When winter comes, it's both soothing and budget-friendly to make soups and stews. Slow cooking is almost magical -- throw some cheap cuts of meat and complementary ingredients into a big pot and let them simmer on the stovetop, sending incredible aromas throughout the kitchen. Then open the pot hours later to a heap of delicious comfort food.
Essential to creating this magic is a Dutch oven (or slow cooker). Dutch ovens are large, deep, heavy pots that retain heat for a long time and hold large cuts of meat (think brisket) along with liquid. Beyond soups and stews, they are good for braising and cooking up staples such as tomato sauce, which makes them one of the most useful tools in a culinary arsenal.
Although many cheap cookware sets include a Dutch oven, the pot is usually too small to be effective when cooking for the whole family (or for leftovers). Go for open stock and choose a Dutch oven with a capacity of at least 6 to 8 quarts, which will hold plenty and provide a wide surface area for browning meat. The pot needs a tight-fitting lid, so liquid won't evaporate but instead fall back into the pot and baste whatever is cooking. It should also be oven-safe and capable of withstanding at least 400 degrees.
The best Dutch ovens, according to experts, are made of enameled cast iron. The enamel keeps the cast iron from reacting with acidic foods such as tomatoes and makes the interior relatively nonstick. Cast iron excels at holding heat and creating an even temperature, which keeps a braise, stew, chili, soup, or sauce at a nice simmer for a long time. On the other hand, cast iron pots can weigh upward of 15 pounds -- too heavy for some people to lift when full. Stainless steel is a perfectly acceptable alternative, as long as it has some heft, an aluminum core for even heating, and a tight-fitting lid.
The most expensive and highly recommended enameled cast iron Dutch ovens cost a few hundred bucks. Le Creuset is the gold standard, with a 7.25-quart round pot priced at $330 (and currently starting at about $250 on eBay). Although it's often said these Dutch ovens will last a lifetime, that's a chunk of change to drop for a pot. Expert-recommended All-Clad Stainless is much lighter than cast iron but still sports a pretty hefty price: $250 for a 5.5-quart Dutch oven.
Do you need a top-of-the-line vessel to turn out superb meals? You do not. We found five Dutch ovens under $80 that meet expert and consumer standards, based on online reviews.
Before we get into the top picks, a quick note on care: No enameled cast iron cookware, no matter how expensive, will last forever if it's not treated properly. Always heat the pan with oil or water coating the bottom, stir with wooden or plastic spoons, and set the heat to medium or medium-high. Allow the pot to cool before washing, avoid abrasive cleansers and steel wool, and try not to drop anything heavy into the pot that could chip or crack the enamel.
The best substitute for Le Creuset is an enameled version of a stalwart, Lodge cast iron. Target sells a 6-quart pot in red or blue. Reviewers consider this Dutch oven an excellent value; the average rating is 4.4 stars. Whereas uncoated cast iron must be seasoned, the enamel surface requires no such treatment. The pot is oven-safe up to 500 degrees, retains heat well, and can be used on any type of cooktop, including induction.
Running a close second is the Tramontina Gourmet enameled cast iron 7-quart Dutch oven. Its oval shape makes it quite versatile; a chicken or leg of lamb easily fits, and there's a good-size browning surface. The pot is oven-safe to 450 degrees. Reviews posted on the Walmart website award this Dutch oven an average of 4.6 stars.
Sur la Table makes a red, 7-quart Dutch oven that also garners stellar reviews (and is currently discounted from $130). The interior enamel is matte black, which can make it hard to see what's cooking. Nonetheless, reviewers report that it simmers well and is ideal for soups and stews. Small spikes on the underside of the lid encourage the gathering liquid to drip back into the pot. It's oven-safe to 500 degrees.
If you fancy something lighter weight, this 7-quart pot might be the one. It tips the scale at about 6 pounds but still allows for a slow simmer and is oven-safe to 400 degrees. Although the handles are coated with silicone, reviewers warn that potholders are mandatory. This Dutch oven is made of anodized aluminum and the lid is tempered glass, so you can peek at what's going on inside without releasing all-important moisture. Users say food browns well and cooks evenly, and they appreciate the easy cleanup that comes with the nonstick interior.
Cuisinart's 6-quart MultiClad Pro stainless stockpot is a bit smaller and lighter than the others. At less than 6 pounds, the pot is relatively easy to lift even when full. It's oven-safe to 500 degrees and can even go under the broiler. Stainless steel is a relatively weak conductor of heat, but this pot has a core of aluminum all the way through (not just on the bottom) for even heat distribution. Satisfied users say it provides the same functionality as pricier stainless pots at a fraction of the cost.