Pros: Pretty! Easy to clean. Does what it does very well.
Cons: Heavy. Pricey.
With my newfound interest in cookware, I decided that I want a Le Creuset french oven. I have to confess that I wanted one not because I understood anything about cast-iron cooking or because I understood just what it could do. I simply wanted one because it seemed to be coveted, raved over. I am a victim of hype.
I was looking for a sauce pan or a dutch oven that was medium-sized - something around 3 to 5 quarts to fill in the gap of my new Anolon set (which I no longer have), which contained a big stock pot and two smaller sauce pans. A friend suggested Le Creuset, although he doesn't have one. (In fact, he wasn't sure what a dutch/french oven was.) But he knew that his wife wanted some, and wondered what was so great about them.
And to be honest, me too. I went to Williams Sonoma and saw these Le Creuset pans. I tried to lift up the lid and ... wow ... heavy. Then I looked at the price and ... wow ... sticker shock.
I became more convinced that cast iron was worth the money after I experienced how well my new Lodge skillet worked. It helped me realize that not all cookware is the same.
Shopping Tip #1: Ways to Save Money on Le Creuset
I found a Le Creuset outlet at the Citadel outlet in the City of Commerce, California. (Note: The Citadel outlet lets you sign up for a discount card which gives you 15% off your purchase.)
Outlets are a good way to save money, if you can find one. In addition to below-retail prices, sometimes they have sales. When I was there, they were having a sale on "Indigo," "Cobalt," and "Soleil" (2 shades of blue and a dark yellow).
Outlets also sell slightly irregular items (called "second choice") that have minor defects. These second choice pots have the same lifetime warranty as the first choice pots at a discounted price. The salesperson told me that these "second choice" pots are the biggest sellers, and also that the most popular color is red and orange (called "flame").
If you want to save money, these "second choice" pots can be a good buy. However, keep in mind that some are more flawed than others. One of them had nothing but a few tiny bubbles on the ceramic surface at the bottom - I was totally fine with that. Another one, however, had a big chip on the handle. So look over your piece before making your selection. In addition, these "second choice" pots have telltale marks on them identifying them as "second choice" so no one tries to return one and get credit for "first choice" prices. (Which also goes to show you that they are hard to tell apart.)
2. Costco.com - they sell just one type of oven (4.5 quart) and only two colors (red & blue). They also don't list the brand name "Le Creuset." But the photos say "Le Creuset" on them. ($129.99 - search for "cast iron dutch oven")
While planning to make my purchase at an outlet, I ended up buying mine at Amazon.com. Their prices are typically what you would pay at most other stores (e.g., Williams-Sonoma, cooking.com), but they occasionally have sales and free gift offers that can make them a better deal. (E.g., right now the 4.25 qt. soup pot is only $99.99, and you get a free steamer with the 5.5 qt. french oven.)
I decided to buy their 5-piece essential set (in red), which also included a 1-1/2 qt. sauce pan and a 9-inch skillet. I was pursuaded by freebies: a set of 4 ramekins and a silicone utensil set with a crock. It felt like I was getting a lot more for my money, so I placed the order. Now I suddenly had a bunch of new Le Creuset stuff!
Shopping Tip #2: Alternative Brands
After getting wind of the high Le Creuset prices, I looked for alternatives. Unfortunately, I found that while *raw* cast iron cookware (e.g., Lodge) can be inexpensive, enameled cast iron typically costs quite a bit more, regardless of the brand.
Some brands I looked into:
* Chasseur - About $140 for a 4-quart oven; not sold in very many places, it seems.
* Lafont - Sold at Amazon.com and Target.com. Again, not all that much cheaper than Le Creuset. They also have wooden handles, so they are not oven-safe. (They look cute, though.)
* Lodge Enamel - Famous for their raw cast-iron cookware, they also make enamel pots at $120+. Still pretty expensive. Amazon.com is currently selling the 5-qt. and some are less than $90. The prices vary by color. (Their colors have names like "patriot red" and "liberty blue." Seems like a not-so-subtle way of saying, "Don't buy from those farty French!" Bwahaha.)
* Innova - Sold at Smartbargains.com, Target.com, and Amazon.com. At under $50, it is by far the cheapest! But after reading some negative reviews on Target.com and Amazon.com about the enamel bubbling/peeling on the Innova pots during use, I had some concerns about the quality and decided to pass on the Innova.
* Mario Batali - The Mario Batali pot only seems to come in one size: 6-quart. You can buy this for $99.99 (surlatable.com, Crate & Barrel, cooking.com). The best price I've seen is on Amazon.com, where the price is currently $99.99 - but I've kept it saved in my shopping cart for a while, and the price once went down as low as $59.99.
* Staub - Like Chasseur, not sold in as many places as Le Creuset, but available at Sur La Table. Staub is also made in France, and is considered a good brand. Its distinction is that the inside of the pots are matte black, while Le Creuset pots' insides are cream-colored.
* Basix by Staub (available on QVC.com) - The introductory prices are very nice, but after shipping & handling, you still end up paying $80-90 for a 5-qt. pot.
* Ikea also sells enamel cast iron pots ($49.99 - 3 qts., $59.99 - 5 qts.) Only comes in orange, and has matte black interior.
* Rachael Ray now sells cast iron dutch ovens. Check out www.lnt.com.
So I found that some of these other brands do cost less than Le Creuset. But since it was my first enamel cast iron pot, I decided I will try the Le Creuset brand, and save money by getting a "second quality" pot from an outlet.
One thing that makes Le Creuset unique from these other brands is that they use phenolic plastic - for the handle on the saucepans, and the knobs on the lids (which are screwed on). Some other brands have integrated handles, or handles made of metal or wood. Each has their advantages and disadvantages - the integrated/metal knobs will probably get very hot, but the screwed on phenolic plastic knob can get loose, and the wooden handle keeps the pot from being oven-safe ... something to consider when you're making your choice.
Other things to consider: some brands, such as the Mario Batali and Staub have "basting spikes" on the lids. They are a grid of spikes that help gather the condensation and drip during cooking, so your food stays moist. (Also useful as a medieval torture device.)
Shopping Tip #3: The Right Size, Shape, & Color
The Le Creuset round french oven comes in a wide range of sizes: 2 qt - 13.25 qt. (The big one must weigh a ton!) I was told at the Le Creuset outlet that 3.5 qt. is the recommended size for 2-4 people, and I've found that it's a good size for my every day use.
The oval french oven comes in a smaller range of sizes: 2 qt - 9.5 qt. This shape may be a better fit for things like whole chickens and roasts. There is also an oval doufeu oven, which has a concave surface on the lid that holds ice cubes - this makes the liquids inside the pot condense and baste the meat that you're cooking.
Color choice is strictly a personal preference, of course. They're all very pretty! If matching your Le Creuset set is important to you, be aware that not all pieces come in all colors. E.g., the 3.5 qt. round french oven comes in eight colors, but the 4.5 qt. round french oven only comes in four colors (red, blue, orange, white). The doufeu oven only comes in two (red, blue).
Using the Le Creuset 5-Piece Essential Set
French Oven (3.5 quart):
To appreciate the cast iron french oven, I had to figure out how it works - the pot conducts and retains the heat all along the sides and the top, creating an oven-like environment - the heavy lid creates a near-perfect seal. So it's ideal for stews and casserole-y dishes. I've also had great results with sauteing veggies and browning meats in it. So it's great for recipes where I saute the veggies first, and then add some type of marinated meat.
I've got a spicy marinated chicken recipe, and a mean tofu casserole under my belt. My new french oven does a great job with these! I also recently tried a beef stew recipe my mom gave me - melt-in-your-mouth delicious!
The cast iron french oven is also great for cooking sauces/soups containing egg - when you want to cook the egg through (don't want to eat raw egg), but you don't want to scramble the eggs. The french oven, with its even and constant heat accomplishes this beautifully.
The knob on the pot lid is made of phenolic plastic, which stays relatively cool while cooking, and it's flat and broad enough to let the lid stand on the counter when it's flipped over. You wouldn't want this lid spinning around on your counter - it's very heavy!
Sauce Pan (1.5 quart):
The sauce pan is a cute little thing. It's got a phenolic plastic handle, and pour spouts on either side. It's got a steam hole on the lid, which prevents it from working exactly like a smaller dutch oven, but it works fine for whatever you need a 1.5-quart pot for.
This sauce pan is great for smaller dishes (e.g., Korean "soon" tofu casserole) that are usually cooked in clay pots. The cast iron helps give the dish that extra bit of soul, like with clay pots.
The skillet works pretty well. It browns and sears meats nicely. But the surface isn't very non-stick. The inside of the skillet features a "satin black enamel" finish, which is a porous surface that's different from the shiny enamel on the other items. Since I can't find the care instructions on the www.LeCreuset.com website, I'll tell you what the enclosed booklet says:
- with use, an oily, brown/black film will develop on the surface (called "patina") - this is good because this coating will help release food
- although you can use soap and/or dishwasher, they recommend that when possible, just wipe and rinse with hot water; frequent dishwashing will wash away the patina
- no abrasive cleansers or pads, it will scratch the satin coating
So basically, caring for this skillet isn't much different from caring for my Lodge skillet. Although you can put this in the dishwasher, it will result in dulling of the enamel, and wear down the "patina" (which is a Frenchy way to say "seasoning," non?). And in a way, it's less durable - with a Lodge skillet, you can repair damage (short of cracking) to the pan by scrubbing & re-seasoning it. You can't do that with the satin black finish.
However, there are advantages of an enameled skillet: certain foods react with raw cast iron, such as tomatoes, and the satin-black coating would prevent this. And you don't need to deal with seasoning.
So as far as surface & ease-of-care goes, the Le Creuset skillet is actually very similar to the Lodge skillet. They even look similar: helper handle, pour spouts, integrated handle. You still have to build up a patina to improve food-release, and you still need to clean it somewhat carefully.
I do like the Le Creuset skillet, and I love the pretty red enamel. But on Amazon.com, a 10.25" Le Creuset skillet costs $89, and the 9" skillet (like mine) costs $44.99. A 10.25" Lodge skillet costs about $10-15. Based on the high cost, I'm not sure this skillet would be worth buying outside of the set.
Caring For the Le Creuset 5-Piece Essential Set
- Le Creuset is dishwasher-safe, but they warn that the enamel will dull. I prefer to hand-wash my pots and pans anyway, so that's what I do. It's important to make sure that after washing it, that you dry it thoroughly. Although the pot is covered in enamel, the rims of the pot and the lid are left unenameled. I once made the mistake of just letting my french oven air-dry after washing it, which prevented the rims from drying thoroughly. And I saw tiny rust spots later. Boo!
I was able to remove the rust with an old toothbrush and some Barkeeper's Friend scouring powder. (I couldn't use a metal scouring pad because I didn't want to scratch the enamel.) Since then, I make sure that I always thoroughly towel-dry, and then air-dry the pot with the lid off and flipped over, before putting it away. I've also rubbed some olive oil along the rims before using it, to kind of season it. And so far, I haven't seen any rust. Although I don't do this every single time, I will put the oil on it if I plan to store the pot away for a while.
So after washing it, make sure you dry your Le Creuset right away, and don't put it away when it's damp.
- The instructions also say that you shouldn't heat the pot with nothing in it. I read online that I should heat up my Lodge skillet while it's empty after washing it (in the oven or stove) to make sure it's bone-dry & prevent rust. But make sure you don't do that with any of your enameled pots.
- In addition, don't pour cold water in a hot pot. Metal expands and contracts with heat, and the sudden temp. change can crack the enamel. In fact, for any kind of pot you use (steel, raw & enameled cast iron, anodized, stoneware) this is never a good idea. So always let your pot cool down first.
So I really like my Le Creuset 5-Piece Essential Set. I liked the freebies I got with it, and I don't regret buying it. However, I do think that the french oven is the most useful item of the bunch, and I probably could have lived without the extra skillet & the sauce pan. I like them, I'm glad I have them, but I don't know if they're all "essential."
The french oven is great. I highly recommend it. In fact, I'm planning to get myself a bigger one in the future. I haven't decided whether to buy another Le Creuset, or a Mario Batali, or maybe a Staub Basix from QVC. (I'm curious about the other brands, and how well they work in comparison.)
There is some care you have to exercise when cleaning it. The enamel surface is very easy to clean: just a quick soak and soap should remove all the food. But the raw iron rims require a little extra attention - just make sure you dry it thoroughly, and don't leave it to drip-dry.
My Le Creuset 5-Piece Essential Set comes with a limited lifetime warranty. I've read in other reviews that their Le Creuset stuff comes with a 101-year warranty, so perhaps they changed their policy.
Do I think my Le Creuset is worth every penny, and that I will pass this down to my grandchildren? I will confess that I still don't know if I bought this set because I really needed it, or if it was simply because I wanted name-brand-best. Not because I wanted people to look in my cupboards and be impressed, but because I thought the food would magically turn out better.
So does it live up to the hype? I can tell you that the french oven is fantastic - what I cook in it is cooked with the most consistent and even heat compared to any other pot I've used before, and I can really see that difference. I also think that with proper care, my Le Creuset set will last a very long time, and I definitely won't be needing replacements. So the extra weight and price is worthwhile. Now that I discovered enamel cast iron french ovens, this is definitely "lifetime cookware" for me, and I will be recommending it to others.
I would recommend the set, if you're interested in the extra pieces. It's less money than buying the pieces separately. But if you're curious about enamel cast iron, and just want to give it a try, I would recommend starting out with the french oven.
(Thanks to pogomom for adding this product to the database!)