The Best Dutch Oven
The Dutch oven that works in every kitchen and fits most budgets is the Lodge Color 6-Quart Dutch Oven. It's a thick, reliable, versatile and well-designed piece of cookware that is far more affordable than the big name alternative(s).
The only way to know for certain that a solid and affordable Dutch oven will work just as well as its expensive counterpart is to travel back from the future to deliver all your cooking history to yourself, à la Biff in Back to the Future Part II. You might learn that you never cooked anything that required heating up 12 servings of ingredients to a precise temperature, or that the number of times you heated more than a half-gallon of oil to fry your own french fries was exactly twice. You might note that while the Le Creuset you didn’t buy had a more refined and classic look (and maybe slightly better heat distribution) the $200 you saved on the alternative did, in fact, compound quite nicely in a retirement account. Your future self would affirm the choice of a Lodge Color.
There are many enameled cast iron pieces if you’re looking for something cheaper than a Le Creuset, but after spending dozens of hours performing side-by-side measuring and cooking tests; consulting with expert chefs, recipe testers and home cooks; questioning the production and sales practices of Le Creuset and Lodge; and reading as much as possible about the durability, performance and availability of Dutch ovens, I’ve come to believe that almost everybody will get great food for a very long time out of a Lodge, at a very nice price.
Why get a Dutch oven?
An enameled cast iron Dutch oven is very much worth its price, and it belongs in all but the tiniest kitchen. Its thick iron core takes a bit longer to heat up, but holds that heat long and evenly across its cooking surface better than aluminium, stainless steel or copper. Dutch ovens work both on direct stovetop heat or in the oven, so they can serve as both a mid-sized pot or a deep pan with seriously even heating—or both in the same session. Their naturally non-stick enamel lining makes them easy to deglaze (i.e., scrape up those tasty bits) and clean, and it prevents the taste and color transformation of traditional cast iron.
As with many investments, you’re better off spending a bit more to get as large a Dutch oven as you can fit in your kitchen now, rather than find out later you need something bigger. 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. More room also allows you to reliably brown more meat in one or two batches, and gives you more space for rich stews and casseroles, and other dishes you might not even know you’ll make yet: french fries, browned meats and their sauces, no-knead bread, pasta, and much more.
French fries? Oh, yes, french fries. Dutch ovens are actually great for deep frying; better, actually, than dedicated, electric-powered countertop fryers, which often have very imprecise temperature control and never enough room.
Serious Eats names a Dutch oven as one of the seven most essential pots and pans. Los Angeles Times food blog editor and experienced cook Amy Scattergood agrees, deeming Dutch ovens “worth it”: “I don’t even put it away; it lives on my stove… You can use them on the stove top and in the oven, for soups, braises, casseroles, boiling pasta and making sauces. I even use mine to make cobblers. They conduct heat amazingly well, are pretty enough to serve in, and they’re so durable that they’ll survive us all.”
Why the Lodge?
The Lodge 6-Quart Dutch oven earned a “Good” rating from Cook’s Illustrated, which printed its standard thorough testing of many options in January 2007. In April 2013, Cook’s Illustrated and its sister property, America’s Test Kitchen, revised that review, marking the Lodge 6-quart model as their “Best Buy.” Cook’s Illustrated noted that in particular, the Lodge turned out “glossy, deeply flavored Belgian beef stew, fluffy white rice, and crispy french fries.”
Lisa McManus, senior editor at the America’s Test Kitchen brand that includes Cook’s Illustrated and Cook’s Country, said during a March 2013 interview that the smaller size and more rounded curve of its bottom was perhaps the only real knocks against the Lodge tested in 2011. “I wouldn’t say there’s any kind of quality difference,” McManus said.
McManus also recommends buying as much Dutch oven space as you can afford when you do plunk down your money. That is due primarily to dishes that require browning and then later stewing meat, which, if requiring too many batches, can be annoying and make later batches easier to overcook. But 7½-quart Lodge models are readily available, if that sounds like an issue you’ll encounter.
J. Kenji López-Alt, a trained chef and overseer of Serious Eats’ Food Lab, gave the 6-quart Lodge a “Budget Buy” recommendation in the same January 2011 piece on essential cookware. The Lodge, he wrote, is “nearly as functional as the Le Creuset, though sautéing and heat distribution suffer just a little bit, and its capacity is not quite as large.” Asked to expand on his findings a bit, López-Alt wrote: “I’ve had a bit more experience with the Lodges and LeCreusets side-by-side since then. I find that the Lodge works perfectly well, but heat distribution is not quite as even, which is not a really a big deal, it just means you have to stir your food a little bit more often.”
Testers at Good Housekeeping singled out the Lodge as an A- Dutch Oven, with only its (relative) small surface area earning a demerit. Reviews at Chef’s Catalog and Amazon can be summed up as: the Lodge will work as well as the Le Creuset for most recipes. Jessie Cross at The Hungry Mouse blog cooked two identical short-rib-and-Guinness stews side by side, one in a Lodge and one in a Le Creuset, and conducted group blind taste tests of both. She found that “The pots really were virtually identical. The ribs from each were tender, with the meat falling off the bone. There was about the same amount of liquid left in each pot. …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.”
Amazon reviewer N. Lafond has bought many Dutch ovens, both expensive and cheap, and notes in her review that that the Lodge is much closer to Le Creuset’s weight, build and design quality, and everyday performance: “The Lodge is the same weight as the Le Creuset which is much heavier than the other budget models. The ridge where the lid and sides meet is a matte black porcelain on the Lodge and Le Creuset but is just exposed cast iron for the other budget models (which leads to rusting if you are not careful). The porcelain resists staining (even tomato sauces) in the Lodge and Le Creuset but the other budget models stain very easily. And finally, the Lodge and Le Creuset maintain a very polished interior finish that resists sticking which others do not. So, I see no performance differences at all between the Le Creuset and the Lodge whereas the comparably priced budget models are certainly inferior.”
The same goes for most of the home cooks at Food52’s Hotline section, who vouch for the everyday reliability of the Lodge. One “used it weekly for several years to make soups, bake no-knead bread, and many other stews,” while another cites the Lodge as “totally reliable” in cooking food consistently. A friend’s mother has put a 6-quart Lodge to use quite often since receiving it as a holiday gift, and has no complaints about its abilities. My father-in-law has a friend who went to culinary school in upstate New York and used only Lodge gear for his Dutch oven needs. He bought one for himself after graduation and recommends it.
Lodge’s Dutch ovens come in six pleasant colors, have a more off-white interior than Le Creuset’s beige, possess larger handles, and, perhaps most importantly in their design, have a metal knob on their lids. The phenolic (plastic) lid knob that comes standard with a Le Creuset is only oven-safe to 375 degrees Fahrenheit. That bars you from some great and convenient recipes that call for transferring your pot from the stove top to higher-temperature roasting. Le Creuset offers an official metal replacement knob for $10, but why a nearly $300 pot doesn’t come with the best attachments for cooking is a sad mystery.
YourCookwareHelper.com has a primer on Lodge’s Chinese operations, provided by Lodge. Lodge spokesman Mark Kelly told me that a Lodge-commissioned team tests samples from every single order at four stages: the iron casting, the application of French-imported enamel, the final assembly, and the arrival in the U.S. “It’s manufactured there, but we hold it to the same very strident standards as our products produced here,” Kelly said. Kelly also emphasized that, while enamel is not paint, and that some colored enamel will have metal elements, the cooking surface is free of any residues.
Asked about other differences that might explain the significant price difference between Lodge and Le Creuset, Kelly noted 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. I contacted Le Creuset through its public relations firm, by email and phone, to rebut and offer their own take on their build process, but did not receive a response.
The Lodge, like the Le Creuset, has a limited lifetime warranty. And Lodge, according to people I’ve spoken with and many reviews I’ve seen, honors that warranty through and through. Serious Eats’ López-Alt said “two out of maybe 100 [pots] I’ve seen used by family/friends/colleagues” develop acrylic cracks. Those pots were “replaced by Lodge with no questions.” Editor Brian Lam saw hairline cracks in the enamel of his Lodge, as did editorial assistant Michael Zhao. Zhao, however, admitted he had put cold water in a hot pot, a “thermal shock” to which any enamel can fall victim.
McManus, of America’s Test Kitchen, said 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.”
Nobody, pretty much anywhere, will tell you that a Le Creuset Round “French Oven” is a bad product, especially in its larger capacities. As noted, it’s what Cook’s Illustrated uses for recipe testing and on television, and it’s their top cast iron pick. It’s the price that’s not great: about $325 for a Cherry Red 7 ¼-quart model, or $275 for the 5 ½-quart model that’s too small to be really useful. If you’re willing to go outlet and bargain store hunting, or if you have a wedding or housewarming registry to fill, the price might not be a problem. And if you’re a very exacting cook who cares deeply about fond (a.k.a. the “brown bits” from pan-searing meat) and temperature recovery when deep-frying, or if you bake lots of bread, then you can appreciate Le Creuset’s 12-step finishing process guided by 15 different pairs of hands in Fresnoy-le-Grand, France, done that way since 1925. Amanda Hesser, a former New York Times food writer and co-founder of crowdsourced recipe site Food52, uses Le Creuset at home, and in the Food52 kitchens, multiple times per week. She says, “I believe Le Creuset is well priced for its quality.”
But, again, I have never heard that anyone could absolutely detect $250 worth of difference between how a Lodge cooks the food that most people make and how a Le Creuset cooks. (Hesser had Lodge cast iron at home, but not an enameled piece). What’s more, if you’re not quite experienced with Dutch oven cooking—if you send an errant metal utensil flying against the sides, or pour some hot oil into a cold pot on a hungover morning—you end up with a $300-ish serving bowl.
In its Dutch oven roundup, Cook’s Illustrated also recommended a Tramontina 6 ½-quart Cast Iron Dutch Oven. Tramontina told Cook’s Illustrated that it was discontinuing this line until a redesigned model arrived in fall 2013, which explains why it is so difficult to find.
What else is out there?
Staub Dutch ovens are made in France, offer a “matte black enamel interior,” and are absolutely beautiful pieces. They sell for about the same prices as Le Creuset models, but they are much harder to find reviewed or recommended by chefs and professionals.
The Mario Batali-branded Dutch oven from Dansk Classic was the next highest finisher in Cook’s Illustrated testing, and earned a “Best All-Around” rating from Good Housekeeping (along with, suspiciously, many other chef-branded models). But, as Good Housekeeping, Cook’s Illustrated, and reviewers at Amazon and elsewhere go out of their way to note, this thing, at 15.5 pounds, is ridiculously heavy. And at more than $100, it’s not notably better performing than its affordable competition.
Many other Dutch ovens made with aluminum, non-enamel cast iron, or other materials are not really worth visiting, unless you’re convinced you will beat up your Lodge. The combination of slow, even-heating cast iron and non-stick enamel is what you’re looking for.
There is an upscale “L-Series” of Lodge’s dutch ovens, named for the L-shaped handle. It seems to have been both temporarily discontinued and not warmly reviewed. Stick with the standard Lodge series.
I then made the same exact dishes in each pot: first, a simple “cheater” baked spinach and pea risotto, and then a 4-ounce sirloin that needed browning. On the second-largest burner of a five-burner stove, the shallots sautéing in the dead center were 8 degrees cooler than those in the direct flame ring in the Lodge, measured with an infrared thermometer; the Le Creuset difference was about 6 degrees. After cooking off wine and adding chicken stock and rice, the difference between the surface of the liquid at the edge and the center was so slight between pots as to fit in the margin of error. In most testing, differences evened out over time. I tried to glean some deeper understanding of how the two pots fared at browning sirloin steak, but both just did the job and cleaned up nicely.
Wrapping it Up
Be sure to actually read the manual or use & care section of Lodge’s site, and do so seriously—especially the parts on thermal shock and cleaning. Treat it well and a Lodge will be something you pass on with pride. It’s a hard worker that delivers great meals.
Dutch Ovens, http://www.only-cookware.com/dutch_ovens.html, June 2011,"I have a 5.5qt Dutch oven but I am cooking for 2...it could handle up to 4 quite easily as long as you don't have big eaters in the house. For 4 to 8 people I would go with a 7 quart or 9 quart oval French oven. Any more than this and you would probably be starting to look at the 13 quart or even the 15 quart oval Dutch oven."
Equipment: The 7 Most Essential Pots and Pans, Serious Eats, Jan 4, 2011,"On a Budget: the Lodge Logic Enameled Cast-Iron 6-Quart Dutch Oven ($72.40) is nearly as functional as the Le Creuset, though sauteing and heat distribution suffer just a little bit, and its capacity is not quite as large."
Worth It? Not Worth It?, Los Angeles Times, Oct. 8, 2008,"I think I've used it more than all the rest of the pots and pans in my kitchen -- combined -- since then. I don't even put it away; it lives on my stove. These lidded pots usually cost $100 to $200 (the price varies a lot, depending on the size and manufacturer), but you can use them on the stove top and in the oven, for soups, braises, casseroles, boiling pasta and making sauces. I even use mine to make cobblers. They conduct heat amazingly well, are pretty enough to serve in, and they're so durable that they'll survive us all. Bargain cast-iron Dutch ovens from the hardware store may not be as pretty, but at a fraction of the price, they'll work almost as well."
Dutch Ovens, Cook's Illustrated, Jan. 1, 2007 (updated April 2013),"Our Best Buy recommendation is now the Lodge Color Enamel 6-Quart Dutch Oven"
Lodge Color Enamel 6-Quart Dutch Oven, Cook's Illustrated, Jan. 1, 2007 (updated April 2013),"Crafted from enameled cast iron, and like the Tramontina produced glossy, deeply flavored Belgian beef stew; fluffy white rice; and crispy French fries in the test kitchen."
Lodge Color Enamel Cast Iron Dutch Oven, 6 qt., CHEFS Catalog,"An overall excellent product. Quality of workmanship is what you would expect from Lodge. It heats evenly and uniformly and worked better than I expected on a glass stovetop. Equal to or surpasses similar products at three times the price."
Dutch Oven Battle: Lodge vs. Le Creuset, The Hungry Mouse, June 6, 2011,"In the end, the Lodge performed just as well as my tried-and-true Le Creuset. I highly recommend the Lodge pot. It did the same work that my Le Creuset did, at a fraction of the cost. If we had a money tree in the backyard, I’d have cabinets full of Le Creuset and the like. However, until then, if I needed new cast iron now, I wouldn’t think twice: I’d definitely go for a Lodge."
Lodge Color Porcelain Enamel on Cast Iron Dutch Oven Read more: Lodge Color Porcelain Enamel on Cast Iron Dutch Oven Review , Good Housekeeping, January 2013,"One of the few pots that browns equally well on both gas and electric ranges ... Its steady simmer means you won't have to stir as frequently and it’s simple to clean when dinner is done. Stew came out tender and flavorful too."
Le Creuset on a budget, Amazon.com review, Oct. 24, 2007,"I see no performance differences at all between the Le Creuset and the Lodge whereas the comparably priced budget models are certainly inferior."
Cast Iron Dutch Oven, Food52 Forums, May 2012,"Personally, I don't think Le Creuset is worth the $$. Luckily, Lodge also has a line of enameled cast iron dutch ovens,. The 7.5 qt costs about $65 which is such a bargain compared to the $290 Le Creuset 7.5 qt. And Lodge is a highly regarded manufacturer who has been making cast iron products since 1896."
Lodge - About Us: Our History, Lodge, 2010"It was here that Joseph Lodge and his wife settled and, in 1896 opened his first foundry."
Lodge Cookware, Your Cookware Helper, Sept. 2010"Representatives from the upper management level of our Company, as well as some of our Manufacturing experts travel to China several times a year to inspect the manufacturing facilities and the process being used to make sure that our cookware is being produced per our stringent guidelines. A third party American company located in China has been enlisted to perform random inspections of the Chinese manufacture’s facilities and process. We periodically send imported product samples to independent labs for analysis. Porcelain enamel is a glass coating, not lead paint, and is used for a variety of food related purposes, including cookware, pottery and grills. Porcelain enamel has proven to be safe and attractive coating for cookware."
"There is not a written warranty for Lodge Cast Iron Cookware, however, we do stand behind every product manufactured. For product problems, please contact Lodge Customer Service and we will solve the problem to your satisfaction. Lodge Enamel Cookware is covered by a Limited Lifetime Warranty."
Outlet store buying guide, Consumer Reports, April 2013"Indeed, when our reporter shopped for seconds at several outlet centers in the New York metropolitan region, they were tough to find (except at Le Creuset, where he could buy chipped cookware at 35 percent off the if-perfect price)"
Enameled Cast Iron - Use & Care, Lodge, 2010