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Tell me why I need an enameled cast iron Dutch Oven ... or not

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  • taos Nov 30, 2009 03:40 PM
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So I've been cooking just fine for many years without an enameled cast iron dutch oven. Or so I thought. But after reading this board for a while, I'm starting to think that not having one is like going out with no clothes on or, serving dinner without wine. Supposedly the enameled cast iron dutch oven (or french oven? that's the difference?) is perfect for stews, and braising, soups, and even the occasional ham and cheese on rye.

Is it? Do I really need one? What can I do in the enamleled cast iron that I can't do in my 12 quart anodized aluminum stock pot?

And does the brand matter? I went shopping this weekend saw that the Le Chateau brand was a lot more expensive than a no-brand name that was just marked "Made in France."

My friends and relatives all seem to have one of these, though they are split among enameled and non-enameled. Frankly, I'm not thrilled about the non-enameled because it took me a while to get my CI skillet seasoned just right and I had the advantage of being able to cook a lot of bacon and other good-for-seasoning stuff in it.

So tell me, will my life be improved forever in ways I never imagined with an enameled cast iorn dutch oven?

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  1. Nope, don't need one; but if you get one you won't regret it.

    1. A necessity? I don't know, but ours has become my favorite kitchen pal. 2 years ago, we received the flame orange, 4½ qt. Le Creuset round French oven for our wedding. Since then, it's been our main pot. We've made tons of soups, boiled pasta, beans, sauteed greens, braised chicken thighs, short ribs and so on. Sure, it "spreads heat more evenly and retains heat longer than other cookware...The non-reactive enamel coating doesn’t require seasoning..." I find it also quite easy to clean. But beyond that, I've become quite, er...fond of it. (I've attached an action shot of it with a gigantes, spinach and sun-dried tomato concoction.) We lent it to our neighbors so they could make coq au vin, and I was counting the days until I could get it back. I unabashedly heart this pot.

       
      1. It's all about "need" versus "want". I don't need one but after seeing my friend use hers to make tasty roast chicken and lamb shanks, I really want one.

        1. My suggestion would be to by an inexpensive enamelled dutch oven and cook up a batch of pot roast, chili or stewed chicken. The advantage is that you can do high heat at the start, and then go low and slow, all with the same pot. The heavy construction helps keep nice and even, and a heavy, well-fitting lid will keep the moisture in.

          If you find the results underwhelming, well, you aren't out to much money. If you love it to death, you can ALWAYS get the premium French ovens (Le Creuset, Staub).

          I love my plain DO for chili and stews, but totally get that seasoning is too much monkey business for a lot of folks.

          1. Mike summarized the pros pretty well. If you've cooked successfully for several years without one then I'm sure you can continue to do so. Pots and pans and spoons and knives are just tools. What matters is the cook and their skill. A skillful chef could make a pot roast in your aluminum stock pot that would be delicious. A poor chef will not do well with the most expensive Le Creuset, etc. Millions of dollars have been made by cookware companies by convincing cooks that their product will give better results. Want better results? Take a cooking class.

            Enameled cast iron like Le Creuset is heavy especially when you get to 7 qt and above. I suspect many don't see much use because of the chore of cleaning. Although they clean up quite easily. As has been pointed out there are many less expensive 'models' out there due to the popularity of Le Creuset. Check out Martha Stewart's Macy line for example.

            Best of luck with your decision.

            1. If, for no other reason, to make Cook's Illustrated "Almost No-Knead Bread". I bought a
              cheapie at Costco ( $39.99, I think) and had used it numerous times to make the bread, as it is the best of the recipes out there. I like the bread in the 5-minutes a day book, but
              CI's is truly tastier and that enameled pot is the thing to use. Other posters have touted
              the roast chicken, lamb shanks etc., and these are all better in this pot!!

              1 Reply
              1. re: amazinc

                As amazinc said, "Almost no knead bread" (or No knead bread). Get a stainless steel knob.

                I love my LC.

              2. >>>Do I really need one?

                NO

                >>>What can I do in the enameled cast iron that I can't do in my 12 quart anodized aluminum stock pot?

                NOTHING

                All these fancy cookwares are marketing gimmicks for home-cooks to spend their money. Go to some high end restaurants that don't have display kitchens and find out what they use - not CI, except for the occasional searing of items. The reason, they are expensive and not needed.

                1 Reply
                1. re: RetiredChef

                  No, they're not needed, by any means. However, some of the brands do deliver on their promises, while others do not. Home cooking appliances have changed a lot in the past twenty years and it's taken a while for cookware to catch up with the appliances. Some of the pots and pans my mother would have done just fine with on her 1963 GE electric stove are not heavy-duty enough to handle Viking home burners, and I've got better things to do than stand at the sink for fifteen minutes scrubbing off each pan with smelly steel wool the gunk that hotspots create when pans don't suit the appliance.

                  If you're happy with your pots and pans, that's great. Not all of us who choose to purchase a premium brand are home-cook suckers who fall for advertising. Some of us actually have decades of experience, are willing to try different things in order to improve our cooking experience, the finished food product and the clean-up process, and can tell you exactly which inexpensive and which more costly vessel do or don't work in our kitchens, with the foods we tend to cook, with our appliances, for our families. The fifteen-buck Lodge skillet works beautifully on my higher-BTU...almost as well as the LC, except that I don't like the taste of acidic sauces in the Lodge and the LC can handle them. On the other hand, the Farberware set I received thirty-years ago from some relative who bought them with 1980 stoves in mind will end up with a nasty layer of carbonized junk on its surface, even when used on the lowest power burner on low settings on my cooktop.

                  If something works for you, that's great. If something else works better for another homecook, then that's great, too. Not everything cheap is bad, and not everything more costly is a gimmick.

                2. As others have said, you can easily get by without it -- and your years of experience prove it!

                  As RichardM points out, they're very, very heavy. And the enamel can and does chip, especially at the edges, on even the expensive ones. Anyone who tells you otherwise hasn't had the pot long enough to see the chips develop.

                  And while they do heat evenly, I find they are sometimes prone to scorching because they generally require lower heat for tasks like browning meat. You're never supposed to use high heat with enameled cast iron, even when you would in any other cookware.

                  I have a Chefmate from Target, which Cook's Illustrated all but said worked the same as the similar le Creuset model. Since that report was published, there have been several newcomers offering pots of approximately the same quality at prices below $100.

                  It's perfect for some things, but I just find it too heavy and the potential of chipping it too much of a bother for me to use it every day. Of course, I don't braise and stew as much as some cooks, either.

                  4 Replies
                  1. re: dmd_kc

                    I do following the manufacturer's instructions re using the lower settings on my ECI and I never have the problem of scorching that I did with lighter-weight SS. I don't find scorching to be a problem with it *at all*, dmd, and I also find I need to use less oil/fat with ECI. But...the one thing that others might find a drawback is that it will take a longer time to heat it properly at those lower temps, and I can see that that would be a disadvantage to some cooks. And naturally, it's not as instantly responsive as some other materials. But those issues aren't issues for me, personally.

                    I have had chips on the two Staub FOs I have, but I have had no issue at all the LC ECI chipping. (LC's enameled *steel* stockpots, yes, but not the enameled cast iron. I use it daily, put it through the dishwasher, and not a single chip so far.)

                    You made a good point re the braising and stewing. If you tend to cook more via other methods, other materials may be more useful to you. Everybody's got to think about what goes on in his/her particular kitchen and set his/her own priorities. I'm willing to trade off on the weight of ECI, for example, because I've never worked with anything that's so freaking easy to clean, and hard-to-clean pots and pans really irritate *me*. Other people are more patient :-D.

                    1. re: Normandie

                      I own up fully to the fact that it's my using too high a heat that leads to the scorching. But it's something that I know a lot of people struggle with. After all, it's a lot harder and more time-consuming to get a good browning at those temperatures.

                      1. re: dmd_kc

                        Yes, I agree it definitely takes more time--for me, not once the food is *in* the pan, but getting the pan to the right temp. It's easy *most* nights for me to work around that, because I'm a SAHW. I can put the pan on, on low temps, and go do whatever--food prep, laundry, bill-paying, talking with you guys--while the pan gets good and hot. As long as I can do that, and then I do the things I would with any pan (e.g., make sure meats are patted dry), I get excellent browning in the LC, and a good fond for braise liquids or sauces. However, I realize that ECI DOES take a while to heat up properly, and it might not be such a workable situation for someone who--just describing one example--is working outside the home; gets home close to dinner time; has kids to chauffer, help with homework and maybe activities to get to after dinner. So, again, it's going to vary person-to-person.

                        OTOH, there are things for which LC is *not* my best option. If I want a slow caramelization of veggies, I like the LC skillets. If I want a quick, hot stir fry, I use my old, beat-up Revereware skillet, obtain for zero dollars from my ex-MIL. I know people say that the thin coating of copper that's on Revereware isn't enough to make those pans behave like copper, but I certainly find that one skillet to be responsive in a way ECI cannot be. For steaming veggies, my go-to pan is a fairly old Oneida saucepan, again, donated by an older relative, and a lid from an altogether different pot that happens to fit the Oneida snuggly. The pan has a disk bottom, it heats the water rapidly, which ECI will not do, and my steaming basket is perfect in it. For a quick, hot saute, I like my Demeyere. But all of this, which pot does which job best for me, is the result of trial and error after thirty years of cooking. That's why I liked the advice that several have offered here to anyone who's thinking of more expensive cookware--try to give a material a dry-run at a lower price first, before investing a lot of money in pans. "Audition" a new material by purchasing one vessel from a less expensive manufacturer, or if you're interested in one of the more expensive manufacturers, look for try-me specials, or floor samples, or bargains at consignment shops or yard sales.

                    2. re: dmd_kc

                      The Le Creuset care guide doesn't say to never use high heat. Rarely is more like it.

                      "Low to medium heat settings will provide the best results for a majority of cooking applications, including frying and searing. High heats should only be used to either boil water for vegetables or pasta or for reducing the consistency of stocks and sauces."

                    3. Thanks to everyone for your advice.

                      I probably should clarify that by "need" I meant "will be able to use in way that I'll be happy I got it, it will add something to my cooking experience and seem worth the price."

                      Obviously I don't need 99.9% of the stuff I use to cook with.

                      7 Replies
                      1. re: taos

                        I "need" my Le Creuset--as opposed to other dutch ovens and such, that can handle acidic foods-- because it's so beautiful.

                        We all need beauty in our lives. :-)

                        1. re: Beckyleach

                          You bet. :-)

                        2. re: taos

                          You mentioned you had anodized aluminum, if it is thick high quality than it will perform as good or, imho even better for 99% of you cooking needs, than enameled CI.

                          As I said before, it’s mostly marketing hype, high quality cookware should last a lifetime so marketing divisions have to come up with a way to sell you something, they try to create a perceived need, in this case enameled CI will make you’re a stellar cook and your dishes will be 10X’s better.

                          If that is the true, how come high quality restaurants don’t use the stuff?

                          Think about it!

                          Cheers.

                          1. re: RetiredChef

                            Well....hopefully, restaurants realize that It would be downright illogical for *most restaurants*, "high quality"--as you put it--OR low, to use the stuff. Begin with what it's going to do to the profit margin to purchase ECI. It would be downright dumb to use my Waterford and Lalique for water glasses in a truck stop, too. That does not mean they aren't superior products when used in a setting *for which they were designed*.

                            You're a retired chef, right? You certainly don't believe that homecooking and restaurant cooking are the same propositions, do you?

                            Btw, I haven't read the comments of any home cook here who believes that ECI makes him or her *a better cook*. What I have read here many times are notes from cooks saying it *won't* make a person a better cook, but it makes the job of home cooking easier for some people. Not all...for example, it's not really appropriate for people with back injuries and, just my opinion, but ECI wouldn't make the best material for a wok. Right tool for the job, right?

                            I take it you've given ECI a "fair trial" and you just don't care for the way it performs for the things you cook, now that you're cooking at home? What manufacturers' brands of ECI do you own (or have you owned, if you've gotten rid of them? Of the pieces of ECI you've used multiple times, are there any you *do* think perform well, for specific jobs? For instance, could you see how ECI would be useful for a homecook who does a lot of braises? (Due to the weight of the lid, and therefore the seal, for example, and the ease of clean-up?)

                            1. re: RetiredChef

                              << As I said before, it’s mostly marketing hype, high quality cookware should last a lifetime so marketing divisions have to come up with a way to sell you something,>>>

                              Well, at least in the case of Le Creuset, I can barely recall ever seeing a single advertisement for them, BY them. Anywhere. They've been selling by word of mouth and reputation for generations.

                              1. re: RetiredChef

                                I suspect a large part of the reason ECI or CI in general isn't used in restaurants is that it performs poorly when not preheated very slowly. In a home kitchen this is not a huge deal, but in a pro kitchen this is a deal-breaker given the existence of perfectly acceptable alternatives. Time = money.

                                Here is an excellent link, accurately listing cooking and thermal properties of various cooking materials.
                                http://forums.egullet.org/index.php?/...

                                As you can see, ECI does have its advantages- namely that its high specific heat per cubic centimeter (as compared to say, aluminum) combined with its acceptable conductivity (compared with stainless steel) allow for it to be made thick enough to present a fairly evenly heated surface when preheated slowly. Copper kicks its butt in most respects, but also costs way more. Aluminum is comparably good but different.

                                I write this as someone with no ECI, only one piece of unenameled CI, and no plans to buy more in the foreseeable future. I have used ECI a good deal while cooking at my mother-in-law's house. It was nice. I feel that ECI has some upsides - just not enough to make me spend money on it versus something else my kitchen could use.

                                I agree with retiredchef's later post in his answers of the OP's original questions.
                                "Do i really need it?" - No.
                                "What can i do with it that I can't do with other cookware?" - Nothing.
                                "Will my life be forever changed?" - Nope.

                                At the same time, that doesn't mean ECI is useless. Necessity is not the only indicator of value. I have much nicer and sharper knives than are strictly necessary. They make me happy and I miss them when cooking from other people's kitchens. But I would not act as though said knives are a must-have for anyone not already interested. Likewise I don't feel ECI is a must-have. Just a nice-to-have.

                              2. re: taos

                                I'll chime in with a simple "I went years, just fine, without mine, but am glad I invested in it."

                                I'm frugal, and am really getting my money's worth.

                              3. "Is it? Do I really need one? What can I do in the enamleled cast iron that I can't do in my 12 quart anodized aluminum stock pot?"

                                Anodized aluminum is pretty tough stuff, but meat browning temps really require metal utensils and if you scrape off the fond, you will scratch the surface, even if the scratch isn't terribly visible. Once scratched, the pot is no longer non reactive. The enamel on enameled cast iron is a little more durable/stands up a little better to metal utensils.

                                Another small downside to aluminum is that you can't preheat it like you can iron.

                                That being said, clad stainless steel dutch ovens are superior to both. It's lighter (than iron), cheaper and you don't ever have to worry about damaging the surface with metal utensils/scouring.

                                1 Reply
                                1. re: scott123

                                  Osso buco came out awesome in my Dutch oven - part of the deal I think is the weight and heft of the lid which keeps moisture in as things cook/roast inside.

                                  Cook's Illustrated did a comparison a while back and listed Tramontina as a best buy (got mine at Wal-mart for $40). So far has worked great for all kinds of things.