If you didn’t bother to photograph your amazing meal and post about it, did you really even have it? Such is the way of the world these days. Everything about food is more photogenic — including your kitchen area, now that many people aspire to be a home chef this year. And there are very few brands of cookware that are as visually striking and as kitchen-blingy as Le Creuset. But why is Le Creuset so expensive?
There aren’t many other brands of cookware with a similar price tag, so it’s fair to wonder why the brand charges hundreds of dollars for a cast-iron Dutch oven or skillet, when you can find one at Walmart or Bed Bath & Beyond for $19.99. What are you actually paying extra for? Alongside Lisa McManus, executive tasting and testing editor at America’s Test Kitchen, we’re cooking up some answers.
So, cookware: Does it matter?
McManus tests cookware all day long, and even regularly administers what they call “abuse tests.” She’s also had them cut in half and has talked to scientists about heat transfer — and she says yes, you’d better believe cookware matters. “In the case of cookware, some of it’s vanity pricing and it’s all about the look,” McManus says. “But a lot of it is about function, especially when you’re cooking on the stove.”
Just within skillets, she finds a huge difference between good and bad ones. A better skillet will brown food nicely — and evenly. It’s the difference between your food sizzling and searing versus boiling and turning gray, as it will with a lousy skillet.
In fact, there’s a lot of bad cookware out there, and even for her, it’s nearly impossible to cook with. “I thought I’d seen everything until I went to a ski condo last year with friends and tried to cook dinner. I was in the fight of my life!” she says. “I was like, ‘Have I forgotten how to cook?’ And I realized ski-condo cookware is when someone buys a big box of thin aluminum pans with nonstick coating, and they’re horrible! So it does matter, and it does help you cook better.”
What’s different about the high end stuff, though? Why is Le Creuset so expensive?
Le Creuset is definitely a prestige brand — it makes all sorts of cookware, but specializes in cast-iron Dutch ovens and skillets. It seems to have everything going for it: It’s an old brand; it’s made in France; it’s got an amazing lifetime warranty; it releases new, Instagram-ready colors every year (even hopping on the Star Wars gravy train); and it’s priced way above most other stuff in the category. It’s a lifestyle brand. Basically, if it’s in your kitchen, it makes you look like a goddamn baller.
Economically, you can look at its high prices thusly: Production costs are far higher in France than China, as you might imagine. The warranty (if it breaks or chips, even decades later, you get a new one) is like holding a lifetime club membership. The company’s tolerances are extremely high (as much as 30 percent of the cast iron that comes out of the fire doesn’t pass inspection and goes right back in). They’re heavy as hell. And the enamel process, in which glassy, shiny enamel is applied to the cast iron, is uniquely rigorous.
Great… but does any of this stuff really matter?
It does. McManus says Le Creuset’s cast iron stuff is usually a top pick (America’s Test Kitchen also always selects a “best buy” pick based on price, and that’s obviously never a Le Creuset item). One of the main things is that Le Creuset has really nailed the enamel process — which is to say, making two materials behave as one, McManus says. They’ve nearly perfected getting that coating just right so that, as it heats, the enamel expands and contracts with the iron more smoothly and doesn’t chip as much as cheaper pans will.
Besides that, the brand has also nailed the shape: low, wide surface area, straight-sided. That ensures a large cooking surface, which prevents the food from crowding, with easy evaporation, meaning your food will brown rather than steam.
“A lot of times people get caught up in the looks of things and don’t realize that the function is just as important,” McManus says.
So are they in a class by themselves?
Pretty much. “Honestly, for the longevity of the pan, if you’ve got someone who’s willing to gift you a Le Creuset, go for it,” McManus says. “Everything we test of theirs is great.” Well, almost — she adds that their line of tri-ply stainless steel cookware is “just okay.”
How bad is every other brand by comparison, then?
Oh, there are many excellent brands out there, and not just French stuff. Lodge has been made in Tennessee for a hundred years, for example, and is high quality. And lots of artisanal, boutique, often expensive brands have sprung up just in the past decade.
Does the country of origin matter at all?
It’s always nice when a company keeps production in a certain place, made by knowledgeable craftspeople. If that’s the kind of thing you want to pay extra money for, great. But country of origin doesn’t unilaterally matter, McManus says. Cookware made in China is much lower regarded, but McManus points out that the Chinese invented cast iron thousands of years ago. One other reason Le Creuset costs more is because the brand doesn’t mess around with scrap metal that was harvested from who-knows-what. Lots of other cookware does, though, including made-in-China brands. This doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll get lead poisoning! McManus has had pots tested for it, and there’s none — in fact, she’s never heard of anything being specifically unsafe.
Basically, the answer to why Le Creuset is so expensive is that it’s just made in a very expensive manner, but it’s also kinda worth it?
Yep. Le Creuset tends to do most everything in a more ideal, or agreeable, way in terms of branding, and those production costs are real: French wages, more expensive materials, higher quality control and eternal customer support. Inevitably those costs will be passed on to the customer. Of course, all those things feed into the cachet and desirability of the brand — which, remarkably, makes the economics of charging 10 times the price of a “similar” item actually pencil out.
So should I deck out my whole kitchen in the brand?
Whoa whoa whoa! Don’t do that. Look at what a brand is known for. It’s like going to a restaurant with a 40-page menu: You know most of it’s not going to be good. Likewise, don’t buy every single thing a brand makes without thinking about it. Le Creuset may not do everything perfectly, but like most other companies, they extend their brand because there are people who want everything to match or whatever. “Stop worrying about that,” McManus says. “Get functional stuff and make good food, and take pictures of that! That’s the point! It’s eating the food, not the look of your matching kitchen.”