How we tested
At a recent tastings and testings team meeting, we played a fun game: Each of us named our top five must-have pieces of cookware. My number one pick was a braiser. My enameled cast-iron braiser pretty much lives on my kitchen stove, ready to tackle anything from chili to sautéed greens to shakshuka to roast chicken.
Traditionally defined, braising is a wet-heat cooking method that’s used to turn tough cuts of meat tender. The meat is typically browned on the stovetop before liquid is added, and then it’s cooked either on the stovetop or in the oven for a relatively long period of time to break down the meat fibers. Most braising recipes call for a Dutch oven that’s large enough to accommodate the food, but a braiser—a round pan that is shallower than a Dutch oven, with sloped sides to contain liquid and a wide cooking surface for browning—can also be used for braising all types of foods. However, the shallowness of this pan does limit what you can braise—large roasts, such as the bottom rounds or chuck-eye roasts called for in pot roast recipes, won’t fit.
Like a Dutch oven, a braiser has two handles for easy transport and a lid to retain moisture and is usually made from enameled cast iron, which is great for heat retention. Its sloped sides allow for the easy maneuvering of food when browning. It can also function as a roasting pan, since it is large enough to hold a 5-pound chicken. A bonus: Most braisers are attractive enough to go from the stovetop to the table as serving dishes.
To find out which braiser is best, we selected five models, priced from about $59 to about $330. While one of the models was ceramic, the rest were made of enameled cast iron (we didn’t find any models that were traditional cast iron). We focused on braisers that were about 3.5 quarts, as this size accommodates enough food to serve four. While there were some stainless-steel braisers on the market, we focused on ceramic and cast-iron braisers since these are the same materials we reviewed when we tested large Dutch ovens. We used each to make One-Pan Lemon-Braised Chicken Thighs with Chickpeas and Fennel; meatballs in tomato sauce; Mediterranean Braised Green Beans with Mint and Feta Cheese; Weeknight Roast Chicken; and Pork, Fennel, and Lemon Ragu with Pappardelle.
Cooking in a Braiser
While all the braisers produced well-cooked chicken thighs, meatballs, green beans, roast chicken, and ragu, we did find that pans made from enameled cast iron browned food better than the ceramic braiser.
The manufacturer of the ceramic braiser boasted that it was 30 percent lighter than the enameled cast-iron models, which weighed between 12 and 14 pounds. However, at about 7 pounds, the ceramic braiser felt comparatively flimsy. It also browned food unevenly. Some of the chicken thighs and pieces of fennel browned thoroughly, but not others. A few of the meatballs burned, and onions took longer to soften. By contrast, all the cast-iron braisers browned food evenly without burning it. Metals such as cast iron tend to be great heat conductors because of their molecular structure, in which electrons travel freely and convey energy through the material. Ceramic has a rigid, lattice-like molecular structure, which makes it a much poorer conductor of heat.
In addition to being made from heat-retaining cast iron, our higher-ranking pans were thicker than the ceramic pan. We measured the thickness of the braisers and found that their cooking surfaces ranged from 0.33 to 0.58 inches thick. The thickest enameled cast-iron pan took extra time to brown chicken thighs, as it had more material and thus took longer to fully heat up. Our top two pans, with thicknesses that measured 0.47 and 0.50 inches, heated up quickly, provided more even heat, and finished cooking food within the time frames specified in recipes.
As we have learned while reviewing most cookware, the shape and size of the pan can greatly influence the quality of the cooked food. This is why we preferred pans with slightly wider cooking surfaces (the pans we tested ranged from 9.5 to 10.4 inches wide). Pans on the smaller end of the spectrum struggled to fit a 4-pound whole chicken. Liquid also evaporated more slowly in these narrower pans, so it took longer than the stated times to cook recipes with large amounts of liquid, such as the braised green beans and the pork ragu. We found these dishes to be more watery and to have less concentrated flavor than the dishes made in the other pans. We liked pans with cooking surfaces that measured at least 10 inches and that evaporated liquids quickly.
Three of the braisers had self-basting lids, with spikes on their undersides designed to drip condensation back onto the food. However, we didn’t see any measurable benefit to the foods we cooked in these pans—the same conclusion we reached when we tested large Dutch ovens equipped with the same type of lid.
How Easy Are Braisers to Use?
One lower-ranked braiser had stubby, small handles and a rounded ceramic lid knob that were hard to grasp. When using a braiser that weighs more than 10 pounds empty, it’s important to have good handles that are easy to grab with oven mitts. We preferred pans with wide, large handles that were easy to grasp—especially when transferring heavy, full pans into and out of the oven. Our two favorite braisers had looped handles that were the widest in the lineup—and one of them had handles that were slightly angled upward, which made the pan even easier to grab. Our favorite braiser also had a wide, easy-to-grip lid knob.
While the interior color of the braisers had no effect on cooking, we found that light interiors made it easier to see the food we cooked. One of the cast-iron pans had a black enameled interior that made it difficult to monitor browning and to see fond developing on the surface of the pan.
Wall height was another factor that contributed to our overall cooking experience. All the braisers had walls that were about 2 inches tall, which facilitated evaporation but also posed a minor challenge: We had to be more careful when stirring the contents of these pans than we would be if we were cooking in a saucepan or Dutch oven with higher walls so as to avoid littering the stovetop with bits of chopped onion, green beans, or broth that escaped over their low sides.
We washed all the braisers by hand after cooking each recipe, and they all proved easy to clean. To see if they’d hold up over time, we did a few things we don’t recommend but that home cooks often do: We whacked the rim of each braiser with a metal spoon 50 times and slammed their lids down repeatedly. Only one of the braisers, an enameled cast-iron model, chipped minimally. While this isn’t a deal breaker, our favorite braisers did not chip or crack.
The Best Braiser: Le Creuset Signature Enameled Cast-Iron 3.5-Quart Round Braiser
Our favorite braiser, the Le Creuset Signature Enameled Cast-Iron 3.5-Quart Round Braiser (priced at about $300) was great to cook in and simple to use. Its light interior made it easy for us to monitor progress; it produced evenly browned, moist chicken thighs and well-seared meatballs (both thanks to its enameled cast-iron construction); and it made flavorful pork ragu. Overall, everything we made in this versatile pan turned out great. We really liked its large, wide, looped handles, which were easy to grasp with oven mitts or dish towels and felt secure when we were moving a roast chicken out of the oven. The knob on the pan’s lid was also large and felt secure. And when we whacked the rim of the pan with a metal spoon 50 times and slammed its lid down repeatedly, it didn’t chip or crack.
We can also recommend the Tramontina Enameled Cast Iron Covered Braiser as our Best Buy. Priced at about $62, this braiser produced food that was on par with the Le Creuset, but it had smaller handles that were slightly tougher to grip.
While we still think you need a Dutch oven for making large braises, soups, and stews; for deep frying; and for baking bread, we did really like braisers. We appreciated their low sides, which made it easy to add and retrieve food; the ease with which they browned chicken thighs and meatballs; their accompanying lids; and their two handles that made them easy to lift. Our favorite braisers were also about 1 to 3 pounds lighter than our favorite Dutch ovens, making them easier to lift when full. So while a braiser won’t replace a Dutch oven, we do think it makes a worthy addition to your cookware collection.
- We tested five braisers, priced from about $59 to about $330. Four were made from enameled cast-iron, and one was a ceramic model.
- Make One-Pan Lemon-Braised Chicken Thighs with Chickpeas and Fennel
- Brown meatballs all over and then simmer them in tomato sauce, counting how many meatballs fit in each pan
- Make Mediterranean Braised Green Beans with Mint and Feta Cheese
- Make Weeknight Roast Chicken
- Cook Pork, Fennel, and Lemon Ragu with Pappardelle
- Wash each pan by hand after each test
- Whack each pan around the rim with a metal spoon 50 times
- Slam the lid down onto each pan 25 times
Cooking: We evaluated the finished food, noting if the braisers were able to brown food thoroughly, cook food evenly, and evaporate moisture adequately.
Ease of Use: We evaluated how easy it was to monitor browning, pick up and move the pans, and lift their lids.
Cleanup: We looked at how easy the pots and lids were to clean.
Durability: We evaluated whether the pans were able to withstand being whacked with a metal spoon and having their lids slammed down repeatedly without chipping.