For braisers, the heat is on

Test Kitchen

The Essentials

December 07, 2005|By DONNA DEANE | DONNA DEANE,LOS ANGELES TIMES

Every fall, when braising season begins in ear-nest, we pull out our favorite heavyweight: a 5.5-quart round Le Creuset enameled cast-iron pot.

It's perfect for slow-cooking meat until it's meltingly tender. We love everything about this pot -- from its heavy-duty construction to its pale-enamel interior, which makes it easy to judge browning (it's also easy to clean).

Lately, though, a couple of new braisers have caught our eye. The first is Staub's 5-quart round, enameled cast-iron La Cocotte pot. The other is the Flame-Top Stewpot from Emile Henry, a black 5.5-quart round pot made of glazed clay. Both happen to have lids that promise to give cooks a break from basting. When braising, you generally use less liquid than you would in a stew, which means the meat isn't submerged. So you'll need to peek in during cooking to baste the meat or turn it at least a couple of times to keep it moist.

But with the Staub and Emile Henry pots, the lids' undersides are dotted with nubs. As steam rises and condenses on the lid surface, the nubs are supposed to direct the moisture to drip over the meat during the cooking.

All this was so intriguing, we decided to put our Le Creuset to the test against the upstarts.

For our braise-off, we made a batch of lamb shanks in each of the three braisers. We seared the shanks, sauteed vegetables, deglazed with a little broth, then added back the lamb shanks, along with more broth and wine.

Finally, we covered each braiser, brought it to a boil over the stove, checking for any escaping steam. Then into a 325-degree oven they went for about two hours.

We pulled the Le Creuset out twice to baste and once to turn over the shanks. For the Staub and Emile Henry pots, we left them alone to work their purported magic.

The results? All the braisers worked reasonably well. They browned the shanks, deglazed to our satisfaction and held their heat.

The Le Creuset, however, outperformed the contenders. Its lid was the tightest, releasing the least steam; its pale interior was preferable to those of Staub and Emile Henry (against the dark interiors, our lamb shanks inadvertently went past searing and into burn territory). Its handles were large enough to hold safely with potholders. And its bottom surface amply held our four shanks in a single layer. The Le Creuset remains our favorite braiser ever.

Donna Deane writes for the Los Angeles Times.

NEW APPEAL: STAUB

This 5-quart La Cocotte braiser from Staub appeals to Le Creuset fans: It's made of enameled cast-iron, comes in bright colors and weighs 11.75 pounds. It goes on the stove or in the oven (up to 500 degrees). It has a lifetime warranty and is dishwasher-safe.

WHAT'S THE DIFFERENCE / / Its interior enamel is a rough matte and black; it doesn't need seasoning and won't discolor. The lid has self-basting raised dots on the underside.

WHAT WE THOUGHT / / The black interior makes it hard to gauge browning. It's easy to clean, though it's also easy to miss any dark, cooked-on spots of food. The pot's slanted sides make a smaller surface at the bottom for browning (our four lamb shanks wouldn't fit in one layer). Its easy-to-grip handles are the largest of the three braisers. But the self-basting dots disappoint; our shanks turned out somewhat dry. You could do the basting yourself, but the other negatives make Le Creuset a better choice.

HOW MUCH / / 5-quart Staub La Cocotte braiser, about $190, from Sur La Table stores, cooking.com, amazon.com. Colors vary by retailer.

HOT STUFF: EMILE HENRY

Emile Henry's 5.5-quart Flame-Top Stewpot is made with clay from Burgundy, France, and is designed for stove-top and oven use. Its manufacturer says that it can go in the freezer and microwave as well (and the dishwasher, too). It has a one-year warranty.

WHAT'S THE DIFFERENCE / / It's a braiser crossed with a clay pot. The glazed ceramic braiser must be seasoned before its first use by boiling milk for 3 minutes, then letting it cool. The Stewpot's lid also has self-basting dots on the underside.

WHAT WE THOUGHT / / This braiser retains heat the best of all and has ample space for browning. It's simple to season but, like the Staub, the self-basting lid didn't do its job and the Stewpot's dark interior was not ideal for judging browning. Though it is microwaveable (it isn't made with any metal), it wouldn't fit in our under-the-cabinet microwave. Also, its earlike handles are awkward to hold with potholders -- dangerous for any hot pot.

HOW MUCH / / 5.5-quart Emile Henry Flame-Top Stewpot, about $165, from Sur La Table stores and cooking.com. Also comes in red.

OLD FAITHFUL: LE CREUSET

Le Creuset's 5.5-quart round French oven is made of enameled cast iron and weighs 11.75 pounds. It can go on the stove, in the oven (up to 400 degrees) and into the dishwasher. It has a lifetime warranty.

WHAT'S THE DIFFERENCE / / Its pale enamel interior, which doesn't require seasoning, makes it easy to see when food has browned.

WHAT WE THOUGHT / / Le Creuset reigns supreme. This braiser not only cooks evenly and shows browning easily, but its tight-fitting lid does a good job of holding in moisture, an important factor in slow-cooking. Its handles are a good size for safe handling. It's also a breeze to clean, with just hot, soapy water and a sponge. If you don't own a braiser, this is the one to get.

HOW MUCH / / 5.5-quart Le Creuset round French oven, about $190, at Sur La Table and Williams-Sonoma stores. Also online at cooking.com and amazon.com. Colors vary by retailer.

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