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Battle of the braisers

November 09, 2005|Donna Deane | Times Staff Writer

EVERY fall, when braising season begins in earnest, 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, turning the braising liquid into a deeply flavorful sauce. We love everything about this pot -- from its heavy-duty cast iron construction to its pale enamel interior, which makes it easy to judge browning (it's also easy to clean). The cast iron body holds heat well, and the lid fits snugly, creating an oven-like yet moist environment ideal for the long simmer.

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, whose bright colors would appeal to any Le Creuset fan. The other is the just-out Flame-Top Stewpot from Emile Henry, a black 5.5-quart, round pot made of glazed clay.

Both con-tenders 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 aromatic 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 (we resisted the temptation of peeking lest we wasted any precious steam by lifting the lid).

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 pot holders (unlike the Emile Henry's precariously small, ear-like handles).

Its bottom surface amply held our four shanks in a single layer (unlike the narrower base of the slope-sided Staub). And we were surprised to find that the Staub and Emile Henry braisers didn't self-baste as promised. When we lifted their lids after cooking, the undersides had no moisture on them whatsoever.

The exposed parts of the lamb shanks were also quite dry. This obviously could be remedied with basting by the cook.

But even then, neither one has the Le Creuset braiser's unbeatable combination of features. It remains our favorite braiser ever.

**

Old faithful

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 up, 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, and Cookin' Stuff in Torrance. Also online at www.cooking.com and www.amazon.com. Colors vary by retailer.

*

New appeal

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.

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