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I have seen a lot of meat roasting recipes that require using Dutch ovens, most of the cooks doing the presentations have enameled cast iron Dutch ovens.

When I looked into what a Dutch oven is I noticed some internet sites are suggesting that there are cast aluminium Dutch Ovens as well, They are popular in the Caribbean and are sometimes called Dutch Pots.

I have seen the question: What to look for when choosing a dutch oven?, with an answer suggesting two material options. Plain (seasoned) cast iron or enameled cast iron. Cast aluminium was not mentioned at all. I would like someone to talk about cast aluminium Dutch pots a little because pots made from that material are much cheaper and easier for me to get. The only reason why I would not bother with cast aluminium is if it does a very poor job with meat roasting and caramelization of sugar.

Here are some of the things I already know or at least think I know:

  • The thermal capacity of the cast aluminium compared to that of cast iron will lead to a cast iron pot having superior temperature stability for the same thickness and size.

  • Cast aluminium is lighter than cast iron, volume constant hence lighter pot for same size.

  • Cast aluminium Dutch pots are durable and cheap and easier to care for

  • Cast aluminium will probably react with some food items while enameled cast iron will be safer in this regard

  • The melting point of cast aluminium is lower than that of cast iron

Have I left any key issues out?

What are the likely problems with my output if I choose the aluminium pot given the above points where aluminium does not do well and the fact that I need the pot mainly for meat roasting and sugar caramelization stove top?

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Where did you read that cast aluminum was durable? That's not generally one of the characteristics of aluminum, especially as compared with iron. –  Aaronut Dec 19 '10 at 16:55
    
P.S. I changed the title to say "aluminum" - I know that aluminium is the correct British spelling but want to make sure that this shows up in search results for the former, so please leave that particular edit. –  Aaronut Dec 19 '10 at 16:59
    
@Aaronut, Under certain conditions there is a tendency for cast iron to crack while cast aluminium will just slightly deform, cast aluminium is more malleable than cast iron unless some new metallurgical process has changed this. Cast iron will rust,enamelled cast iron will chip,I have not said cast aluminium is more durable than iron, under some careless use conditions cast aluminium will fare better than cast iron,there are other abuse cases where the cast iron material will fare better.I am not referring to normal low gauge aluminium which is more susceptible to warping. –  Simmerdown Dec 19 '10 at 18:59
    
American English is OK with me. –  Simmerdown Dec 19 '10 at 19:01
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To make it show up in search results you need both spellings. Google for reasons best known to itself differentiate them –  TFD Dec 19 '10 at 23:03
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3 Answers 3

up vote 8 down vote accepted

The biggest practical differences are going to be:

  • Nothing sticks to a well-seasoned cast iron pan. Everything sticks to cast aluminum, even the brands that call themselves non-stick. (I know because I've tried a few of them.)

  • While it's true the cast iron can crack, rust or chip if not properly cared for, aluminum is reactive and scratches easily, and even if you get one of the newer anodized ones, you lose the benefits of that as soon as the surface starts to chip and peel (which it will). Cast iron will last much longer when properly maintained; I've seen some that are decades old and heard about some that are more than a century old.

  • Aluminum has better conductivity and will, in theory, provide more even heat than cast iron. However, every cast aluminum vessel I've ever used has had major problems with hot spots. Basically, both are poor choices in this respect, except in the oven, where hot spots are essentially a non-issue; if your oven is like mine and the element turns on and off to maintain temperature, you'll get much better results with a cast iron dutch oven because it will hold its temperature while the element is off.

  • Cast iron also works great with induction cooktops, aluminum doesn't work at all. [Cast] Aluminum really works best on standard metal cooktop stoves, although it's okay for glass as well. I say okay because most glass cooktops tend to have elements that go on and off, so depending on your particular stove, this might lead to uneven heat when using any kind of aluminum.

  • Cast iron is heat-resistant. You mention the melting point, but it's more complicated than that; make sure you check the specifications on whatever cast aluminum you're thinking of buying, because a lot of it isn't even oven-safe (and if it is, it's only safe up to 400° F or so). The term "dutch oven" can be quite a misnomer for those pieces as they can easily warp or crack at high temperatures. Spun aluminum is obviously much worse but cast aluminum is only marginally better.

  • On the plus side, cast aluminum is obviously much lighter than cast iron and requires less care. Enameled cast iron is also easy to care for but is obviously much more expensive than both regular cast iron and cast aluminum.

In your case, it would seem that your two primary requirements (caramelizing sugar and roasting meat) are at odds with each other. For roasting, you want a very steady, even heat. For caramelizing sugar you need precise control, you need to be able to reduce the heat very quickly when you hit the melting point. Cast iron would be absolutely terrible for caramelization, but is a far better choice for roasting.

Personally, I use a regular (non-enameled) seasoned cast iron pot as a dutch oven and just use a small light stainless steel saucepan when I need to do something like caramelize sugar. I'd suggest you do the same, unless you're really low on space and genuinely need one piece of cookware to do it all.

Honestly, the only thing that cast aluminum really has going for it is its price. The ease of maintenance is overshadowed by the fact that the pieces don't tend to last that long, and everything else it's good at is handled equally well or better by stainless steel with an aluminum or copper core. The few pieces of aluminum (or cast aluminum) cookware I still own tend to sit at the bottom shelf at the very back and gather dust, but YMMV.

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I think I will go with what you suggest, I will get a Lodge seasoned cast iron for roasts and find something from Cuisinart for sugar caramelization, thanks. –  Simmerdown Dec 19 '10 at 23:05
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The things you noted are what I would also note about cast aluminum. For my money, the biggest downsides would definitely be high reactivity and low thermal mass. I might question the durability also--cast aluminum nicks and scratches really easily.

It's up to you whether you think reactivity is particularly bad for your health, but low thermal mass runs fairly directly counter to what you want in a dutch oven, and cast iron is going to be far more resistant to damage if you maintain it properly.

I can't speak to availability in your area, but in my experience the difference in price for cast aluminum vs. plain cast iron just isn't enough to put up with ANY downsides. Yeah, cast iron's probably twice as much, but with 7 qt. plain cast iron ones going for $40 US, I can't see the issue. It'll last you forever if you look after it (keep it seasoned, dry fully after washing and store in a dry place).

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I have seen cast aluminium pots abused badly and have still remained in use for long times but that was before I became involved with cooking so I did not examine these close up or ask any questions or checked the performance of them afterwards so I will not argue too much about that, you have been helpful, thanks. –  Simmerdown Dec 19 '10 at 23:18
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When one talks about a cast Aluminium dutchie scratching and sticking then they are not familiar with their topic of discussion.

A cast iron pot either iron or aluminium has a rough texture and is not bought for its smooth aesthetic appearance.

Neither cast iron nor aluminium will be non-stick from the start. A non-stick coating on these utilitarian pots is silly. They need to be seasoned well over several uses before they become non-stick. Mine does not stick, unless I want it to! They are not frying pans.

There has been health concerns about cooing in aluminium pots but I have seen the arguments both ways. The lower thermal capacity can be an issue with the aluminium dutch oven. The only disadvantage of this is a greater variation of temperature from the bottom and the sides of the pot.

Aluminium Dutch ovens today have been used in West Indies (and throughout the developing ex colonial world) by generations of cooks for stews, soups and rice dishes. In the West Indies caramelising brown sugar is the start of most dishes and the slow long cooking of tough cheaper cuts of meet always necessary.

Some burning of the contents on the bottom of pot is sometimes required eg. when cooking rice. Tobagonians call it “bun bun” in their pelau the Spanish call it “socarrat” in their paella.

They both work; cast iron is better and more expensive but the best cooks often cant afford it. If one can cook anything creole in cast iron better than my grannie did in cast aluminium I will be surprised. So before you splash out, note the British school boy jibe “all the gear and no idea”.

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