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Stock pots versus Dutch ovens; stainless steel versus cast iron

A good Dutch oven can be a busy cook's best friend. These versatile pots can bake, deep-fry, braise and boil foods. Many cooks also use them to simmer soups and stews on the stovetop. Dutch ovens do many of the same jobs as stockpots (also called soup pots), but there are several differences between the two. The most popular Dutch oven sizes are in the 5-to-7-quart range, while stock pots are larger, usually 8 to 12 quarts. Also, as the editors of Cook's Illustrated magazine explain, Dutch ovens are "heavier and thicker than stock pots, allowing them to retain and conduct heat more effectively." A Dutch oven can also go from stovetop to oven, something larger stockpots can't do. Many Dutch ovens have a colorful enamel finish allowing them to double as serving pieces. For a look at our favorite stockpots, see our separate report.

In general, Dutch ovens are pretty basic. Most are constructed of heavy-duty cast iron, built to withstand direct heat and the test of time. Although lighter-weight models are available in aluminum or stainless steel, we generally found that cast-iron versions received the best reviews. Differences among models are limited to details such as capacity, enamel coating, color and basic features such as handle style. Differences in cost, however, can be quite significant: We found good reviews for Dutch ovens costing as little as $30 (for a 5-quart model in plain cast iron) and as much as $290 (for a 7.25-quart enameled model made by French manufacturer Le Creuset).

Two brands stand out based on both professional and consumer reviews: Lodge and Le Creuset. These manufacturers make heavy cast-iron pots that earn good marks for cooking performance in professional tests and are highly rated by users for their looks, durability and ease of use. We found the most detailed tests of Dutch ovens in Cook's Illustrated and Good Housekeeping magazines, while food blogs such as SeriousEats.com and TheKitchn.com offer general advice on what to look for. Retail sites such as Amazon.com, Walmart.com and Cooking.com provide information about how Dutch ovens perform in owners' kitchens.

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