Note: For an update to this post, and some discussion of the new Staub, check out A Tale of Two Dutch Ovens: Redux.
The hullabaloo of the holidays is behind us and a foot of snow is blanketing the hillsides here in New York. It’s the perfect time for soups, stews, long, slow braises that keep the kitchen warm and smelling delightful all day long, right? Well, maybe you already have your trusty Dutch oven all primed for a long & snowy winter. Or maybe Santa left one for you under the tree (or beside the menorah or the Kwanzaa table). Or maybe, just maybe, you’ve decided to peruse the post-holiday sales and pick one up for yourself. Well, just in case you think one of those bargain brands looks like a real deal – think again.
The picture above shows my two Dutch ovens: the one on the left is a Mario Batali 4-quart that I bought at my local kitchen store for about $100 back in February of 2009. At the time, it seemed like a sweet deal to me: enameled cast iron, just like the Le Creuset versions that were about $275, with braising spikes in the lid, an oven-safe handle and in my favorite green. But the very first time I used it, and Tai washed it, a chip appeared in the handle (for which I berated him mercilessly; poor, long-suffering Mr. Tai). The chip in the handle has since expanded, and other minor dings & pits have appeared on the bottom and sides of the pot, despite excessive care in handling and cleaning.
Though they make me crazy, the real problem is not the chips in the external enamel; the real problem is the pitted, cracked and stained surface on the inside of the pot. I’ve tried every enamel-safe cleaning remedy known to man: overnight soak, vinegar soak, Bon Ami, various nylon scrubbies, even a simmer with water + Tide (Le Creuset’s advice for removing tough stains). And despite all of my care and attention, the enamel on the bottom of the pot wore away inside of a year; the pits & cracks opened up into craters, creating hot spots in the surface and essentially eliminating the non-stick surface. I’ve since given up on “maintaining” the non-stick interior and attacked the stained bottom with Soft Scrub, Bar Keeper’s Friend, everything, really, short of a Brillo pad. The picture you see is the cleanest it gets; you might be able to tell from the lack of shine that there is no hint of non-stick surface left.
And the Dutch oven on the right? Le Creuset, of course. Back in August (2010) I stumbled upon a sale unit on Amazon: $140 for the 6 and 3/4 quart wide Dutch oven (all because the box was damaged and they couldn’t re-sell it as “new”; it’s a great idea to take a peak at the “used” category on Amazon now & then, because often the items aren’t actually used as much as simply an open or damaged box). I’ve only had it for about 5 months now, but it’s been in heavy rotation: jams, butter and sauces galore over the preserving season, stews, braises & fricassees since. As you can see above there is the slightest bit of discoloration so far (oh, tomato jam, how you vex me), but for the most part, the interior and exterior surfaces are pristine.
So, how can I compare one Dutch oven that is only 5 months old to another that is approaching 2 years? Simple. First, and most importantly, I know that the problems with the Batali oven started instantly (with the handle chip) and that within 6 months or so of owning it I was unhappy with the interior surface. By one year of use, it looked much like it looks now. And while I still use it, because it does conduct heat extremely well, it has dropped out of heavy rotation since losing it’s non-stick enamel surface. Secondly, Le Creuset is Le Creuset for a reason. I know that with proper care this Dutch oven will last a lifetime (or more). My only other LC piece is a small frying pan that I found a at an antique shop in Pound Ridge: it’s from 1960 and still looks fantastic. The non-stick surface is to die for and it is now my go-to pan for cooking eggs. Thirdly, I know how to treat enamel. I’ve been cooking on enameled Chatal cookware for 20 years now. (I asked my Mom to split the cost of the cookware set with me, as a Christmas present, in 1990, when I got my first real apartment. She thought I was crazy at the time, because the set was $500, a lot of money for a just-out-of-college temp secretary. Now she marvels that I still have them and still use them every day.) And while they’ve taken plenty of abuse (I’ve attacked the surfaces with Brillo for time to time, have definitely banged on the metallic rims too much), they’ve held up fantastically. You can see a little discoloration of the interior but the non-stick surface is still in good working order on all of the pans, 20 years in.
Please note, I’m not saying that all of the less-expensive brands of Dutch ovens are bad, and that you should only buy LC or Staub. I’m simply sharing my one example: I loved the Batali oven when I first got it and I like many of his other cookware tools (I have, and love, the measuring spoons, cups and dough scraper). But, in my opinion, paying $100 for a pot is an investment: it should last more than a year. I have no experience with Lodge, Tramontina or (heaven help me) Rachel Ray pots. I did read somewhere that the less expensive models use only two coats of enamel, while Le Creuset and Staub use four coats, as an explanation for why the enamel on the budget brands doesn’t fare as well (but it could be complete hearsay; I can’t remember where I read it). But for my money, I’d rather wait for a sale or simply invest the extra money in a quality piece, rather than take a chance on another budget brand.
What about you? Any of you have good (or bad) experiences with your Dutch oven? I’d love to hear some input on other brands.