le creuset - digging for dirt
I've been ogling Le Creuset pots on amazon for a while now, and have been considering investing in some kind of soup/stew pot. But am I just being enticed by the name and the oh-so-beautiful enamel colours? Is there a difference between American-made and French-made Le Creuset (I read that some of the pieces are made here)?
I don't understand the difference between a pot made of Heavy-gauge carbon steel with enamel-coated interior and exterior, a Heavy-gauge steel and enamel stockpot and a 'french oven' made of Enameled cast iron.
And finally, is there a just-as-wonderful brand out there that perhaps I am overlooking? I'd love all your advice before making what is for me a large financial investment.
Plain (i.e., non-stainless) carbon steel and cast iron are both rather poor conductors of heat, which is why cast iron pots and pans need to be thick to cook evenly, and even then don't do nearly as good a job of it as aluminum (about 5 times more conductive than steel/iron) or copper (about 10 times better). In theory, an enameled steel vessel of the same thickness would be about the same, in weight and cooking qualities, as one of enameled cast iron. However, I have never seen (which is not the same thing as saying it doesn't exist) a piece of enameled steel cookware that is as thick as cast iron typically is.
I was given, and for some inexplicable reason still have, an enameled steel pot, I believe made by Dansk. It might be the single worst item in my batterie de cuisine and is just about worthless for anything other than use as a serving piece, or a flowerpot. Le Creuset and other enameled cast iron is a totally different matter, of course, and I have several pieces in various shapes and sizes. They're great for use in the oven and for some things on the stovetop, but I tend not to use them for long cooking on the stovetop because of problems with hot spots and burning with long-cooking stew-like things, particularly of thick consistency. One of the several clad-type pots, solid copper, or even the old aluminum-bottom stainless pots is better for that, IMHO.
The best-known LC alternative is Staub, which is more-or-less equivalent in both quality and price. I see that Lodge has also recently introduced a line of enameled cast iron, but I have no experience with it. I have no knowledge about the relative merits of US vs French made LC, or even if they are in fact made in both countries.
If Lodge is making enamelled iron, that's good news - they do good work, and their stuff is reasonable. Made right there in Tennessee (yay!).
I have three Le Creuset pieces, plus several unbranded Dutch ones, all of which I found in antique malls for under $20 each. I also have a Chinese knockoff, a 3 qt. oval enamelled iron pot, I bought at Cost Plus for $18 right after we moved to SoCal, that has braised so much stuff it's to blame for at least half my extra personal diameter. And as others have said, Marshall's and T. Maxx and the like are good sources for factory seconds (I also really like the French Chantal ceramic pieces I've found there).
Kate, You can't go wrong with Le Creuset, it's my "go to" cookware. (I have not experienced the hot spot concerns mentioned by Flyfish. I have seen that with aluminum cookware such as Calphalon.) Le Creuset is exceptional for braising, baking, stews and soups. Over the years I have amassed quite a few pieces. The ones I use the most are the 3.5 and 5.5 quart sizes. I use their thick, heavy 1 quart sauce pans for making roux and cream sauces. Le Creuset is a joy to cook with and a good investment. Make the plunge.
Haunt T J Maxx, you may eventually find LC on the cheap. Otherwise, order from one of their outlet stores. If you don't mind weird colors, you can get a bargain. I do not own an LC piece that I paid full price for (and I have 6). I have red, green, saffron, pink and white.
I have a LC 6qt oval dutch oven. It is my favorite dutch oven, even over my All Clad 8 qt. round dutch oven. I don't have hot spots. I don't think you can burn anything in the LC because once you get your contents up to temp you can turn the flame way down because the conductivity of the iron is so great. Everything simmers gently and evenly for long hours. I've used it both on the stove top and in the oven and get good results either way. I like the oval shape because I seem to be able to fit odd sized items into it like whole chickens and long pieces of meat. It's a very good thing. I was able to get mine on amazon.com with a few freebies thrown in and a $25 amazon gift certificate. You can probably find similar deals periodically.
I got a HUGE LC dutch oven by haunting Marshall's and ROSS, as another poster suggested. $100 instead of $350, and I think it's 9 quarts. It's wonderful. NOTHING sticks to the bottom of this, it cooks evenly,it's big enough for all my needs, I find it versatile, and I use it several times a week.
That said, it's a heavy piece of cookware, and only good for certain things. I can think of two people I know who would hate it. My mom, who considers heavy cookware evil (go figure), and my friend who never makes soups, stews, or braises. So do give it some careful though.