How we tested
Is there anything you can't do with a Dutch oven? We use these large, heavy-duty pots for boiling, searing, frying, braising, and baking food and for sous vide cooking. We turn them into smokers, steamers, coolers, and panini presses. They might just be the busiest pots in our kitchen.
Our longtime favorite, the Le Creuset 7¼ Quart Round Dutch Oven, works perfectly, but at $367.99, it costs a pretty penny. At the other end of the spectrum is a classic cast-iron model that costs seven times less—and there's a pot in every price bracket in between. So how much do you need to spend to get a Dutch oven that will last for years, is capable of cooking everything you throw at it, and makes said cooking as easy as possible?
To find out, we surveyed the options and chose 11 widely available Dutch ovens priced from $54.31 to $367.99, including the Le Creuset and our top inexpensive option, the Cuisinart Chef's Classic Enameled Cast Iron Covered Casserole ($83.70). Each held at least 6.5 quarts, a capacity that works well for all our recipes. We put them through a litany of tests, rating each pot on the quality of its food, how easy it was to use and clean, and how durable it was. At the end of testing—after a whole lot of cooking and eating—we concluded that all of these pots are capable of making good food, but some were much easier to use. Here's what mattered.
Lighter, thinner Dutch ovens tend to scorch food because the heat zips right through them. With that in mind, we focused on heavier ceramic and cast-iron models. The only ceramic model we tested weighed 9.75 pounds; the cast-iron pots ranged from 13.7 to 18.15 pounds. We had hoped that the ceramic might provide a lighter alternative to cast iron, but it proved too fragile for such a workhorse pot. We were nervous handling it, and the lid cracked when we firmly set it on the base from a mere 2 inches above. This left us with the cast-iron models and our next question: coated or uncoated?
All but one of the cast-iron pots were coated with enamel, a type of glass; we tested one uncoated Dutch oven from Lodge, the maker of our winning traditional cast-iron skillet. Like the skillet, it arrived fully seasoned but required extra care, as it has to be dried and oiled immediately after washing. This isn't particularly hard, but it was more work.
In the past, when we tested the uncoated Lodge Dutch oven, we found that food cooked in it sometimes tasted metallic. This time around, though, we were pleasantly surprised. Tasters didn't notice any off-flavors in the food, even after we simmered an acidic tomato sauce (acid can strip the pot's seasoning) and then cooked fairly neutral white rice and French fries. A representative from Lodge said that the company is constantly improving its equipment, so newer pots may have more-durable seasoning.
Seeing the Light: Interior Color Is Key
Like the uncoated model, four of the enameled Dutch ovens had dark interiors. This made it difficult to monitor browning and to see how dark our fond got as we seared beef. It also made it more challenging to use our remote thermometer, which we often clip onto our Dutch oven to track the temperature of oil while frying. Dark interiors prevented us from easily spotting the tip of the probe to ensure that it wasn't touching the pot, which can cause it to give a false reading. Overall, lighter interiors provided better visibility and were easier to cook in.
Broader Pots Are More Efficient
Some pots were tall and narrow; others were short and broad. We preferred those with generous cooking surfaces—at least 9 inches across. More usable surface area meant we could work faster, particularly when browning in batches. We also preferred low, straight sides, as tall or curved sides tended to partially block our view into the pot.
A Helping Handle
Because we prefer heavier Dutch ovens, handles are hugely important, particularly when the pot is weighed down with stew or quarts of frying oil. There were two handle styles in our lineup: flat and looped. The flat handles stuck out from the sides of the pot like tabs, the looped ones like semicircles. We much preferred the latter style because the loops allowed for a fuller, more secure grip; bigger loops were even better, especially when oven mitts were in the mix.
A Pot for Every Kitchen
In the end, we're able to recommend all but two models; however, the Le Creuset 7¼ Quart Round Dutch Oven ($367.99) is still the best. At 13.7 pounds, it was the lightest of the cast-iron models, yet it was still heavy enough to conduct heat well. With a broad, light-colored cooking surface; low, straight sides; and large looped handles, it was also exceptionally easy to use.
For a less expensive option, we again recommend the Cuisinart Chef's Classic Enameled Cast Iron Covered Casserole ($83.70) as our Best Buy. It's shaped very similarly to the Le Creuset, with a broad cooking surface and low, straight sides for maximum efficiency and easy maneuvering. It's 3 pounds heavier than our winner and has smaller handles, but it costs almost $300.00 less. Like most of the models in our lineup, both of these pots come with a limited lifetime warranty. But the Le Creuset held up better to the kind of everyday wear and tear not covered by the warranty; the rim and lid of the Cuisinart model chipped cosmetically during our durability tests, while our winner emerged from testing looking as good as new.
We tested 11 Dutch ovens, priced from $54.31 to $367.99: nine made from enamel-coated cast iron, one from uncoated cast iron, and another from ceramic. We used each to boil water, cook rice, braise beef, make French fries, bake bread, sear meatballs, and simmer the meatballs in tomato sauce. To test durability, we scrubbed each pot clean with an abrasive sponge 10 times, whacked the rim of each pot with a metal spoon 50 times, and firmly settled each lid onto the base 25 times. We measured and weighed each pot (total weight includes lid). Prices are what we paid online, and the pots are listed in order of preference.
Cooking: We boiled water, cooked rice, braised beef, fried French fries, seared meatballs, simmered sauce, and baked bread. All the pots we tested were able to make properly cooked food.
Ease of Use: We evaluated the pots on how easy they were to cook in, clean, and move around. Medium-weight pots with large, comfortable handles; broad, light-colored cooking surfaces; smooth lids; and low, straight sides rated highest.
Durability: We beat up the pots to make sure they could withstand years of heavy use. Those that didn't chip or crack rated highest.