Whether you have meaty beef short ribs braising in the oven or a piquant pork posole bubbling away on top of the stove, success depends on having the right pot. You need one that can maintain a gentle, even heat during a long, quiet simmer. And from my experience, the pots that do this best are cast-iron Dutch ovens (also known as cocottes, casseroles, and French ovens). Cast iron, in addition to being last-a-lifetime durable, conducts heat very slowly; it takes a long time to heat up, but once hot, it holds that heat admirably well. And cast iron can go right from the stovetop to the oven, an essential step in many braises. Best of all, cast iron that’s been coated with smooth glossy enamel makes a great braising vessel that’s also nonreactive and easy to clean.
We focused on 5- to 6-qt. cast-iron Dutch ovens, which we consider the most useful size. In each, we boiled and simmered with the lid on and off, seared skin-on chicken and made a stovetop chicken stew, caramelized onions, seared beef, oven-braised pot roast, and reduced sauces. We also hefted the pots into and out of the oven, weighed them, and took their measurements.
Staub Cocotte (5 quart, $189.95)
The richly colored high-gloss enamel, elegant design, and finial-like top handle makes this pot the most stylish of the bunch. The uniquely designed lid fits snugly and retains more moisture than other models, both on the stovetop and in the oven. The wide side handles are easy to grip with oven mitts, but the sloped sides and narrower base mean less room for searing. ChefsResource.com
Lodge Enamel (5 quart, $167.95)
It was love at first sight with this well-designed pot. Its broad base allows maximum room for searing. The graceful loop handle feels great in hand and stays cool on the stovetop. Plus, this pot is so handsome you may want to leave it on display in your kitchen. Our only word of caution: The thick cast-iron construction makes it heavy for its size. Lodge-enamel.pans.com
Mario Batali Italian Essentials Pot (6 quart, $99.95)
The broad base, straight sides, and bigger capacity of this pot translate into maximum room for searing, so you can brown meat in fewer batches. Its width easily accommodates unwieldy cuts, such as lamb shanks. We did notice significant evaporation during braising due to the wider base and a looser lid. While the thick-walled construction and large capacity make this the heaviest pot in the line up, it’s also one of the best values. SurLaTable.com
Innova Round Oven (5 quart, $49.99)
This unassuming pot held its own against the sleeker and better-known brands. Its extremely low price tag and shorter warranty period (25 years) do make us wonder, but the parameters of our testing don’t allow us to measure longevity. The base is also narrower than any of the rest, which translates into more batches and more time spent searing. Target.com
World Cuisine Chasseur (5-1/2 quart, $165)
These handsome, sturdy pots are fairly new here, but the company that makes them enjoys a 70-year reputation in France for well-designed, durable products. The wide shape is ample for searing, and the top knob stays cool on the stovetop. This pot’s large capacity and heavy construction make it one of the heftier ones we tried. We were surprised by its short warranty period (10 years), given that the pot feels and looks very solid. Pans.com
Le Creuset (5-1/2 quart, $194.95)
For years, Le Creuset was the only choice for serious cooks, and time has proven these to be reliable and indestructible pots. The most noticeable advantage over the others is its slightly thinner construction, which makes it lighter and less arduous to lift. We also appreciate the wide base (ample room for searing) and the handle that stays cool on the stovetop. KitchenEtc.com
The undersides of the lids of many Dutch ovens are festooned with spikes (or raised dots) designed to form droplets of condensation from steam rising off the simmering liquid. These droplets theoretically drip down onto the food, basting it as it braises. In our tests, we found that condensation formed on the underside of all lids—spiked or flat—and dripped back into the pot. There was no significant difference in the amount of moisture or the appearance of foods braised under the two types of lids.