There's no doubt about it — cooking with an enameled cast iron Dutch oven is a flat-out joy. They look great in our kitchens and on our tables, and they retain heat so well they're truly like mini ovens, perfect for simmering soups, stews, braises and baking crusty artisan breads.
The only catch is they often come with a steep price tag. A six-quart Le Creuset or Staub averages around $300. Both brands are made in France and come in a wide variety of colors, but if you're flexible on those two points, you'll have a wide array of affordable options.
Here's what you need to know.
1. You can forgo the enamel.
A seasoned, five-quart cast iron Dutch oven without any enamel will only set you back about $30 from Lodge, a longtime U.S.-based company. These pots work the same as an enameled pot, and are even better for frying, because there's no risk of cracking the enamel. The only caveat is they're not ideal for acidic foods unless your Dutch oven is very well-seasoned. (The acidity can react with the iron and make foods taste metallic.)
Buy: Lodge Cast Iron Dutch Oven 5 Quart, $30 at Target
2. Or opt for stainless steel.
Cast iron doesn't heat that evenly, and it doesn't respond to temperature changes quickly, so if you can only have room in your kitchen for one big pot, opt for plain ol' stainless steel. It's lighter and just a bit more versatile. Almost everything you can do in a cast iron pot, you can do in stainless steel (except you don't really want to put it over a campfire).
It won't react with acidic foods and it'll heat up water for pasta or blanching veggies far faster. Yes, cast iron retains heat better, which is great for braises that need long simmers at low and even heat. But this is more of an issue when cooking on the stove. When cooking in an oven, where gentle heat can surround the pot, stainless steel and cast iron perform about the same.
Note: There's one situation that might make cast iron a better choice for your one-pot kitchen — if you want to bake artisan breads. They come out fantastic when baked at high temps in a preheated cast iron Dutch oven. If that's important to you, forgo the stainless steel, build up your biceps, and get used to waiting a bit longer for your water to boil.
Stainless steel pots can get expensive too, of course, but they're practically indestructible. It might dent if you drop it, but it won't crack itself, or your sink or floor. And you won't have any issues with chipped or stained enamel. Look for a pot that's more wide than tall, which will give you more surface area for browning, and will allow for better evaporation to concentrate the flavors of your dish.
Buy: Cuisinart 5-Quart Dutch Oven, $41
3. If you have your heart set on enamel, you have options.
The beauty of enameled cast iron is a legitimate consideration. When something is so eye-appealing, you look forward to cooking and it makes the process even more soul satisfying. But if you can't afford the expense of the French brands, you still have options.
Lodge is widely considered by many cookware experts as the best option for budget enameled cast iron. A six-quart pot costs an average of $50. That's $300 less than Le Creuset. And in our own side-by-side test, as well as those conducted by places like America's Test Kitchen and Wirecutter, Lodge performs at least as well as the more expensive French brands.
Buy: Lodge Enameled Cast Iron 6-Quart Dutch Oven, $50 at Target
But unlike their regular cast iron, which is manufactured in Tennessee, the enameled cast iron is manufactured in China. This seems to be true for all budget enameled cast iron. However, Lodge says they have strict third-party oversight. Consumers and experts generally report that the Lodge enamel is very durable, and if something does happen to it, Lodge has one of the most generous lifetime warranty policies of all manufacturers.
There are at least a dozen other brands that have gotten into the enameled cast iron game — Tramontina, IKEA, Cuisinart, Martha Stewart Collection at Macy's, Cooks at JCPenney, the list goes on and on. Keep in mind, most have price tags in the $100 range, but you can often score them on deep discount. The colors are usually more limited, though, and the quality oversight might not be as stringent.
Go shopping: 5 Dutch Ovens for $50 or Less
Here's what to look out for when shopping for a budget enameled cast iron pot.
- Chips in the enamel: If you see a chip, avoid. It'll likely get bigger. Any big rough patches mean the sand wasn't completely cleaned off the pot after it came out of the mold, and this area will likely chip easily too. Also, most enameled pots have a black rim. This isn't exposed iron, it's black matte enamel, so you still need to check the rim for chips.
- A tight-fitting lid: Lids that don't fit properly will affect your cooking time, speeding up evaporation and possibly drying out your food. Some experts say you don't want it to fit too tightly, because then not enough evaporation occurs. But, really, you can always take the lid off and reduce the liquid when the dish is done.
- Spikes or rings under the lid: This is a matter of preference. They do help the condensation on the lid hit the ingredients in the center of the pot, rather than just drip down the sides, but this is only a consideration when cooking on the stovetop (there's not much condensation happening in the warmth of the oven) and it only matters for long-cooked roasts that might dry out on top otherwise. The spikes make the lids a bit harder to clean and you can always recreate the physics by putting a piece of parchment on top of the pot, under the lid.
- A wide bottom: Aim for at least eight inches wide on the bottom, so browning meats for a stew isn't a bazillion-batch chore.
- The interior color: Like Staub, IKEA's pots are black matte enamel on the inside. This means it won't stain and will look brand-new for a long time. But it also means it's harder to judge if your fond is getting too dark or your onions are properly caramelized.
- Curved or straight sides: Pots with straight sides can make it a bit harder to get to the food in the crevices. This is not a problem with pots that have curved sides.
- A good knob: Plastic knobs don't get hot on the stovetop, but they also can't withstand high heat in the oven. If you plan to do high-heat cooking, as when making artisan bread, opt for a pot with a metal knob. Or you can order a metal replacement knob.
- Wide handles: Be sure the handles are big and comfortable enough for you and your potholders. And remember that the pots get heavier once they're filled with food. A tight grip is important.
- Glowing reviews: If you're going to rely on reviews from Amazon shoppers, make sure they come from people who have really put them to the test. Also, remember that duds happen to every manufacturer, the question is whether or not it's a pain (or even possible) to get a replacement. Also, be sure to check the manufacturer's warranty policies.
Did you save money on your Dutch oven by buying one without enamel? Or did you get a budget-friendly brand that wasn't Le Creuset or Staub? Tell us about it in the comments below!