Cooking in a Dutch Oven
I have just purchased Mollie Steven's "All About Braising" but have not yet received it.
Perhaps this question should be in the cookware category, but somehow I feel it is about cooking.
Perhaps the moderators will move it.
My question is do I need a cast iron dutch oven or will a stainless one work.
I will be using it in the oven, not on the stovetop so I don't think the heat retention of cast iron will matter much, but I am ready to be corrected.
Please don't advise me to get a le creuset© as my finances would not allow it.
A 6qt stainless with an aluminum bottom can be had for about $40.
Get cast iron, enamel or not (the former is more versatile but an uncoated cast iron pan will, over years of use, absorb flavors from onions, garlic, and meat, and then impart them into foods cooked in the pot, creating a depth of flavor not otherwise achievable.) If you are gong to braise meat, you are indeed going to use the stovetop, to sear the meat before adding vegetables and liquid. You can braise entirely on the stovetop if you so desire, but you cannot braise entirely in the oven.
You absolutely do not need Le Creuset. You can get well-performing enameled Dutch Ovens online (e.g. Amazon), and at many retailers including Target and Walmart, for the same price as the stainless you are considering. The glaze on LeCreuset is more chip-resistant than less pricey versions but as long as you don't bang the pot around or drop it, the performance will be great. The cast iron will retain heat better, and the sides heat up as well as the bottom, so the food is cooked from all directions.
I have fallen in love with my cast iron skillets and grill pan, so was excited to buy a dutch over (yes, this is what thrills me!). I went to the outlets to buy Le Cruset but they were still out of my price range. I wound up with an Emeril (!) cast iron dutch oven for $34 and it is great. I've braised short ribs and pork roasts in it and it's perfect. That was an outlet price but I bet online you could do as well.
For most braising recipes any covered pot will work. It could be terracotta, cast iron, enameled iron, stainless, even Corning. If the lid fits well you will get less liquid loss. Some classic recipes add a ring of dough to help sealing the vapors. This is especially true in an oven, where the heat is already pretty even. Braising on a stove top might be better in a pot that absorbs a lot of heat from a low flame, and distributes it evenly across the bottom and up the sides. Terracotta and cast iron are probably better on the stove top than stainless steel because of their ability to work well with a low flame.
While long and slow is characteristic of most braising, many recipes can successfully adapted to a fast cooking in a pressure cooker.
There's yet another complication to this story. Some will argue that cooking in an open, or partially covered pot/pan in the oven allows you to cook at a lower, better temperature. When I take the lid off of a covered DO, the liquid is almost always bubbling. Leave it off for a bit (still in the oven), and bubbling slows due to heat loss via evaporation. I believe Harold McGee has an online article about this.
Go for the cast iron, it isn't just a matter of heat retention but also of more uniform heat transference and distribution. It's simply a better material for a dutch oven. Being thick and heavy is superior for long, slow cooking regardless of whether it's on the stove or in the oven. You'll also likely start at least some (and I'd bet many) of your dishes on the stove top before moving them to the oven and the iron will help there, too.
As the previous posters have noted, you can find enameled dutch ovens that are pretty inexpensive (in the range you noted for the 6qt stainless pot).
For example at Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Heuck-33030-Por...
Have fun with whatever you get!
This may just be me, but I swear that Dutch ovens, even big ones, are easier to lift than cast iron skillets. I can't deal with wrangling anything over a 9 inch cast iron skillet, but have no trouble with my 5 quart (presumably heavier) Dutch oven. Something about the way the weight is distributed, I guess?
Pothead, you are correct. Dutch ovens have two handles (my favorite black cast iron one, a flea market find, has an additional basket-type handle), whereas your skillet probably has only one. As long as the skillet handle is not blazing hot, try grasping it so that the end of the handle farthest from the body of the skillet is resting under your forearm. This gives you better leverage.
Weight including contents is something to consider before purchasing an iron Dutch oven. You can get them in 7-8 quart capacity but unless you are feeding a very large family, a 5-6 qt makes more sense. And if you plan on storing it on a high shelf, you can cancel that gym membership!