of the ovens I cooked with worked quite well, which isn’t that surprising considering that a cast-iron pot is one of the lowest-tech pieces of kitchen gear there is. They don’t have the bells and whistles of higher-tech kitchen gadgets, and so there generally aren’t huge differences in features or performance. What separated the great Dutch ovens from the rest of the pack were the small details. The Lodge has bigger handles than most of the Dutch ovens I tested, making it much easier to take in and out of the oven. Its slightly curved shape keeps food from getting trapped in the corners of the pot, and its shorter sides allow for better searing, which imparts more flavor into finished dishes. It’s wide enough to allow ample evaporation for braised dishes and offers plenty of surface area for searing proteins to develop flavor.
The Cuisinart CI670-30CR Chef’s Classic Enameled Cast Iron 7-Quart Round Covered Casserole ($110) produced the best stew of all the ovens we tested. Its larger cooking surface area allowed for more evaporation, thus a more condensed broth. But that additional space also means additional weight. Plus, the Cuisinart has small handles that are less than ideal. Capacity-wise, it’s larger than what most people will need for standard-size recipes, and it’s also quite a bit more expensive than our main pick, so for most people, the Lodge is a better choice.
For those willing to splurge, Le Creuset’s Signature Enameled Cast-Iron 5½-Quart Round French (Dutch) Oven ($280) really is the gold standard for Dutch ovens. It earns top marks from reviewers, is the perfect size for most recipes, and has the roomiest handles of the bunch. We found it a pleasure to cook with. It’s pricy, but it’s also nearly perfect. The high price will only be worth it to the most demanding home cooks—for everyone else, the Lodge cooks just as well, at a fraction of the cost.
Table of contents
Should I upgrade?
If you already have an enameled cast-iron Dutch oven that you like, you’re not going to gain much more functionality buying a new one. From model to model, there aren’t significant differences in the technology and features. As our tests revealed, the “low and slow” cooking methods commonly used with Dutch ovens mean that for the most part they cook about equally well.
That said, there are some reasons to invest in a new one. If you regularly cook for a crowd, you might want to add a larger version to your cookware collection. A 5.5- to 6.5-quart oven should serve a family of two to four nicely, but if you’re feeding more you might want to bump up to a 7-, 9-, or even 13-quart version (just keep in mind that a bigger oven also means a lot more weight). In case you already have an oval oven, a round model will give you more flexibility for cooking larger roasts or whole birds.
For those who already own a bare cast-iron Dutch oven, consider the benefits of an enameled one, which include non-reactivity with acidic ingredients like lemon juice, vinegar, and tomatoes, and simpler cleaning and maintenance. If you have an enameled Dutch oven with deep chips on the interior enamel, exposing the raw cast iron, you should get a new one. The exposed cast iron will react to acidic ingredients and negate the ease of cooking in enameled cast iron.
You also might want to invest in a new Dutch oven if you’re unhappy with the size of your current one or if there’s something about the design that keeps irking you, such as handles that are too small to easily grasp with oven mitts or a cooking surface that’s awkward or too small to easily brown batches of stew meat.
How we picked and tested
We focused on enameled cast-iron ovens because they are versatile and easy to care for and clean. The cast-iron construction holds a tremendous amount of heat, and its high heat emissivity is perfect for braising, a cooking technique that relies on consistent heat over time to slowly break down meat and tenderize it. The porcelain enamel interiors also work well for deglazing, thanks to the (usually) slick finishes that quickly release stuck-on bits and (usually) light-colored interiors that make it easier to monitor the color of the fond—the accumulation of those brown bits that make the base for flavorful sauces.
Cast iron also comes in bare-metal versions, but these need to be seasoned before use and require a particular care regimen. If not seasoned and cared for properly, bare cast-iron cookware can react with acidic ingredients, leaving an unpleasantly dull, metallic flavor in your food. It tastes nasty, and there’s nothing you can do to fix it besides toss out what you cooked, re-season your cast iron, and start over.
When shopping for a Dutch oven, size matters. An oven that’s too small limits your ability to cook large cuts of meat, while one that is too big will be very heavy when full and a beast to clean with wet, soapy hands. In his original guide, Kevin Purdy found: “The experienced moms and cooks at Only-Cookware.com suggest 5½ quarts work for most 2-4 serving meals, but advise a 7- or 9-quart pot if you’re cooking for a full, hungry family.” We focused primarily on ovens ranging from 5.5 to 6.5 quarts, which are big enough for a wide variety of cooking tasks (searing, braising, frying), but not so big that they are difficult to handle. If you need something bigger, Lodge offers models up to 7.8 quarts ($93), while Le Creuset goes all the way up to a whopping 13.5 quarts (with a $470 price to match!), which is large enough to serve 10 people.
Overall capacity is important, but when comparing two ovens of identical size, opt for ovens that are wider and shorter, as opposed to narrower and taller. A wider diameter makes it easier to brown meat for things like stews or chili, and as testing showed, the extra space around your food can mean the difference between a good, dark sear on meat versus a less flavorful, less appealing steaming. A wider pot can also save time, allowing you to brown chunks of stew meat in one or two batches, rather than two or three. In their Dutch oven review, Cook’s Illustrated recommends ovens of at least 8 inches in diameter, for faster and better browning.
Shape is also an important consideration when selecting a Dutch oven. While oval ovens are fairly common, I stuck to testing round models, which fit better over a stovetop burner. There are reports online of oval ovens heating less evenly, but Cook’s Illustrated found that “an oval cast-iron Dutch oven should cook as well as a round model, without any adjustments to cooking times or procedures.” Round ovens do make it easier to stir contents without worrying about things getting stuck in the corners, so they are better suited to soups and stews, but if you frequently cook long, narrow items (slabs of pork belly come to mind), then an oval Dutch oven might be better suited to your purposes.
Most Dutch ovens feature traditional lids with smooth undersides, but a few manufacturers—such as Staub—use “nubby” lids, which feature raised bumps or ridges that are supposed to enable moisture to drip back onto the food more easily and baste whatever’s inside. Opinions on this feature are mixed, and we looked at both kinds. The lid should rest securely on the pot, but it shouldn’t fit too snug, as you want some evaporation for items like soups and stews. Staub, in particular, touts that their lids retain 10% more moisture than other brands, but our tests showed that’s not always a positive result. When making a beef stew, that retained moisture resulted in thin stew with less rich, meaty flavor.
The majority of enameled Dutch ovens have smooth, light-colored interiors ranging from almost white to a light tan. A few (including two we tested) have black interiors in smooth or matte finishes. The interior color doesn’t affect the pot’s cooking ability, but it’s easier to monitor food cooking in a lighter interior. In this Chowhound thread, people hotly debate benefits of a light versus dark interior. Some like the latter because staining is less noticeable over time. Staub uses a matte finish, which they suggest “develops ‘non-stick’ qualities,” while all the other Dutch ovens we tested featured a slick, glossy surface.
After considering 10 models, I went hands-on with six different Dutch ovens, ranging in size from 5 to 7 quarts. Of those I tested, four had light-colored interiors ranging from off-white to a light tan. The remaining two, from Kirkland and Staub, had dark, black interiors.
To evaluate how evenly each model cooked, I made identical batches of long-grain steamed white rice in each pot. Due to the minimal amount of stirring involved, it was a good check to see how well each Dutch oven did at distributing heat across the bottom surface. After checking the rice at the 15-minute mark, I left it on the burner over low heat for an additional 6 minutes, to see if any scorching would occur due to hot spots. I also figured this test would create a more challenging cleanup scenario if any of the rice burned. This was the one time I’ve ever cooked rice hoping that it would scorch, at least a little bit.
As a second test for even cooking, I caramelized two large onions in each pot over low heat for an hour. Because the rice cooks for only 15 minutes, I was hoping the slower cooking process for onions would bring some differences between the six contenders to light. For consistency, I sliced all the onions using a food processor equipped with a medium slicing disc.
To test whether the pots with dark interiors heated to a higher temperature, I placed each pot in turn on the same burner of my stove, over a low flame. I checked the temperature after 10 minutes using an infrared thermometer, then three more times at five-minute intervals (for a total of 25 minutes).
After eliminating two of the Dutch ovens based on my experiences and earlier test results, I made a simple beef stew in the four remaining ovens. I chose a stew for our tests, because it allowed me to try sautéing, searing, deglazing, and braising in a single dish, and the nearly three-hour total cook time gave me a good real-world look at how difficult each oven is to clean after longer cooking sessions.
The 6-quart Lodge Color Enamel Dutch Oven ($75) is our top pick, because it cooks stews just as well as other Dutch ovens selling for four times the price. The Lodge’s shape works well for most cooking tasks, and the light interior makes it easy to determine browning. It produced one of the best stews, with well-browned meat, and a flavorful, concentrated liquid. The enameled interior is easy to clean, and the oven has ample handles that make a big difference when cooking large recipes that may make the oven heavy to carry.
You can spend several times the cost of a Lodge Dutch oven on some fancy European models, but unlike sports cars or bespoke suits, there’s just not that much of a difference, performance-wise. I really did want to find some major, life-changing, mouth-watering difference between the Lodge and pricier pots, like the Le Creuset and Staub, especially since we’re talking about a difference of $200. In testing, though, I found all of the Dutch ovens performed about equally. They all heated evenly and nicely browned onions. Even after intentionally overcooking the rice, none of the ovens scorched the rice, and the heavy lids retained enough moisture to keep the grains from drying out. For most people, the $75 (or less, depending on color) Lodge cooks just as well. A very good friend of mine who is French will probably never speak to me again for writing that, but the proof is in the pudding—or, in this case, the beef stew.
The shape of the Lodge makes cooking in it particularly easy. At 10⅝ inches wide and 4¾ inches tall, the Lodge is wide and squat enough to allow for searing (rather than steaming) meat and also browning larger batches at once. The Tramontina oven, which is three-eighths of an inch wider and 5⅜ inches tall, has a larger capacity, but I found the narrower proportions less convenient for browning stew meat. Less flat surface area means pieces are closer together and more prone to steaming than searing, and you’ll need to work in smaller batches, which takes longer. The Lodge also has a gentle curve from the bottom to the side of the oven that in our tests kept onions from getting trapped in the corner, resulting in even browning. In comparison, the Le Creuset and Cuisinart Dutch ovens, which both have a more pronounced angle between the bottom and sides of the pots, required more attentive stirring to make sure onions browned evenly and didn’t burn by getting stuck in the corner of the Dutch oven.
In our tests, the Lodge’s light-colored interior made it much easier to judge the color of the onions and meat browning, as well as the fond as it developed on the bottom of the pan. Using the exact same technique and timing, the onions in both of the darker-colored ovens burned slightly, because the dark surface made it difficult for us to judge the color as it developed. Using the infrared thermometer, I found that the pots with dark and light interiors heated about equally, so the difference in browning (or burning) really came down to visual cues. It was simply easier to see what was happening in the models with the lighter cook surfaces.
My favorite stews were the more concentrated ones, and the Lodge produced my second favorite (after the Cuisinart). It cooked the beef stew wonderfully, resulting in perfectly tender beef in a rich, meaty broth. The Lodge lost a total of 15.75% of its weight while cooking, compared with the 20.5% lost in the Cuisinart. The lids on each pot fit similarly, but the 7-quart Cuisinart is three-quarters of an inch wider than the Lodge. The increased surface area resulted in more evaporation, which in turn created a richer, thicker, and more flavorful stew. By contrast, the stew cooked in Staub’s Dutch oven lost only 6% of its total weight during cooking, and the resulting stew was my least favorite, with dull, watery flavor and a thin texture.
Even with the long cooking time of the beef stew, the Lodge cleaned up perfectly and its gentler slope from the bottom to the side of the oven was again an asset, eliminating the “corner” that other ovens have. It’s an admittedly small difference, but an appreciated one after a 10-hour day in the kitchen cooking in and washing multiple pots multiple times. The Lodge cleaned up just as well as the other ovens, with the exception of the Staub, which required more scrubbing because the matte interior has a tendency to grip food.
Lodge’s loop handles are much easier to work with than the flat, “tab style” handles on the Kirkland and some other ovens. Loop handles are easier to grip, which comes in handy while stirring contents or moving the oven. Since the cast-iron handles heat up during cooking, you’ll often need oven mitts, which makes larger handles even more important. The only other model with better handles was the Le Creuset, but the Lodge’s are still generously sized, which is important when you’re trying to pull a hot, heavy pot out of the oven wearing thick, heat-resistant mitts.
For its enameled cast iron, Lodge offers a “limited lifetime warranty,” although I could not find any specifics about the warranty online. That said, Lodge has a reputation for excellent warranty policies. Last year, J. Kenji López-Alt, managing culinary director at Serious Eats told my colleague Kevin Purdy, “Two out of maybe 100 [pots] I’ve seen used by family/friends/colleagues” have developed cracks. López-Alt said they were “replaced by Lodge with no questions.” When I contacted Lodge for more details, a customer service representative stated that “the limited lifetime warranty covers any damage received within regular use. As long as all use and care recommendations have been followed Lodge will cover replacement of the enamel. This does include random chipping or cracking of the enamel.”
In their testing of Dutch ovens, Cook’s Illustrated gave Lodge a perfect score and named it their Best Buy. In a March 2013 interview, Lisa McManus, senior editor in charge of equipment testing at Cook’s Illustrated and Cook’s Country, told Kevin that the smaller size and more rounded curve of its bottom, which contribute to less cooking surface, were perhaps the only real knocks against the Lodge she tested in 2011. “I wouldn’t say there’s any kind of quality difference,” McManus said.
Amazon reviewers agree. With more than 2,600 user reviews, the Lodge has an average score of 4.6 out of 5 stars, with 77% of reviewers giving it a 5-star rating. Reviewer N. Lafond says, “I see no performance differences at all between the Le Creuset and the Lodge whereas the comparably priced budget models are certainly inferior.”
Jesse Cross of The Hungry Mouse and Good Housekeeping also like the Lodge. In her review, Cross states, “In the end, the Lodge performed just as well as my tried-and-true Le Creuset. … It did the same work that my Le Creuset did, at a fraction of the cost. … If I needed new cast iron now, I wouldn’t think twice: I’d definitely go for a Lodge.”
Last year, we asked Lodge about the price difference between their enameled cast iron and more expensive brands. Spokesman Mark Kelly told Kevin that Lodge does no direct consumer advertising and a minimum of brand advertising. “We don’t, for example, have associates that arrange and tidy the shelves for our product at stores,” Kelly said.
Flaws but not dealbreakers
With a flat bottom diameter of 8 inches and a gradual curve from bottom to side, the Lodge has a less flat surface area than some of the other models we tested. That same gentle curve that was an asset when caramelizing onions made things a bit more crowded when we were browning the 3 pounds of beef chuck the stew recipe called for. With slightly less bottom surface to work with, pieces of meat were closer together, which can lead to steaming rather than searing. It’s definitely not a dealbreaker, but it did require a few extra minutes and a bit more management of individual pieces of meat to achieve the same level of sear as with other ovens with more flat surface area. The 5.5-quart Le Creuset, for example, is a half-quart smaller in capacity, but the flat area of the bottom is nearly half an inch wider than the Lodge, while the 6.5-quart Kirkland offers 9.25 inches across the bottom.
Handles were also a big deal, and while the Lodge has comfortable ones, they aren’t quite as spacious as the ones on the Le Creuset Dutch oven. On the Lodge, the distance between the wall of the Dutch oven and the interior of the handle (think: the space your fingers will be in when you grasp the handle) is just shy of 1 inch. Le Creuset’s handles offer 1⅜ inch of clearance. When thinking about handles, it’s important to keep in mind that they will be hot while you cook. Remember that the handles will also need to be big enough to work with whatever oven mitts or hot pads you use.
The runner-up pick
Cuisinart’s 7-Quart Chef’s Classic Enameled Cast Iron Dutch Oven is big. Too big for most people, in fact. But if you need the extra capacity, it’s a great option. And at only $110, it’s a competitively priced alternative if our main pick sells out.
In fact, the Cuisinart produced my favorite stew. The larger surface area resulted in the highest percentage of evaporation during braising—20.5%. That extra concentration made for more flavorful liquid, but the same thing could be accomplished in another Dutch oven by letting it simmer a few minutes longer.
Cuisinart’s biggest flaw is the handle size. They are small considering the size and weight of this Dutch oven (16 pounds, 4.1 ounces to Lodge’s 13 pounds, 2.2 ounces), and it’s difficult to get a good grip on them when wearing an oven mitt. Most people don’t really need the extra capacity, and the large size makes Cuisinart’s Dutch oven kind of a pain to use—unless you have a gigantic stove and a large, Martha Stewart-style farmhouse sink to wash it in. It was by far the heaviest oven I tested. The bottom line is that it’s awkward to get a good grip on the piece while cooking or washing, and I worried about dropping it.
I did not test them, but Cuisinart also makes a round Dutch oven in a 5-quart capacity and a 5.5-quart oval oven. The smaller round version is too small for what most people need, and while the oval version offers a good overall size, the narrow ends can be too small to accommodate larger cuts of meat for searing. Like Lodge and Le Creuset, Cuisinart offers a lifetime repair/replacement warranty on its enameled cast-iron cookware.
Cuisinart’s oven is highly recommended by Amazon users. Out of 101 reviews, it maintains a 4.5 average, with 78% of reviewers giving five stars.
A (very large) step up
We think most people will be very happy with the Lodge, but after all the testing, it’s obvious why Le Creuset’s Signature Enameled Cast-Iron 5.5-Quart Round French Oven ($280) is essentially the bar that all others should be judged against. It is good at everything, is well designed, and has the best handles of the bunch—a trait that cannot be underestimated when you’re dealing with a hot pot of stew that weighs more than 18 pounds.
In testing, the Le Creuset turned out perfectly caramelized onions, tender rice that didn’t scorch even when purposely overcooked, and a flavorful, concentrated broth with a total evaporation of 13.79%. The cooking surface is about a half inch larger than that of the Lodge, which makes searing batches of stew meat easier. And like our top pick, the Le Creuset’s light interior makes it easy to monitor browning.
The Le Creuset also comes with a lifetime warranty. Even if the fault is yours, the company will generally offer you a replacement for 75% off the suggested retail price, as the Sweethome’s Christine Cyr Clisset found out when she recently sent her chipped pot into Le Creuset’s warranty department.
No one will tell you that Le Creuset’s Dutch oven is bad. Cook’s Illustrated likes it, giving it a perfect score. Amazon shoppers like it, and Fine Cooking likes it, calling Le Creuset “reliable and indestructible.” I like it, after hours of cooking and cleaning, and schlepping it around my kitchen. But at $280, the Le Creuset costs nearly four times as much as the Lodge, and I didn’t find that it cooked any better.
For most people, the higher price is probably not worth it. But, if you have to have the absolute best, and you use a Dutch oven several times a week, the Le Creuset’s larger handles and additional surface area may be worth the splurge.
Care and maintenance
There’s a reason cast-iron cookware gets handed down across generations—it’s durable and it lasts forever. Enameled cast iron is a little bit more delicate than the bare-metal variety, but it’s also easier to clean and maintain. The biggest concern is cracking or chipping the finish, so you should take care not to use metal utensils in an enameled piece. Instead, stick to wood, silicone, or other soft tools.
Take a small amount of care when heating cast-iron cookware. Most are safe up to 500°F (some Le Creuset come with knobs that are safe only up to 390°F, but the Dutch ovens now feature new knobs rated up to 500°F). Low to medium heat is recommended, and manufacturers tell you not to heat an empty oven—although there are plenty of home-baked bread recipes that utilize a Dutch oven as a cooking vessel. But … do so at your own risk.
You should be wary of thermal shock, which can lead to the cast iron cracking or warping, and possibly chipping the enamel. Just remember not to take a hot pot and toss it into a sink of cold water. Before washing cast iron, let it cool first.
Lisa McManus of Cook’s Illustrated told my colleague Kevin Purdy last year that any enameled cast iron is prone to tiny chips, cracks, and discoloration—even the Le Creuset pots used in the Test Kitchen—but “none of that affects cooking performance, if they’re small.”
Lodge recommends cleaning with nylon pads or scrapers rather than metal ones. The light-colored interiors of most enameled cast iron can darken slightly with use, but you can remove stains by scrubbing with a baking soda paste or soaking in a light bleach solution for a few hours. Le Creuset offers similar advice (while plugging their own Le Creuset liquid cleaner instead of abrasive cleaners).
Kirkland Signature 6.5-Quart Enameled Cast Iron Round French Oven ($90): This is from Costco’s house brand. It is made in France and cooked well for most things, but two design issues held it back. The black interior made it hard to judge color when caramelizing onions, and the flat, tab handles felt small. Those handles were not so great when trying to move a hot pot or grip it when washing. At $90, it’s more expensive than our top pick, with a few small but important flaws.
Staub 5-Quart Round Cocotte ($285): The biggest drawback of the Staub is its interior. Rather than a light, slick coating like most of the other ovens have, Staub’s coating is dark and has a slightly textured matte finish. The dark interior led to difficulties judging the color of meat when searing and the color of caramelized onions as they overcooked. They don’t mention it very prominently, but Staub intends for their matte interior to become seasoned over time. Frankly, I’m a bit skeptical of the idea of seasoning enameled cookware. The idea of doing that begs the question, Why would I buy an enameled Dutch oven if I need to season it anyway? The simpler maintenance of an enameled oven is the key selling point over unenameled versions, and if you want to do the work of seasoning your own pans, bare cast iron is cheaper and widely available. Compared with the rest of the ovens, which featured slick interiors, the Staub tended to grab on to food particles and usually required harder and more lengthy scrubbing to get clean, and, in the case of both the rice and stew tests, a second scrubbing to get the last few stubborn food particles off of the surface.
Meanwhile, the Staub’s most-talked about feature, the signature “self-basting spikes” on the inside of the lid didn’t make any discernable difference in the resulting stew—besides that it left it too watery. Staub touts its ovens’ ability to retain moisture, but for soups and braises, moisture loss translates into desirable concentrations of flavor. The Staub doesn’t have the extra performance to warrant the significantly higher price of $285.
Tramontina 6.5-Quart Covered Round Dutch Oven ($82): Relative to the other Dutch ovens, Tramontina’s is narrow and tall. It’s 10⅛ inches wide, while the similar capacity Kirkland model is an inch wider. It’s a small, but crucial difference, making the Tramontina less convenient for browning and offering less usable capacity for dealing with larger cuts of meat or larger quantities of ingredients. It’s priced similarly to our winner, but the shape makes it less usable.
Mario Batali by Dansk Classic Enameled Cast Iron 6-Quart Dutch Oven ($109): Without many reviews—there are only five on Amazon—and a price north of $100, there were better options for less money to focus our efforts on.
IKEA SENIOR ($50): The oval shape and smallish 5-quart capacity kept IKEA’s low-priced Dutch oven out of the running.
Innova Color Cast Porcelain Enameled Cast Iron Round Dutch Oven ($68): Spotty availability kept us from seriously considering this one.
Wolfgang Puck 5.6-Quart Cast Iron Dutch Oven ($120): It’s got a celeb chef endorsement, but the hefty $120 price tag, limited availability, and lack of reviews kept Puck’s Dutch oven out of our kitchen.
Wrapping it up
For its versatility with various cooking techniques, ease of use, affordable price, and good balance between size and capacity, the 6-quart Lodge Color Enamel Dutch Oven is our top pick. It is easy to clean, works on the stovetop and in the oven, has a lifetime warranty, and offers performance similar to fancier French Dutch ovens selling for several times the price. If you need something bigger, or absolutely have to go top of the line, you have options, but the 6-quart Lodge is the best bet for most home cooks.
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Originally published: January 8, 2015