Le Creuset (pronounced by French as “leh CREW-zay” and Americans as “leh crew-SAY”; just don’t call it “leh kressit”) is a French company dating back to 1925, when Armand Desaegher, a caster, and Octave Aubecq, an enameler, joined forces and coated cast iron with porcelain enamel. It was a success and the rest is history.
Le Creuset’s claim to fame is their enameled cast iron cookware, especially their Dutch ovens–or French ovens, as they like to call them. So for purposes of this article, I am talking about just enameled cast iron cookware–mostly Dutch ovens, but some topics are applicable to enameled cast iron skillets as well.
“Le Creuset” means “the cauldron” in French, and Le Creuset insists on calling its most famous products “French” ovens. Yet many people call them Dutch ovens, because the Dutch were famous for making high-quality, thick-walled, cast-metal pots in the 1600s, so the term “Dutch oven” stuck regardless of who actually made the pot. It will probably continue to stick despite Le Creuset’s best efforts. But a “Dutch oven” by any other name would cook just as sweetly.
Q: What’s a Dutch oven (also known as a French oven or cocotte, pronounced “ko-KOT”)?
A: A Dutch oven is any thick-walled cooking vessel with a lid. There is no requirement that a Dutch oven be made of cast iron. Dutch ovens can be made from aluminum, copper, and multi-layered materials (e.g., stainless steel bonded with aluminum and/or copper). Ideally, the sidewalls of the Dutch oven should be heat-conductive and the lid should be tight-fitting and heavy enough that you don’t get too much evaporation during cooking.
Q: Why does Le Creuset cost so much?
A: The short answer is that it’s a) made in France using higher-cost labor than you can find in China; b) Le Creuset likely has higher marketing costs that many rivals; c) Le Creuset likely has higher quality control and sourcing standards and enamel quality than many rivals; d) Le Creuset honors its warranties, unlike some companies that pretend that product defects are the result of user abuse; and most importantly e) product prices are determined by what people are willing to pay, not how much it costs to produce a product. Cast iron is a relatively inexpensive material, and despite reasons a) through d) above, I suspect Le Creuset makes very healthy profit on its French ovens anyway.
That said, here’s a word of caution: only buy from companies that manufacture their own products and from well-established cookware product lines if you can help it. Many companies–even big-name companies–merely import product from Chinese factories for resale, and often don’t spend enough resources to verify quality after the first batch. It takes money and expertise to continuously ensure that products lie flat, do not contain harmful or radioactive chemical contaminants, are polished properly, and so on. If a company doesn’t operate its own factories in China, it could end up like Lumber Liquidators, which sold floorboards with excessive formaldehyde that leaked into the air of the homes it was installed in, which increased consumer cancer risks among other things. Lumber Liquidators told its Chinese partner that it wanted in-spec product, but received out-of-spec product anyway, and nobody caught the discrepancy until end-users started getting unexplained symptoms like headaches and nausea. There are many more examples of Chinese and Indian exports containing toxic or radioactive chemicals, and even more examples of Chinese cookware falling apart, such as handles breaking off while in use, frying pans exploding or popping rivets off, enamel coatings cracking and flying off, ceramic roasters shattering, lids breaking, etc. In contrast, chemical contamination and structural failure are almost unheard of with cookware made in the USA/EU, such as All-Clad and Le Creuset.
Q: Is Le Creuset worth it? That is, is worth the price?
A: Sort of. To better answer this question, we need to compare cast iron Dutch ovens with alternative materials.
In terms of thermal performance, there is little that separates one company’s enameled cast iron from another’s. This is because cast iron is so cheap that there’s little incentive to skimp on materials. Even cheap brands often offer plenty of iron. (For example, Le Creuset measures about 3.7 mm thick for its midsized Dutch ovens such as 7.25-quart round, but Cuisinart’s Chinese-made knockoff is actually slightly thicker.)
Since most brands use about the same thickness of cast iron, they perform similarly in terms of spreading heat evenly on a stovetop. And that performance level is not good. Cast iron does not heat that evenly on stovetops, compared to cookware that uses thick aluminum or copper. This means cast iron will hot-spot more easily. That is especially true for oval Dutch ovens placed on circular burners, since the far edges of the oval will be even farther away from the heat source. You can work around this limitation by pre-heating the Dutch oven in an oven, where the hot air from all sides will heat it evenly, but that takes more time, effort, and energy. Furthermore, it only partially works; the moment that Dutch oven leaves the oven, it will start cooling down, and if the only thing warming it back up is a stovetop burner, then you will start getting a hotspot.
Non-Cast Iron Dutch Ovens
Non-Cast Iron Dutch ovens come in two general flavors:
1. Relatively cheap stock pots with a thick disc of aluminum bonded to the base of a thin stainless steel vessel; and
2. Cladded steel where the entire Dutch oven is made out of a multi-layered material of equal thickness on the sides and bottom. That multi-layered material is often made with three layers bonded to each other: stainless-aluminum-stainless. The soft, inner layer of aluminum conducts heat, and the hard stainless steel layers protect the aluminum.
Regardless of whether it’s a disc-base or cladded design, these designs beat cast iron on the stovetop when it comes to spreading heat around evenly, plus they are tougher than cast iron. Cast iron and enamel are relatively brittle compared to steel, so they can chip or crack when banged on kitchen sinks or exposed to extreme thermal shocks (e.g., splashing cold water onto very hot cast iron). However, stainless steel isn’t completely immune to acids, so enameled cast iron is better for long cooking times such as slow braises.
Cast Iron vs. Non-Cast Iron Dutch Ovens
If you can have only one pot, I would highly recommend getting a cladded stainless steel stock pot with 18/10 interior, such as a All-Clad 4508 Stainless Steel Tri-Ply Bonded Dishwasher Safe Stockpot. Why? Because the stockpot can be used for boiling water and steaming, as well as stovetop browning/searing, roasting, braising, etc., just like enameled cast iron, and also weighs less. (If you’re worried that the center won’t get as much liquid dropping down due to the lack of self-basting bumps, then just stick a sheet of parchment paper underneath the lid. The center of the parchment paper will sag into the pot and any drippings will tend to drip down from there. This technique can also be used to artificially decrease the capacity of the stock pot if you want to increase the number of evaporation-condensation cycles to bring out more flavor in your braise.)
In contrast, enameled cast iron can’t do what cladded stainless steel can do. Not only does cast iron heat unevenly, but it also takes longer to heat and cool down and can rust along the unenameled rims if you aren’t careful–not good for boiling or steaming water! Plus cast iron is heavier.
If you are okay with multiple pots, then you may want to get an enameled dutch oven in addition to your stainless steel stockpot. Here’s why:
- Some stock pots are shaped too tall and narrow to go into ovens.
This is somewhat self-explanatory, but traditional stock pots may be too tall to fit into home ovens. However, many stock pots sold in the USA are shorter stockpots, such as this All-Clad 8 quart lower-profile stock pot, which is about 6 inches tall (8 inches including lid and handle) because it’s wider diameter so doesn’t need to be as tall to get to 8 quarts capacity. Most similarly lower-profile stock pots are around 6.5 inches tall (about 8 inches including lid and handle) and 9.4 inches in diameter
- Enameled cast iron better tolerates long exposure to acidic and salty foods, such as long simmers in the oven or being put in the fridge with tomato soup overnight.
Enamel is more resistant to corrosion than stainless steel. Enamel is very nonreactive: it won’t absorb odors or flavor, and it’s highly resistant to acids and salts. (Uncoated cast iron is much more reactive, which is why it’s okay to cook things like eggs on uncoated cast iron, but not acidic foods like tomatoes unless you want to risk metallic-tasting tomatoes.) In contrast, stainless steel can succumb to acidic and salty food after prolonged exposure, forming pits and stains and rust. This is especially true of cheaper stainless steel which has less chromium and nickel mixed into the iron.
- Enameled cast iron can retain heat well.
This is not always a plus, especially if you are trying to cool down a warm pot in a refrigerator, but enameled cast iron stores lots of heat. This is good for things like browning meat, where you don’t want the temperature to drop like a rock just because you threw in a steak. Heat retention is also good for keeping food warm for parties. However, quality cladded cookware can retain a decent amount of heat as well (e.g., All-Clad Stainless stores about 60% as much heat as a Le Creuset pot), and I’ve made many a pot roast in cladded stainless steel with good results.
- Enamel or seasoned cast iron can be less sticky than stainless steel.
Glossy, glassy enamel may be a little less sticky to cook on than stainless steel, even if you use hot oil on both, especially when the enamel is new or if it’s been seasoned (which Staub claims is possible with its relatively rough enamel). This might matter to some people.
Why you would buy Le Creuset in particular?
- Lifetime warranty
- Better, thicker, and/or more layers of enamel than many knockoffs; the cheap Chinese knockoffs have had enamel quality issues before (example)
- Better quality control so less likely to get a wobbly lid or defects in the enamel
- Kitchen décor (there’s a reason why Le Creuset comes in so many colors, and why Le Creuset uses multiple colors and blends them into a smooth gradient from one color to another as you go from the bottom of the cookware to the top)
- Bragging rights
- Made in France under presumably higher quality standards and quality control than Chinese knockoffs.
- The satisfaction that your money is going to France instead of China (if that’s important to you)
A: According to Le Creuset, the Signature line has a handle that is supposedly heat resistant to 500F. The enamel interior is also supposed resist chipping, cracking, staining, and dulling better than their regular line. Also, the lids are supposed to have stabilizers that help resist sliding, ensuring a tighter fit and thus less evaporation.
Q: What are the alternatives to Le Creuset? Are Chinese-made enameled cast iron ovens safe?
A: The short answer:
- If you want to pay Le Creuset level prices but get a comparable (and in some ways better) product, consider Staub.
- If you want to pay less money and get something that performs as well as Le Creuset but probably isn’t as durable, there are a ton of Chinese knockoffs, the most popular of which may be Lodge (made in China under contract to an American company).
- If you want to split the difference, buy Staub’s sister company’s products, which don’t seem to be as well-made or have as good quality control, but at least it’s made in France and has a good warranty and lid handle.
- Chinese-made enameled cast iron is safe if made by contract to major brands like Lodge, who have the resources and incentive to closely monitor their production in China in order to defend their reputations.
- But don’t buy cookware from companies that don’t operate their own Chinese factories. Many companies–even big-name companies–merely import product from Chinese factories for resale, and often don’t spend enough resources to verify quality after the first batch. (They would rather spend money on marketing, such as slapping some celebrity chef’s name on the cast iron instead, with the celebrity chef having nothing to do with the cookware except collecting royalties.) It takes money and expertise to continuously ensure that products lie flat, do not contain harmful or radioactive chemical contaminants, are polished properly, and so on. If a company doesn’t operate its own factories in China, it could end up like Lumber Liquidators, which sold floorboards with excessive formaldehyde that leaked into the air of the homes it was installed in, which increased consumer cancer risks among other things. Lumber Liquidators told its Chinese partner that it wanted in-spec product, but received out-of-spec product anyway, and nobody caught the discrepancy until end-users started getting unexplained symptoms like headaches and nausea. There are many more examples of Chinese and Indian exports containing toxic or radioactive chemicals, and even more examples of Chinese cookware falling apart, such as handles breaking off while in use, frying pans exploding or popping rivets off, enamel coatings cracking and flying off, ceramic roasters shattering, lids breaking, etc. In contrast, chemical contamination and structural failure are almost unheard of with cookware made in the USA/EU, such as All-Clad and Le Creuset.
The long answer:
- If you determine that you need an enameled cast iron Dutch oven and want Le Creuset level of quality and price, then consider Staub (pronounced “stobe,” not “stob”) instead. In the battle of Le Creuset vs. Staub, everything you’ve heard about Le Creuset applies to Staub, too. Staub has:
- Lifetime warranty
- Better, thicker, and/or more layers of enamel than many knockoffs
- Better quality control so less likely to get a wobbly lid or defects in the enamel
- Kitchen décor (Staub’s selection of colors might not be as wide as Le Creuset’s but you have plenty of choices)
- Bragging rights
- Made in France under presumably higher quality standards and quality control than Chinese knockoffs.
- The satisfaction that your money is going to France/Germany instead of China (if that’s important to you). Like Le Creuset, Staub is made in France, but Staub has been owned by J.A. Henckels of Germany since 2008.
As an aside, the Staub name might not sound as French as Le Creuset. So is Staub really French? Yes. Staub is named after Francis Staub, who introduced the original Staub cocotte in 1974. Staub’s original headquarters were in Turckheim, Alsace, France–part of the Alsace-Lorraine border region that was home to lots of German-speaking people and was even annexed by the German Empire after the Franco-Prussian War (1871), though the territory would subsequently be absorbed back into France after World War I (1918).
However, Staub differs from Le Creuset in a few ways:
- Less brand recognition. Le Creuset is more famous in the USA than Staub. But in Europe, Staub is also well-known.
- Gray interior enamel (as opposed to Le Creuset’s beige interior enamel).
- This is a double-edged sword in that Staub claims that its dark enamel will naturally season over time. Dark enamel also hides those seasoning stains better.
- On the down side, it may be harder to see fond (brown bits when you brown meat) developing on a dark surface, if your kitchen is poorly-lit. Personally I have never found this to be an issue.
- Staub claims its enamel is rougher and can be seasoned like bare cast iron, over time. In theory this can create a semi-seasoned slick coating. In practice I haven’t noticed any real advantage over Le Creuset. Staub also claims that trace amounts of quartz gives its enamel better heat resistance, but I have not found any difference in practice.
- Staub uses metal handles rated to 500F. Le Creuset for whatever reason still uses “phenolic” (read: plastic) handles on some of its product lines, rated to ~375F. Only a few Le Creuset product lines come with metal handles pre-installed.
Le Creuset knows all about that last bullet point, by the way. Le Creuset even sells stainless steel replacement handles for their French oven lids (in various sizes to fit various sizes of French ovens)! Despite this tacit acknowledgement of the problem, Le Creuset continues to use plastic handles. Even Le Creuset’s Signature line of enameled cast iron French ovens uses something which Le Creuset calls “composite” handles, officially rated to tolerate 500 degrees Fahrenheit. Le Creuset can call their plastic whatever they want, but plastics degrade with use/time/heat. In contrast, metal lasts practically forever. Even some of Le Creuset’s Chinese competitors have moved over to metal handles, such as these Lodge enameled cast iron Dutch ovens. And Tramontina too.
There is no good reason why Le Creuset still uses non-metallic handles for any of their enameled cast iron French ovens; the best excuse I can think of is that metal handles heat up faster than materials like plastic, but even so, all you have to do is use a towel/oven mitt/pot holder/etc. when lifting the lid. Furthermore, a handle that just spent an hour in an oven at 375F is going to be at 375F when you take it out, regardless of handle material.
- If you determine that you need an enameled cast iron Dutch oven that performs like a Le Creuset but is cheaper, and you don’t mind the smaller selection of colors or that the product is made in China, then get a Lodge.
Lodge enamel may or may not be as thick/multi-layered/resistant to chips/cracks/stains/dulling as the Le Creuset or Staub enamel. And Lodge’s enameled cast iron is imported from China. But you still get a lifetime warranty, and you support an American company. Most importantly, Lodge is a major cast iron manufacturer with at good reputation. Therefore Lodge should have the ability and incentive to do strict quality control on its Chinese-made products. Unsurprisingly, Lodge enameled cast iron Dutch ovens routinely get great reviews.
If you want an alternative to Lodge, you can try Tramontina, a Brazilian company which also imports Chinese-made enameled cast iron–but you don’t save any money since they cost about the same as Lodge. Here’s why I can’t really recommend them, though: I have personally used a couple of Tramontina enameled cast iron Dutch ovens, and one of them developed a bunch of small fractures at the perimeter of the interior base after just three uses. I got rid of the other one right afterwards as a precaution. So even though Tramontina is well-reviewed, I’m not optimistic that their enamel will last as long as Le Creuset, Staub, or even Lodge.
Avoid less-known brands that make enameled cast iron. They probably contracted with some Chinese cast iron company to do the actual manufacturing. A less-known brand won’t have much brand equity at risk, so the company that owns the brand has less incentive to spend on continuous oversight of the Chinese operations. (For example, the Martha Stewart Collection enameled cast iron product line was poorly made and, in the words of the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, the “enameled coating on the cast iron casseroles can crack or break during use. This can cause the enamel to crack and fly off as a projectile posing a risk of laceration or burn hazard to the user or bystanders.”) And even if the manufacturer wanted to have rigorous controls, they might not have the financial resources to do so. (Do the smaller Chinese factories even monitor production to make sure that weird stuff like heavy elements or radioactive materials aren’t used? Some metal recyclers either can’t or won’t separate contaminants, so you can have situations where, say, metal tissue boxes are laced with radiation.)1
- If you want to split the difference between Made in France and Made in China ovens, then consider Fontignac. But I would not recommend going down this road (see below for why).
Fontignac (formerly known as Nomar) is a sister company to Staub. Both Fontignac and Staub are made in France, and both are brands owned by Zwilling/Henckels.
I can’t really recommend Fontignac because it occupies an awkward middle ground where it’s almost as expensive as Le Creuset/Staub, yet doesn’t have Le Creuset/Staub quality. I’ve seen more enamel defects on Fontignac-produced cast iron than on Le Creuset or Staub, and not just pinpoint spots of less enamel, either. Several years ago, QVC (a home shopping channel) sold what they called “Staub Basix” but which has handles shaped EXACTLY like this Fontignac Dutch oven (little flat trapezoidal flaps growing out of the sides). Since Staub and Fontignac are sister companies under the Zwilling/Henckels group, I suspect that Fontignac was the actual manufacturer of that limited-edition QVC run of budget cast iron. I bought one of those Basix and it was clear that enamel wasn’t up to usual Staub standards. The one I got had cracked enamel straight out of the box. As if that weren’t enough, the French-made enameled cast iron at Costco looks like the same Basix/Fontignac, and I’ve seen more enamel defects on those Costco products than with Staub or Le Creuset. So if you see budget “Made in France” enameled cast iron, chances are that it was made by Fontignac, to lower quality standards than you’d find on Le Creuset or Staub.
Apparently Fontignac is Zwilling/Henckel’s budget brand: lesser quality but also lesser price than Staub, yet still made in France, so you don’t have to worry as much about contaminants in the enamel or cast iron. But Fontignac prices are high enough that you might as well pay a little more and get a genuine Staub, or save a lot of money by getting a Lodge instead.
Q: Can I use un-enameled (bare) cast iron dutch ovens as if they were enameled?
A: Only sometimes. The short story is that even well-seasoned cast iron will leach iron into acidic foods such as tomato soup, which may look and taste bad. The chemical reactivity of bare cast iron is a huge reason why companies bothered to coat cast iron with relatively non-reactive enamel in the first place!
Q: How should I take care of my enameled cast iron to keep it from chipping, cracking, or rusting?
A: Follow these steps:
- Buy some flaxseed oil. You don’t need much, so a small bottle like this will be more than enough (if you have leftovers, you can add them to a salad or smoothie to eat some healthy omega-3 fatty acids).
- The first thing to do with a new enameled cast iron pot is to wash and rinse it off, then towel dry it, then heat it up on a stove or in an oven for a few minutes so that it’s warm (but not hot) to the touch. This ensures that the cast iron is clean and ready for seasoning.
- Preheat the oven to 500F.
- Take a small amount of flax oil and using your finger, try to make the thinnest possible coating of flax oil around the exposed rims of the Dutch oven and lid. The layer should be so thin as to be invisible. Wipe up any excess with a dry cloth towel.
- Bake the Dutch oven and lid upside down at 500F alone for at least 90 minutes. Make sure nothing else is in the oven, and that it’s dry.
- Let the Dutch oven and lid rest and cool down.
- Repeat steps 4 through 6 at least one more time, preferably at least two more times.
- Congrats on seasoning the exposed cast iron on the rims of your enameled cast iron. The tough coats of polymerized flaxseed oil will help prevent rust.
- When washing and drying your enameled cast iron, remember to wipe the rims. To be extra safe, you can warm up the cast iron on the stove for a while to make sure any microscope remnants of water evaporate.
- Avoid large temperature swings, such as taking your cast iron out of a hot oven and pouring cold water into it. Never use high heat on your stove. Use low or medium. If hotspotting on a stovetop is an issue (because cast iron doesn’t spread heat that well, and the issue gets worse the more undersized the burner is relative to the Dutch oven bottom diameter), try pre-heating the entire Dutch oven in an oven first, and then transferring the Dutch oven to your stovetop.
- Never drag your Dutch oven across hard surfaces like stainless steel, ceramic, or the grates above your burners. Enamel is very hard but also brittle and can chip.
- Never use metal utensils on the interior ceramic, either. Use wooden or silicone utensils, which are unlikely to fracture the enamel. (Example.)
- If you burn something on your enameled cast iron, try cleaning it with an overnight soak and then scrub with a regular sponge. If that doesn’t work, try boiling two cups of water with two tablespoons of vinegar for half an hour. Open a window and turn on your vent because it will smell horrible. You can also use baking soda and make into a paste and scrubbing, but baking soda is mildly abrasive and can dull the enamel over time if you routinely clean with it. Bar Keepers Friend is a nontoxic cleaning powder which also works, but it is also very slightly abrasive, so don’t make a habit of cleaning with BKF, either. If you are in a big rush, you can use oven cleaner if you must–but wash and rinse extremely thoroughly, as that’s very harsh stuff.
Q: What size Dutch oven should I buy?
A: Something between 5 quarts (household of 2 or fewer) to 9 quarts (household of 5+), with the sweet spot around 6 to 7 quarts (household of 3-4).
Due to the weight of cast iron and how long it takes to heat up, I personally would not go above 9 quarts round; if you need more capacity, consider buying multiple Dutch oven instead. I once bought a 13.25-quart oval Staub and eventually had to sell it because it was such a hassle to use; it weighed about 50 pounds fully laden with stew (about half from the cast iron, half from the weight of water/food). It was a colossal pain to maneuver in the sink. In fact, any larger than 8 quarts or so and cast iron starts to get really unwieldy; it’s like swinging an awkwardly-shaped barbell around the kitchen.
On the other hand, you don’t want to go too small, or you will not have the capacity to fit common cuts of meat such as pork shoulders. 5 quarts is the minimum that I would go.
If you can have only one Dutch oven/French oven/cocotte, try to get a round one so that you can more easily use it on the stovetop as well as the oven. Cast iron already struggles to evenly heat, and the oval ones just exacerbate the problem.
For similar reasons, try to avoid “low” or other modified shapes (e.g., low casseroles; ovals) if you can have only one Dutch oven. You want to stick with the standard shape in order to have the most flexibility to fit a wide range of food, from pork shoulders to fish to poultry.
Here are examples of the “not too big, not too small” round dutch ovens that I’d recommend:
And if you are looking for the best budget-conscious enameled cast iron option, just get this. It performs just as well as Le Creuset and Staub, even if the enamel might not be quite as good, and it comes with a metal handle unlike Le Creuset’s plastic handle: Lodge Color EC6D43 Enameled Cast Iron Dutch Oven, Island Spice Red, 6-Quart