The Luxury and Pragmatism of Le Creuset’s French Oven

The iconic French cast iron is a symbol of taste in more ways than one

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The Luxury and Pragmatism of Le Creuset’s French Oven

The company’s name means “the cauldron”. When Le Creuset of Fresnoy-Le-Grand, France first made its iconic enameled cast iron cookware in 1925, it came in one color only: Flame, a blazing vermillion base that transitioned upwards to a bright, fiery orange at the pot’s rim. And there is indeed something elemental about a Le Creuset Flame cocotte, glowing like an ember from Hephaestus’s volcanic forge.

Now, nearly a century and at least thirty colors later, the sight of a Le Creuset pot instantly evokes the warmth of the hearth, shared meals, and lazily gurgling daube de boeuf. Food stylists, magazine editors, and bloggers galore have long known Le Creuset’s symbolic power, and they prominently feature the cookware over and over again in lavish photographs of rib-sticking roasts and soups and stews, a visual motif for a life well lived.

The succulent offerings of a meal simmered in Le Creuset also bring to mind the kind of leisurely weekend cooking that’s increasingly less accessible to cram in between soccer lessons, gym workouts, late nights at the office, and binge-watching of The Walking Dead. Most anyone who’s had the pleasure of owning Le Creuset knows that its usefulness isn’t limited to the weekend, and it most certainly does not guarantee leisure. A fricassee does not fricassee itself. There’s slicing, sautéing, stirring, skimming. There are vent fans whirring noisily overhead to spirit away the vaporized grease and plumes of meaty smoke; there are soiled cooking utensils piling up in the sink; there are untimely phone calls to answer and unrealistic schedules to account for. We buy Le Creuset for lusty cooking, yes, but the tenor of the time we spend using them isn’t always what we bargained for.

That’s why lots of people who own this stuff don’t actually use it, or use it rarely. It’s quite possibly the most utilitarian status symbol you can display in your kitchen. My favored size, the 5.5-quart round French oven, retails for around $280. You can get a 10-piece set of decent anodized aluminum nonstick cookware for less than that, but the entire lot together isn’t half as sexy as a piece single of Le Creuset. The three Le Creuset items that I own and treasure and repeatedly haul onto the range are small pockets of affluence in my rough-around-the-edges kitchen, even when I know damn well the mess and stress I may be getting myself into. Cooking can be dirty work.

As can be the manufacture of cast iron, but Le Creuset has an excellent track record for creating refined, high-quality products. It all began when casting expert Armand Desaegher and enameling whiz Octave Aubecq got together to improve the heft of cast iron cookware with the grace of porcelain glaze. Fans of raw cast iron know it needs to be lovingly seasoned. Enameled cast iron surfaces won’t rust, can be cooked on straight out of the box, and don’t look like a rustic kettle Ma Ingalls just lugged out of the wagon.

Looks are the true genius of Desaeger and Aubecq’s vision. Like an Olympic athlete who inks a modeling deal, Le Creuset performs, and looks fantastic while doing it. Desaeger and Aubecq were not the first to make cookware with a porcelain enamel glaze, but they popularized it, and their introduction of color into everyday pots and pans was groundbreaking. Before Le Creuset, cookware was black or white, maybe grey. Adding color enlivened the kitchen, and also invited cooks to select a fashionable, personalized wardrobe for their cookware. At last, their pots could reflect their personalities.

The company has always been design-savvy. In 1958, a few years after breaking into the international market, they hired influential designer Raymond Loewy (known for Greyhound busses and the Lucky Strike package) to create a thoroughly modern-looking Coquelle French Oven, a highly valued and now-rare piece that, to today’s eye, has a retro-futuristic, Jetsons-style flair.

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Didriks CC BY

Le Creuset is not the only maker of enameled cast iron on the block. In France there’s Staub, which features more a rigid, masculine silhouette. Martha Stewart, Mario Batali, Rachel Ray, and Paula Deen all peddle more budget-friendly Le Creuset knockoffs. They’ll yield a carbonades flamande as luscious as the lovely pots they imitate, but it still won’t be quite the same.

Here’s what Le Creuset offers that other brands don’t: enameled bottoms of most pieces, which won’t scratch that awful new glass cooktop you’ll regret having installed once a few years go by. Enameled white interiors, so it’s easy to peer in the pot and see how nicely your onions are browning against that light background. A lifetime guarantee. A flawless porcelain surface that’s smooth and refined instead of clumsy and pockmarked; this creates fewer micro-pockets for food to get trapped in, making clean-up a snap. Black phenolic knobs made from synthetic polymers that withstand oven temperatures up to 375 degrees Fahrenheit and stay cool on the range, so you can grab them sans potholder and not burn your hand.

And Le Creuset offers, hand-down, the most variety. They know their audience. With so many sizes and shapes and colors, it’s compellingly collectible. There are gigantic casseroles resembling pumpkins and bell peppers that have the rounded, bulbous curves of a 3-D pornographic cake. There are limited-edition “Strawberry Tea” stoneware serving pieces in pink, with proceeds going to breast cancer awareness. There are saucepans with wooden handles and saucepans whose lids, when inverted, can be used as a skillet. There are trivets and griddles and fondue pots. There are crepe pans, though I don’t recommend them—they’re hell on your wrists, if swiftly tilting the pan is your preferred method of spreading crepe batter. There are adorable ceramic mini-cocottes, which I dare you to resist (I keep kosher salt in mine). There are gratin dishes and tea kettles and sauciers, and even paddle-sized spatulas embedded with glitter. (In 1995, Le Creuset cleverly branched out from the cast-iron scene and began asserting its presence in stoneware, stainless steel, and silicone.)

But the ultimate piece of Le Creuset remains the cocotte, or French Oven. This is the large round stewpot we Americans call a Dutch oven. The term “Dutch oven” possibly refers to the prowess the Dutch had in casting iron cookware in the early 1700s. The classic Dutch oven, which was popular in America among pioneers and homesteading types, had three short legs to make it possible to set atop a pile of hot coals to render it into an actual self-contained oven.

Yet word “cocotte” means nothing to Americans, and Le Creuset likes to asset its Gallic superiority. So French oven it is, though I know of no one who calls it that, despite the average American food snob being able to name way more French braises than Dutch ones.

The oval French oven is great if you like stewing whole chickens or big, irregularly shaped slabs of beef or pork. But most stoves have round burners, so the round oven is far more versatile. Five and a half quarts is the best size because it’s not too small for a honking batch of chili, not too big for risotto for four. Which I’ve done (pardon me, Italy). Also I’ve used it to make paella for eight (pardon me, Spain). It’s my go-to for deep-frying and jam-making, too.

Never mind that clay cookware is actually far more efficient than cast iron at holding heat. I have a lovely oval Emile Henry casserole, made from sturdy, high-fired Burgundy clay, and I’ve done a chicken or two in it, but I prefer it for baking that crusty no-knead bread that everyone was making a fuss about some years ago. Oh, the customers who shopped for Le Creuset just so they could bake the bread from that New York Times article! And oh, the phenolic knobs which were charred and destroyed at excessive temperatures in the service of bread-baking! (Should you want to shove your Le Creuset into a blazing hot oven, it’s advisable to first cover the knob with a shield of foil.)

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Franklin Heijnen CC BY-SA

One by one, the company introduced new colors. Caribbean, which debuted in the early 2000s, has a cerulean shade that fades into turquoise, triggering serenity as calming and soothing as an Enya song. Actually sullying it with pinto beans or tomato puree seems anathema. I’m sure there are plenty of owners of Caribbean who put their Le Creuset through the wringer, but I’d say if you are in the market for decoration pieces only, Caribbean is your Creuset. Every now and then they retire a color, perhaps to keep abreast of changing tastes, perhaps to boost the value of classic colors. Cobalt, a longtime best-seller, got the axe; rumor had it the pigments in the enamel were getting too costly. Le Creuset introduced Lapis and Marseille in its stead, sending collectors to the wilds of outlet stores and eBay.

Even though I’ve cherished my 5.5-quart French oven in Flame for well over a decade, most everything I know about Le Creuset I learned not from owning it, but from selling it. I worked in a well-heeled cookware chain store for a while, both as a junior manager and a cooking instructor. We showcased our formidable offerings of Le Creuset prominently, a heavy rainbow occupying multiple units of prime metro shelving just to the right of the store’s entrance. Come November, Le Creuset was our bread and butter. I spent hours counselling customers over which automatic espresso center made the best latte foam, or whether a santoku or chef’s knife was a better fit for their chopping style. But the Le Ceruset? It sold itself. Customers were direct: I’d like the oval one in Cassis. Four and a half quarts, and could you wrap it?

They would then cross it off their holiday shopping list. Sometimes the gift was actually a pick-me-up for themselves. Some people buy shoes; some people buy foxy enameled cast iron cookware that is an ergonomic nightmare. It is very, very hard to stop at just one pot. Trust me. Whether the compulsion is to acquire every piece in one color line or to score an assortment of vintage pieces on the cheap, you’ll find that Le Creuset loves company. It wants to breed, to show as much of its lovely self in your kitchen as possible. Does a home cook need oval French ovens in three different but similar sizes? Probably not, and if they do use them all frequently, either they cook too much or don’t get enough sleep.

A 2014 report by the Hartman Group revealed that 47 percent of meals in America today are snacks consumed on the go. Chances that any of these snacks where whipped up using a Le Creuset tagine in Quince are slim. A squat but handsome Le Creuset braiser would be a fine vehicle for boiling a pack of instant ramen, but even in households where the ramen/Creuset line is blurred, the microwave or a humble metal saucepan seem the most likely candidate.

These days, I don’t use my trusty Le Creuset French oven as often as I once did. I’m more apt to reach for one of my three pressure cookers, which shave off up to two-thirds of the cooking time. Often I put dinner together in that frustratingly slim window between getting home after working all day and our entire family having a cranky, hunger-related meltdown, so speed is important. As we sup on our pressure-cooked lentil ragout or garlicky and tart pork adobo, I gaze over at the lava-hued vibrancy of my Flame cocotte on the stove’s largest rear burner—its default residence—and pretend that our meal emerged from its generous, patient interior. When I’m not using them, I keep the pressure cookers tucked away in large cupboards. They’re not eye candy.

Sara Bir is a chef, food writer, and the author of The Pocket Pawpaw Cookbook..

Main photos by jules CC BY and Timothy Vollmer CC BY

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