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Stainless Steel or Cast Iron dutch oven?

  • j

Now that I've started eating more meat I'd like to try doing some braising. Seems many here use enameled cast iron for that but no one has mentioned stainless steel which to my mind is easyer if only because it is lighter. If I remember correctly America's Test Kitchen liked both the All Clad SS and the Le Cruset.So what are the pros and cons of each?

TIA
Jack

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  1. For long, slow cooking (which is why you want a dutch oven, right?) cast iron is superior to stainless steel. It has far more thermal mass, so the temperature will be more stable, and it distributes heat better, eliminating hot spots on the bottom and cold spots up the sides. Stainless has plenty of uses in the kitchen, but seems to me that it's the wrong material for braising.

    1. I'm sure cast iron is the best for Dutch oven cooking, but it is awfully heavy. Enameled cast iron can also stick. (Perhaps there is proper technique for using enameled cast iron, so that sticking is eliminated.) You might check into Berndes cast aluminum which makes a very nice Dutch oven. I just bought one, and I really like it. It is dense but light, and should be easy to clean up. (No dishwasher.) So that is another alternative to consider, perhaps.

      Having said that, I scored a very small stainless Berndes Dutch oven for $9.00 at a discount store. It has a very heavy bottom and I have used it successfully.

      3 Replies
      1. re: sueatmo

        I never have a problem with sticking in my enameled/CI dutch oven but when browning meat prior to braising you need to make sure you have enough oil in the bottom. Once the meat has browned well it releases. It's a good idea not to move the meat around and let it sit for longer than you might think to get a deep rich browning which goes a long way in providing more intense flavor in the braise.

        1. re: scubadoo97

          I agree - I love my LC dutch oven.

        2. re: sueatmo

          Note that stainless will also stick. But that's a good thing, since braising starts with browning, which produces a fond that enriches the sauce. Nonstick pan = no fond = inferior finished product. The drawback to stainless is uneven heating.

          Aluminum is an interesting possibilty. It heats very evenly, and is far more responsive than cast iron. That's good for browning, since you can regulate the heat more easily. You lose some thermal mass, but the heat will be transmitted up the sides very well, so it should perform better than stainless. My only concerns would be reactivity (acidic foods may react with the pan) and high-temp cooking (questions have been raised about health risks posed by frying in aluminum).

          As for weight, all dutch ovens are a two-hand carry. The weight of cast iron is much more of an issue when you've got leverage working against you, as in the case of a skillet or a big sauce pan. And the weight difference, while significant, isn't huge--filled with water, my 3.5-quart LC dutch oven weighs 11.5 pounds, while my (same size) stainless saucepan comes in at 9 pounds.

        3. I would go with enameled cast iron. In December I purchased a 6 qt. Lodge red enameled cast iron dutch oven for $50. http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B000...
          At 1/4 of the price of a Le Creuset it works just as well. The only limitation is that it is only oven safe to 400 rather than the 500 of other brands. But I don't need a dutch oven for that temp anyways.

          Yes. It is heavy but lifting heavy things is good for you. It is really easy to clean up.

          8 Replies
          1. re: willygreen

            The temperature limit is b/c of the phenloic knobs. You can replace those knobs with something more heat-tolerant (LC sells stainless replacement knobs or you can get them at a hardware store) and you are good to go.

            For braises since there is liquid in the pot, I would not be too concerned about sticking. Even browning and such, I've never had much trouble with things sticking in my Le Creuset.

            I would guess that the cast iron's properties are superior, but the downside is it's heavy. A loaded cast iron dutch oven can be too much for some people and heavy enough when full of hot stuff to be dangerous for a lot of people, so it's a valid concern.

            1. re: jzerocsk

              I consider myself strong enough. But I also imagine dropping a cast iron pot on my glass top electric range. Disaster! If the pot is as you say loaded, and if it is big enough, it could weigh almost 20 lbs? More?

              Nice to know that Le Creuset does not stick for you. When I tried to use an LC skillet 35 years ago I had terrible problems with that. However, the fact tha LC is still around tell me that others like it and use it happily.

              I really do like the cast aluminum Berndes DO I just bought. My first pot roast in many years is superlative.

              1. re: sueatmo

                ^^ I also had issues with the surface on my Le Creuset becoming more and more sticky and stained with use. I switched to Staub which has a more pourous surface. It actually seasons like a cast iron pan - the surface just gets better and better with use. It's the best of both worlds to me (i.e. an enameled pot like LC + the seasoning ability of seasoned cast iron like a Griswold pan).

                Once you go Staub you'll never go back. In general I recommend any type of cast iron pot over a SS one.

                jmo

                1. re: beauxgoris

                  The Staubs are beautiful pans. I checked one out at Williams-Sonoma. For me the inhibiting factors were the weight and the cost. Particularly the weight.

                  If I was going for cast iron, I would probably go with the Staub. However I really really like my cast aluminum Berndnes. For me it is the best of both worlds: a seasonable pan with excellent heat conduction, and it is light. It is also obviously well made. We really are so lucky to have so many choices!

                  1. re: beauxgoris

                    I'm not sure where people get this impression -- Staub interiors are enameled, just as the outside, with porcelain -- they are not porous, thus they do not season. It happens to look like bare cast iron, but it's very different.

                    The downplay in the sticking issues could be because the Staub interior browns better than the Le Crueset, hence the impression of less sticking because a good crust forms earlier on the meat.

                    Back to the OP, I would agree with most of what has been said here, cast-iron is superior to stainless for long, slow cooking. This is essentially an energy efficiency issue (more thermal mass = better heat retention, and more even cooking)... will your stainless steel dutch-oven make a bad chili? No. Could someone actually tell the difference? Not sure, possibly. Keep in mind that cast-iron is heavy, but neither cast-iron nor stainless are lightweights when full... food for thought.

                    1. re: mateo21

                      Thermal mass is more of an issue on the stove top, than in the oven. The oven itself should provide enough thermal stability. In addition, when braising, the liquid has a high heat capacity.

                      If you want a pan with real thermal mass, consider clay, even a very inexpensive Chinese sand pot, or any of covered Corning glass products.

                      In a properly functioning oven the braising pan does not have to have much thermal mass. What's more important is the retention of the moisture. Note that in Alton Brown's pot roast episode he uses a foil pouch, not a $200 enameled French import.

                      paulj

                      1. re: mateo21

                        Staub interiors are enameled, but they also accept a seasoning. This is from their site:

                        << The more you use it, the better it gets! Oils used when cooking will penetrate the pores of the matte enamel and create a natural, smooth non-stick surface. >>

                        Must restaurants braise in large steel pans and their food is wonderful. I have many Staub pieces, but I'm not convinced yet if there's much of a difference in end results when using cast iron or All-Clad. pans. Some posts on various boards said a recipe they had been making for years tasted vastly better in CI, and some said no difference and one or two said it was better in A-C. There a very large thread on the egullet.com board that deals with this issue as participants tried the same recipes in all types of braising vessels. It's in the top section there, and it was their braising class.

                  2. re: jzerocsk

                    I read on another website that if you cover the phenolic knobs with a 3-4 layers of aluminum foil they will not crack at 450. Anyone know if this works?

                  1. I love my Lodge cast iron dutch oven. I can't imagine using anything else. Though I can see you point, it is quite heavy. However, carrying it around makes me feel less guilty about cooking in lieu of going to the gym. ;)