Amanda Mull writes for The Atlantic about Le Creuset Dutch ovens (and also Kitchen Aid stand mixers) as iconic millennial totems of adulthood. They are affordable luxuries, seemingly built for Instagram, that demonstrate a mature and wholesome interest in cooking and entertaining. If you can’t afford to buy a home, you may still be able to afford these tools that make your rental home feel homier.
I love my Le Creuset pots and pans, and I guess I was an early adopter, since I bought my first one before Instagram existed. When I was growing up, my mom used her Le Creuset Dutch oven to make soups and stews and her tomato-basil pasta sauce, and when I got a kitchen of my own it seemed to me that was how one cooked such things and I should have one. But they are expensive, and I was 22, so I bought the 5.5-quart version, which meant I saved about $50 compared to the 7.25-quart one I really wanted. (Today a 5.5-quart Le Creuset is $340 on Amazon, though I recall paying $275 in 2006.)
I soon discovered my fancy new pot was slightly too small to comfortably make a braise for an eight-person dinner party, like I wanted. But the size issue aside, as Mull notes, Le Creuset’s pots really are great tools for cooking: They’re heavy, which means they heat evenly and retain heat well, leading to excellent browning without scorching and consistent outcomes. And the enamel covering makes them much less fussy to maintain than regular cast iron pots and pans. They are also durable, and they look cool.
There are lots of ways you can spend lots of money on kitchen tools, but I believe pots and pans are the best place to splurge. Cheap pans will burn your food; quality pans will lead to more enjoyable cooking with better results and may even save you money in the long run by motivating you to cook your own food. And there are offsetting places you can save money when outfitting your kitchen.
You don’t need fancy knives; you will cook just as well with mid-price knives that you keep sharp with an inexpensive, manual knife sharpener. You also don’t need a lot of knives; you need one quality chef’s knife, which you can get for under $40, and you may also want a flexible boning knife and a paring knife, depending on how you cook. And you need a bread knife, but notice that I called it a bread knife: serrated knives are only for bread and artichokes. If you can’t slice tomatoes with your chef’s knife, you’re not keeping it sharp enough. (Anthony Bourdain’s advice on knives and other matters, contained in the How to Cook Like the Pros chapter of Kitchen Confidential, remains relevant as ever.)
As for small appliances, you should be honest with yourself about what you have space for and how often you will use them. If you’re just going to use your toaster to make toast, you don’t need a high-end Breville countertop oven. (I’m not sure anyone needs a Smeg pop-up toaster.) I do have Mull’s other millennial cooking totem, a Kitchen Aid stand mixer, because I used to bake when I was in my 20s. It looks cool, and it’s Empire Red so it matches my other small appliances, and I wouldn’t dream of getting rid of it. But I eventually decided I wasn’t very good at baking, so I mostly use it to make whipped cream for store-bought pies, a task far beneath its capabilities. It’s taking up an awful lot of space on my counter, and if I were buying from scratch, I’d probably just get an electric hand mixer, which would also have been a lot cheaper.
With pots and pans, as with knives, you can control cost by buying only what you need. Instead of a boxed set of mid-price pots and pans that includes shapes and sizes you don’t really want, buy one or two high-quality skillets and one saucepan. And as for the Le Creuset, spring for the big size that works for dinner parties. I expect to have that orange dutch oven I bought at 22 until I die, but it now sits alongside a red one that’s actually big enough to make my favorite pork shoulder dish. After all, you are buying these pots in part to show them off; it would be a shame to have a size that’s too small to use when a crowd comes over.