WHAT TO LOOK FOR IN A DUTCH OVEN
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.