The Best Cast Iron Dutch Ovens

[Photographs: Emily Dryden]

Long before multi-cookers came along, cast iron Dutch ovens were the original kitchen multitaskers. These heavy, bombproof pots date back to colonial America, when their design often included short legs, to rest on a hearth's floor, and a rimmed lid to hold fiery coals. Later, the French company Le Creuset's 1925 design removed the legs, added a domed lid, and forever changed the Dutch oven by coating it in enamel. The enamel protects the raw cast iron from rusting, means that it doesn't require any seasoning, and gives the pot a somewhat nonstick surface.

A Dutch oven owes a lot of its versatility to cast iron's excellent heat retention, but the pot's shape—short and wide enough for searing meats, yet still deep enough for wet dishes like braises and stews—enables you to cook a range of foods, especially dishes that require browning meats and vegetables first, followed by a simmering phase in a cooking liquid. During the weekday, you'll use one of these pots for soups, sauces, stews, and rice dishes, or maybe to upgrade fried chicken. When time allows, you can reach for the same Dutch oven to turn out perfectly crusty bread or tender braised meat. A Dutch oven is one of the most reliable pieces of cookware in your kitchen; properly cared for, it should also last a lifetime.

But that lifetime of utility can cost you hundreds. Our question was, does it have to? To find out, we tested 12 enameled cast iron Dutch ovens with capacities of between five and six quarts (the size we find best suited to most homes), ranging from $45 to $330. Our goal: to find ones that perform well, are durable, and are comfortable to lift and carry.

Our Favorites, at a Glance

The Best Heritage Cast Iron Dutch Ovens: 5 1/2-Quart Le Creuset Signature Series and 5 1/2-Quart Staub Round Cocotte

There's a reason Le Creuset continues to be one of the most recommended manufacturers in this category: It has a proven track record. We've used Le Creuset for years in our homes and test kitchen, reaching for it countless times to develop hundreds of recipes for Serious Eats, and it's never let us down. The price is high, but Le Creuset has never failed to make the purchase worth it. While Le Creusets are available in more than 17 core colors, about half of them ship with a black phenolic knob that can handle up to 500°F; given the price, we'd like to see all their pots come with the brand's heavier-duty stainless steel knob option.

Like Le Creuset, Staub has a long history of making handsome enameled cast iron in France, and it costs a little less. Some home cooks may not like the black enamel interior, which does a fine job of hiding scratches and browns meat well, but can make it harder to see fond developing. Otherwise, this Dutch oven, available in nine colors, is a solid bet with a reputation for durability.

The Best Budget Cast Iron Dutch Ovens: 6-Quart Martha Stewart Dutch Oven Casserole and 5-Quart Cuisinart Chef's Classic Round Covered Casserole

The Martha Stewart Dutch oven offers plenty of bottom surface for browning, performed well in all tests, and costs less than $100—a hard-to-beat price given its ample six-quart size. If looks matter to you, it's one of the only affordable pots with a design that rivals that of the heritage brands. At nearly 14 pounds, this pot is weighty, but with its large handles, we always felt in control. We were concerned about the Consumer Product Safety Commission's 2011 recall of the brand's enameled Dutch ovens, due to reports of the pots cracking during use, but the manufacturer told us they've since switched to a new Chinese factory.

Cuisinart's Dutch oven scored near the top in our cooking tests (though it's worth keeping in mind that, with few exceptions, differences in performance were small). Despite this pot's smaller, five-quart size, it has a roomy base that was able to comfortably accommodate more food at once than many of the larger contenders. The Cuisinart is a third to a quarter of the cost of the premium French brands, but there are some online reviews describing chipping or cracking enamel, meaning you could be rolling the dice on the pot's longevity. If the Cuisinart is out of stock, we found the 5 1/2–quart Tramontina to be a very solid choice. Both brands offer their Dutch ovens only in red or blue.

The Criteria: What We Look for in a Great Enameled Cast Iron Dutch Oven

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Dutch ovens can be made from steel or cast iron, both with and without an enamel coating. For this review, we targeted enameled cast iron only, because that's the type we find to be best suited to the dishes we usually make in this type of pot—stews and braises, chilis and hearty ragùs. We prefer cast iron for many of these dishes because of its great heat retention, and enamel because it offers a protective coating that's easy to cook in and clean. Acidic dishes, such as sauces and stews that call for tomato or wine, can develop a metallic taste after spending hours in plain seasoned cast iron, making enamel an even more important factor.

Dutch ovens also come in two common shapes (not including those kitschy heart- and pumpkin-shaped ones): round and oval. While the latter can be helpful for certain kinds of oblong roasts, a round Dutch oven is more practical for most recipes, so that's the kind we settled on for this review.

Finally, we limited our tests to Dutch ovens that had a capacity of between five and six quarts. While enameled cast iron Dutch ovens come in everything from cute 1/4-quart to massive 13 1/2–quart sizes, a five- to six-quart pot is the most practical size for most homes, as it should make enough food for four to six people. Go any smaller and a typical recipe might overflow the pot; bigger pots can end up underfilled, potentially affecting the outcome of a recipe (though if you regularly cook for larger crowds, bigger may well be the way to go).

To choose which Dutch ovens to test, we considered best-selling options from major retailers like Amazon, and cross-referenced reviews from other reputable brands, like America's Test Kitchen (subscription required) and The Sweethome.

Our research revealed that the cast iron Dutch oven market falls into three pricing categories: the premium, French-made brands Staub and Le Creuset, which cost $200 or more; mid-tier models in the $100–150 range, usually made in China; and lower-cost brands that come in at under $100, also made in China. More than half of our testing field came from the last category, proving that there is some stiff competition for your Dutch oven dollar.

While an increasing number of brands are producing enameled cast iron Dutch ovens, the pot's basic design has changed very little over the years. The main differences from one pot to the next come down to small (but sometimes important) variations in form, and more or less stringent oversight of the production process. One of the main selling points of the heritage brands, like Le Creuset and Staub, is that they operate their own factories and are therefore able to maintain higher production standards. The engineers at the Staub foundry, for example, adjust the moisture of the sand in the molds that form their Dutch ovens daily based on the air's humidity. At Le Creuset's factory in Fresnoy-le-Grand, about two hours north of Paris, 15 employees inspect every pot before it ships out.

Ultimately, though, most of the brands we talked to were pretty tight-lipped about the specifics of their manufacturing process (good luck getting much info about how the enamel coating differs from one manufacturer to the next). Still, we can safely say that what makes a great pot is a closely controlled molding process for the cast iron, followed by a quality enamel finish, usually applied in two coats. We appreciate the kind of quality control practiced by the heritage brands and the durability it tends to promise, but we can certainly see a counterargument—take your chances spending less, and if it does one day fail, just replace it.

In the end, the most important attribute in a Dutch oven is how well it cooks food, both on the range and in the oven. Despite what you may have been told, iron is not a great conductor of heat, and needs time and a relatively large burner to heat evenly before you can properly sear meat in it. The glossy enamel, while definitely not Teflon, should release stuck-on foods without shredding them to bits.

As for form, a few small details can make a big difference. Small pot handles can be difficult to grip securely, especially when you're using mitts or pot holders. The knob on the lid is similarly important. It should be durable and easy to grab, a basic fact some brands didn't seem to grasp (literally!). One maker went with a whimsical daisy-flower design for its knob, with pointy metal petals jutting out from all sides. Another pot had sharp corners that dug into our fingers and palms.

A Note About Warranties

All of the enameled cast iron Dutch ovens we tested are backed by a lifetime warranty. Despite some big price differences, they are fairly consistent from brand to brand. Does spending more get you a better warranty? No, but it might buy you a warranty without a lot of loopholes, from a company with a better reputation for honoring it. We don't have much evidence, beyond anecdotal information that the best-known brands—Le Creuset, Staub, and Lodge come to mind—are pretty good about it. Whether that's worth considering when you plunk down your card for a new pot is up to you.

The Testing

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Heat Conduction and Retention

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We photographed the Dutch ovens with a thermal camera to see how heat spread around the pots, but we couldn't see much of a difference from brand to brand.

The first question we had about our lineup of enameled cast iron Dutch ovens was whether there was much difference from one to the next in how they conducted and retained heat. We know that iron in general is a poor conductor of heat, and a great retainer of it, but given that each pot has a different mass and slightly different build, including variations in floor and wall thickness, it's conceivable that some would conduct heat better than others, while others might retain the heat better.

We tested heat conduction by placing each Dutch oven on an induction burner set to a fixed, moderate heat setting. We then snapped photos with a thermal imaging camera and measured floor and wall heat in timed increments with an infrared thermometer. (We did the latter in a dark room to reduce the effect of reflective light on our measurements.)

We then tested heat retention by preheating each lidded pot in the same 350°F (180°C) oven, then recording the pots' loss of heat in both the walls and the floors using the infrared thermometer.

While our methods of measuring the temperature of the pots weren't perfect (because slight variations in the enamel coating of each pot could impact the accuracy of the infrared thermometer's readings), they gave us a decent enough picture to confidently draw an interesting conclusion: There isn't a significant difference that sets one enameled cast iron Dutch oven apart from another in terms of thermal properties. They all heated and cooled in remarkably similar patterns and at remarkably similar rates. This is not the area where one pot will distinguish itself.

Rating Dutch Oven Design

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As we washed, cooked with, lifted, and examined the pots, we noticed which details made certain Dutch ovens more user-friendly, and which frustrated us. As described above, handle and knob design was one of the more important design factors we encountered (a fact that speaks to the overall sameness of most Dutch ovens in both design and performance).

Some aspects of a Dutch oven's build turned out to be not as important as we had expected. We measured the thickness of the wall and the bottom of each Dutch oven and found that there wasn't much of a correlation between those numbers and performance. Our top picks were all over the map in terms of bottom thickness, with the Cuisinart the thickest (followed closely by the Staub) and the Le Creuset on the thinner side. And yet they all performed well in cooking tests.

Enamel quality, meanwhile, was difficult to assess. In many cases, failures can occur after many months or years of consistent use—not something we could easily reproduce in our tests. Still, we tried some more extreme abuse trials to see if we could uncover any obvious differences in quality. We banged the pot bottoms together and smacked the insides with a metal measuring cup to see if we could chip the finish. Some pots retained slight scuff marks from the metal, but most wiped clean with minimal effort, and none chipped. The test proved to be a great stress reliever, but it didn't help us eliminate any of the contenders.

Nearly all the pots washed up easily, too. Some manufacturers are okay with cleaning the cast iron in a dishwasher, though with time—after around 500 washes, we were told by one of the makers—the enamel can dull. A hazy finish won't change the performance, but we'll stick to hand-washing, using dish soap and a scratch-free nylon sponge for daily cleanings, to keep the pots looking their best.

Cooking Jambalaya

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To see how well the Dutch ovens cooked on a stovetop and in the oven, we used them to make Creole-style red jambalaya with chicken, sausage, and shrimp. This one dish tests Dutch ovens in a few key areas: searing meats and sautéing vegetables on the stovetop, then slow-cooking everything in a simmering broth in the oven.

Phase 1: Browning Chicken and Developing Fond Without Too Much Sticking

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This is what you don't want: chicken that sticks so much it pulls apart when you flip it. Luckily, only one Dutch oven failed this test.

Using just enough oil to grease each pot, we expected the boneless chicken thighs in our recipe to quickly brown over moderately high heat. Here, we uncovered a rare quality that really does distinguish one cast iron pot from another: the bottom surface area.

A larger surface area is critically important, since it reduces crowding and allows better, faster, more efficient searing. In the end, we just couldn't abide pots that skimped on surface area for searing. All our winning models had bottoms that were a minimum of eight inches in diameter, or very close to it.

Beyond that, only one pot grabbed a disqualification in this phase of the test, because its enamel coating latched onto the chicken so hard that the meat shredded dramatically when we attempted to lift it. That's fine for ropa vieja, but not much else.

Phase 2: Wet Cooking

The beauty of a Dutch oven is that you can start by developing lots of browning on the stovetop, then dump in liquid and simmer, braise, or boil, either continuing on the stovetop or moving the pot to the oven to finish. That kind of versatility comes in handy for all sorts of dishes, from a meat stew to a baked rice dish to slow-cooked baked beans.

The rice for our jambalaya requires wet cooking—simmering the rice, meats, and vegetables in the cooking liquid—but it also tests how evenly the pots cook, since the goal is to have all the liquid absorbed by the rice by the time it's all done.

We expected to pull the pots from the oven, pop open the lids, and find evenly cooked rice. Instead, we found mixed results. Our winning Dutch ovens developed a flavorful jambalaya and plump grains, but a few other models struggled with this, leaving pockets of inconsistently cooked rice. One underperforming pot produced an abundance of undercooked grains, bordering on raw, earning a disqualification. (After noticing variation in rice doneness, we wondered whether this had to do with some pots losing more moisture than others while covered, but after testing evaporation rates with plain water, we saw no correlation between the amount of moisture lost and how well cooked the rice was.)

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Out of the oven, our winning pots delivered a flavorful jambalaya with consistently cooked rice.

How We Chose Our Winners

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After testing the Dutch ovens, it was clear to us that they were mostly pretty close in terms of overall performance, which means the line between a premium model and an entry-level-priced one comes down to a few key details and the reputations of their warranties.

The Best Heritage Cast Iron Dutch Ovens: 5 1/2–Quart Le Creuset Signature Series and 5 1/2–Quart Staub Round Cocotte

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The Le Creuset cast iron Dutch oven is a beautiful pot that comes in 17 core colors, plus special editions. Weighing just over 11 pounds, the 5 1/2–quart Le Creuset isn't as heavy as many of the other models we tested (the candidates in our test field averaged 13 pounds), but that didn't appear to affect performance. On the stovetop, it cooks very well: There wasn't an excessive amount of sticking when we browned chicken thighs, and the fond that developed was easy to see because of the contrast against the interior enamel's beige color. The Signature line has larger handles than the older Classic model, which we're all for—it makes the pot easier to grab and carry. We can also vouch for Le Creuset products' longevity, given that we've used their pots for years at work and home without any major complaints. Splurging for the Le Creuset means investing in a reputation that's backed by generations of satisfied users all over the world and a warranty that anecdotal evidence says you can rely on. The Signature pot comes in sizes ranging from one to 13 1/4 quarts.

What we didn't like: With a pot floor that's 7 13/16 inches in diameter, the Le Creuset is just under the eight inches we like to see in Dutch ovens, and it's tighter than other 5 1/2–quart models we tested. While our Le Creuset testing unit came with a stainless steel knob, other models feature a black phenolic knob oven-safe to 500°F. While the black knob can handle plenty of heat, we think the metal knob, which is a $16 upgrade from Le Creuset, should be standard on all their Dutch ovens.

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Rounding out the heritage set of options, Staub's Dutch oven performed well in all our testing. While it's the same 5 1/2–quart capacity as the Le Creuset, the Staub is heavier by one pound. Large side handles and a tall, easy-to-grab knob on the lid make handling the pot easy.

With a pot floor 8 5/16 inches in diameter, it accommodates more food at once for searing, making crowding less of an issue. The fond that develops comes up easily with just a little scraping from a wooden spoon, making it even more of a pleasure to use.

One signature Staub detail is the flat lid. The underside of the top is dotted with raised dimples, which the company claims helps promote even distribution of condensed water back onto the food, though we haven't been able to think of a cooking scenario in which this would really matter. Another detail worth noting is the black enamel interior, which, for some less experienced home cooks, might make seeing the brown fond a little more difficult. The Staub Dutch oven comes in sizes ranging from 1/4 to 13 1/4 quarts.

Staub also has a solid reputation for standing behind its lifetime warranty. The company is the only one we found that didn't mind cooks using coals on their pot lids, which replicates an oven-like environment outdoors. During our research, we didn't turn up many complaints about Staub cast iron failing.

What we didn't like: Not much, unless not being able to see the fond clearly against the darker background is important to you (we managed just fine regardless).

The Best Budget Cast Iron Dutch Ovens: 6-Quart Martha Stewart Dutch Oven Casserole and 5-Quart Cuisinart Chef's Classic Round Covered Casserole

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The Martha Stewart Dutch oven is a big pot with good performance and a budget-friendly price tag, under $100. It doesn't hurt that it boasts a handsome design in nine different enamel colors.

The beige pot bottom is 9 1/8 inches in diameter and fit all the chicken thighs without crowding, allowing us to develop good browning and fond without any trouble. At nearly 14 pounds, it was the heaviest pot in the test, but it also has some of the best handles, which help make that weight less of an issue. Even with oven mitts, we were able to easily lift and transport the pot without straining or fear of dropping it. The pot's design is simple and uncluttered.

We had one concern regarding the pot's durability: In 2011, the company recalled its Dutch ovens for faulty and potentially dangerous enamel. We spoke to the company about it and were told that they've since changed manufacturing facilities in China, which was good to hear—though we did find at least one online review of a Martha Stewart pot, purchased in spring 2016, that describes the enamel fracturing. What we don't know is whether that damage was due to user error or a manufacturing defect. We'll keep an eye on the Martha Stewart Dutch oven as we continue to cook with it and will update this review accordingly.

What we didn't like: While the language of the warranty is consistent with those for the other Dutch oven manufacturers, you will have to work a little harder to maintain the Martha Stewart pot: It's the only Dutch oven we tested whose pot and lid edges are not coated in clear enamel, so you have to treat these areas like traditional cast iron and season them with vegetable oil after washing.

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Cuisinart's Dutch oven, meanwhile, is proof that price alone isn't an indicator of performance. At just $70, this one performed admirably in our cooking tests. It features comfy handles and a simple design that's attractive enough, though it comes only in blue or red.

Manufactured in China, the Cuisinart performed nearly as well as the pricier pots, at a third to a quarter of the cost of the French brands. Despite the smaller, five-quart size, the bottom of this pot is just over eight inches in diameter (larger than the Le Creuset), offering ample surface for good, uncrowded browning. We developed fond easily, though we did have to work a little harder to scrape it off the bottom of the pot on the stovetop.The Cuisinart is available in other sizes as well, from two to eight quarts.

The Cuisinart has an overwhelmingly positive online reputation, and the warranty coverage is similar to that of more expensive Dutch ovens. Despite this, we did find a few reviews that complained about chipping and denied warranty claims. Suffice it to say, this isn't the heirloom pot you'll likely be leaving to your next of kin.

What we didn't like: The Cuisinart retains heat very well out of the oven, but its handles also got warmer than most when we were working over a burner, forcing us to keep pot holders nearby as we sweated vegetables.

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If the Cuisinart isn't available, we also found the 5 1/2–quart Tramontina to be a very solid choice that's comparable in cost, though it has fewer online reviews that vouch for the durability of its enamel; it, too, comes in only red or blue.