Now that comfort food season is almost here, it’s prime time to wade into the differences between a Dutch oven and a Crock-Pot, in a quest to determine which one is better.
Dutch ovens and electric slow cookers are both good for long-cooked dishes like braised meats, stews, and chili, but debate as to which is the better investment has to take into consideration each one’s pros and cons.
As with so many compare-and-contrast scenarios, there isn’t necessarily one clear winner—so much depends on your personal preferences and needs. But let’s take a look at several factors you’ll want to consider if you’re trying to decide between a Crock-Pot and a Dutch oven.
Space (In Storage & Otherwise): Tie
Slow cookers and Dutch ovens both come in a wide array of sizes, but your standard six- to eight-quart slow cooker and similarly sized Dutch oven take up roughly equal amounts of cabinet and counter space. There’s no cord to worry about tucking away with the Dutch oven, of course, but it will usually be significantly heavier than a slow cooker, both considerations to keep in mind depending on where you plan to store them.
Related Reading: 7 Neat Ways to Store Your Cookware
But then there’s the issue of oven space—obviously, the slow cooker doesn’t use up any of that sometimes-precious real estate, so it can be a huge help when the oven is otherwise full (on holidays or at parties, for instance). Conversely, if you have zero open counter space in the kitchen, better figure out where your slow cooker can sit while it’s plugged in.
Ease of Use/Convenience: Slow Cooker
This point would seem to go immediately to the slow cooker; it is set-it-and-forget-it, after all. And while it’s recommended to brown meat before dumping it in, the results usually aren’t so wildly different that it really matters most of the time. But if you do want to brown the meat, unless you have a newfangled slow cooker or multicooker with a searing function, you’ll have to dirty a separate skillet or saute pan first. Conversely, you can brown meat and veg in the same Dutch oven you’ll be braising or stewing in afterward, so in that case maybe it actually has the advantage.
Once the searing step is done, leaving a Dutch oven to simmer on the stove burner or cook in the oven is just as easy as pressing a button or turning a knob on a slow cooker. But obviously, Dutch ovens can’t be programmed to start cooking at a certain time, while many slow cookers can—and high-tech models can even cook foods to specific temperatures, or switch over to warm after a selected time period. If your aim is to have dinner essentially make itself while you’re out, then the slow cooker clearly wins.
Versatility: Dutch Oven
All hail the Dutch oven, the original multicooker—you can braise in it, sure, but you can also use it to bake, fry, stew, roast, and even cook pasta. Plus, you can use a cast iron model over an open flame.
Your average slow cooker is really only good for low-and-slow, moist-heat dishes (though it does do dessert). Of course, in this day and age, you can upgrade to any number of electronic multicookers that do way more than that, but they still won’t help with campfire cooking or baking a loaf of bread (actually, you can make Instant Pot bread, but you’ll have to run it under the broiler for a crisp, brown crust).
If you have a basic slow cooker, it probably only has low, medium, and high cook settings—whereas with a Dutch oven, you can cook food at the precise temperature you want (at least in the oven).
Using the Dutch oven in your oven, however, will significantly heat up your whole kitchen—which can be a plus in the winter! But the slow cooker won’t do that, which is one reason we love using it in summer.
And as Chowhound applgrl pointed out in a thread on the pros and cons of each, you can also plug in the slow cooker outdoors to minimize cooking smells in the house if that matters—perhaps you don’t want the whole place to be perfumed with slow cooker duck confit (or maybe the scent of your Crock-Pot chicken stock drives your dog wild)?
Still, we have to give this one to the old faithful, if only for its edge when it comes to frying doughnuts and baking crisp-crusted loaves.
Performance: Dutch Oven
The real meat of the matter: Which appliance turns out a better braise?
Meat should emerge from either vessel totally tender when properly cooked (i.e. at the right time and temp), but a slow cooker is likely to trap more condensation and leave you with a thinner broth (which is also likely to have a less intense flavor). You can always thicken the liquid with a cornstarch slurry or by reducing it on the stove, but that seems to defeat the purpose of an easy dinner, right?
Cooking in a Dutch oven will yield a thicker and more concentrated-in-flavor liquid—and will also give you more varied textures, with the top layer of your ingredients (if not fully submerged in liquid for the entire cook time, anyway) getting a bit more caramelized and chewy-crisp, in the best possible way. A Dutch oven stew should be reliably thick, whereas in a slow cooker, it might seem more like soup. In a one-to-one comparison, Dutch oven dishes just tend to taste more interesting, which isn’t to say a mound of Crock-Pot pulled pork is ever unwelcome.
Price: Slow Cooker
You can snag a no-frills slow cooker for under $30, and can find Dutch ovens in the 6-quart size range for about the same price—in cast iron or aluminum. If you want enameled cast iron (and let’s be honest, those richly colored finishes are a big part of Dutch ovens’ appeal), you’re looking at around $50-$60 on the low end (and a bit cheaper for a smaller vessel, like this 4.3-quart AmazonBasics Duch oven for $43).
Lodge 6-Quart Enameled Cast Iron Dutch Oven, $59.90+ from Amazon
If you have your heart set on Le Creuset or Staub, though, prepare to shell out around $200-$300 and up (not counting their miniature Dutch ovens that are cute but much less useful).
Staub Cast Iron Round 6-Quart Cocotte, $249.96+ from Sur La Table
Related Reading: What Is the Difference Between a Dutch Oven and a French Cocotte?
Of course, more advanced slow cookers and multicookers can get expensive too, with plenty in the $300-$500 range, and some even topping $1,000.
But for your basic model, the slow cooker will almost always win where your wallet is concerned (keep your eyed peeled for cheap Dutch ovens at garage sales, though!).
Aesthetics: Dutch Oven
The sleekest slow cooker will never have the same timeless, homey yet refined charm of a Dutch oven, especially if it’s in one of those aforementioned pretty colors. Practically speaking, sure, you can serve a slow cooker meal right out of the crock too, but won’t it be just that much more delightful dished up from a flame-orange or periwinkle-blue pot (or even a glossy white one with simple lines)?
Le Creuset Signature Round Enameled Cast Iron 7.25-Quart Dutch Oven, $399.95 from Sur La Table
Care & Maintenance: Slow Cooker
Caring for either of these kitchen tools is pretty easy, all things considered, as long as you remember to get to messes while they’re fresh and to not use too-abrasive cleaners or scrubbers. (Baking soda and vinegar are your best friends for caked-on crust.)
Related Reading: How to Clean Your Grimy Crock-Pot So It Looks Brand New
Most stoneware slow cooker crocks (and glass lids) are dishwasher-safe. While you can put enameled cast iron in the dishwasher too, it’s generally recommended that you hand-wash to keep it looking as pristine as possible.
So, Which One Is Better (aka, TL;DR)?
Don’t make us choose! Functionally, and on a purely surface-charm level, we know the Dutch oven is the best of the best. But when it comes to convenience, we still can’t quit our Crock-Pot—and it’s certainly an inexpensive commitment. So we make room for both…and for the Instant Pot too, but that’s a whole ‘nother can of worms. Don’t even get us started on the air fryer.
Visit our Slow Cooker Week headquarters for everything else you need to know (and cook).
Header image by Chowhound, using photos from Getty Images