Any conversation about enameled Dutch ovens always boils down to the big three: Le Creuset, Staub, and Lodge. These are the classics, the stalwarts, the ones that consistently get the best reviews, year after year.
They're also the brands that have literally built their businesses on cast iron, while others are just dabblers looking to cash in on a growing trend. Sure, those off-brands will get the job done with varying levels of quality and longevity. But if you're ready to invest your money and kitchen space on a big, heavy, expensive pot, you want the best. And that means one of the Big Three.
The question is, which one? We put each brand to the test to find out what really sets them apart, so you can find the perfect match.
How We Tested
First we chose the most versatile pot size — 5.5-quart (6-quart in the case of Lodge). Note: If you can only fit one Dutch oven in your kitchen or budget, this is the size to get. Then we chose a dish that requires lots of browning, as well as a long, slow cooking time: beef bourguignon.
We made sure the only variable was the pot. Because we were making three batches of beef bourguignon, we got the ingredients in bulk at Costco to ensure each batch was made with ingredients from the exact same source. The beef all came from the same hunk of chuck roast, the carrots all from the same giant bag. And all ingredients were measured by weight. Each batch was also browned on the same burner, and cooked in the same oven.
We also did an evaporation test to see which pots let out the most steam. We weighed each pot with exactly eight cups of water, boiled them for 10 minutes on the same burner, and weighed them afterward.
- Le Creuset Signature Enameled Cast-Iron 5.5-Quart Round Dutch Oven, $330
- Staub 5.5 Quart Round Oven, $310 at Williams Sonoma
- Lodge Enameled Cast Iron 6-Quart Dutch Oven, $90
Best Browning: Staub
The Le Creuset and Lodge pots have a very smooth, white enameled interior. The good news is you can monitor the browning process and watch the fond develop on the bottom.
The bad news is it's not as effective at browning as the dark, rough, black matte enamel on the Staub. In both cases, the browning was a bit spotty and took longer to achieve a truly good sear. Meanwhile, tiny flecks of burnt fond emerged in the oil in the pan. Browning the first side worked well enough, but after turning the meat cubes over they tended to steam instead of sear and lose some of their juices. The fat in the pan would even get clouded up with juices and look like beef soup. My theory: Maybe the top of the meat had some evaporative cooling going on, and when that surface was turned over it cooled the bottom of the pan just enough to slow down the browning.
There's something about Staub's slightly rough black matte enamel that made the browning so much more effective. It was truly like night and day. The meat cubes all achieved a deep, rich, evenly burnished sear on all sides, and faster too. And although I couldn't see the fond, it didn't matter. I could tell it wasn't burning by relying on other cues: the scent in the air, the quality of steam coming from the pot, the color on the meat. In fact, the surface created even more delicious fond than the other two pots. When I added cognac to the pan to deglaze it, the result was a mahogany-colored gravy — richer and thicker than what I got when deglazing the other pots, with no burnt black bits.
Also, the Lodge pot is more rounded inside, kind of like a wide wok, which means it has a smaller base diameter than Le Creuset and Staub. As a result, it took more time to brown the meat in the Lodge because I had to do it in four batches instead of three.
Least Amount of Evaporation: Staub
After their stints in the oven, all three batches of beef bourguignon seemed to have lost the same amount of liquid. If anything, the Staub looked the most concentrated because the liquid was a deeper brown. But this could be a result of the increased amount of fond the pot produced during browning, or a reflection of the dark interior.
To better evaluate potential evaporation from each pot, I boiled eight cups of water with the lid on, for 10 minutes, weighing the filled pots in kilograms before and after. In each case the water was at a vigorous rolling boil over high heat, and each pot had steam puffing out from under the lid (not ideal braising conditions, but it leveled the playing field for the test). Le Creuset actually lost the most: 0.43 kilograms (almost two cups). Lodge lost .25 kilograms (about one cup) and Staub lost the least: 0.13 kg (about ½ cup). So, it seems Staub has the tightest-fitting lid. Some experts say you want the lid to be tight, to encourage even, moist heat. Others say you want some evaporation, so the juices reduce and concentrate. Did the tight fit, or lack thereof, even matter? See below.
Overall Taste: 3-Way Tie
Despite the differences in how tight the lids fit or how well the pots browned, it didn't seem to make much of a difference in the overall result, at least for this dish. Each batch of beef bourguignon was delicious and rich, the beef wonderfully tender, no matter which pot it was cooked in.
Value vs. Aesthetics: You Decide
Because these performance differences didn't make a big difference in the resulting dish, it seems the deciding factor for these pots might just come down to looks and cost.
Aesthetics are subjective, of course, but in terms of color choice, classic appeal, and ease of handling, Le Creuset comes out on top. The pot is lighter than the other two, which makes it easier to maneuver. The side handles are roomy, so the pot is easy to lift even with potholders. And the top knob fits comfortably in the hand. There are dozens of color choices, which means this is a kitchen tool that can double as decor.
Staub's pots are heavier and more masculine in design, the colors more serious and earthy. But it's also more efficiently designed, with a sunken lid, narrower handles, and 1/4-inch narrower diameter than Le Creuset. This means the same capacity pot fits in a smaller space. If you like dark colors, don't have much room, and can trust your senses when browning, Staub might be the one for you.
As for Lodge, its very round shape seems kind of folksy and the color range is more limited. However, it's about one-third to one-sixth the price of Le Creuset or Staub. In terms of value, nothing comes close.
There are other pros and cons to consider, which you can find here, but in terms of performance alone, none of these pots will let you down.
Do you have a preference? Tell us what you think in the comments below!