Dutch ovens, that is. After 300 years as a staid kitchen workhorse, these heavy cast-iron pots have become must-have accessories for the cook who wants it all. Until recently, bragging rights could set you back hundreds of dollars.
The success of high-end brands such as Le Creuset, whose brightly colored pots are as much display pieces as cookware, has spawned a fast-growing kitchenware niche of cheaper knockoffs.
Suddenly splashy enameled cast-iron Dutch ovens seem to be everywhere. Martha Stewart has her own line at Macy's, while versions bearing the names of celebrity chefs Mario Batali, Paula Deen and Rachael Ray are at retailers nationwide.
Even Lodge Manufacturing Co. in South Pittsburg, Tenn., during the past four years has launched two lines (mid- and low-cost) of colored-enamel versions of its Dutch oven. The company says the low-cost line will represent 20 percent of its business by the end of this year.
The appeal has as much to do with aesthetics as cooking, with many people selecting ovens based on kitchen decor.
"I don't know how much people cook with it, sometimes, but they decorate their kitchen," says Kim Collins, the senior brand manager for Le Creuset.
For those who do cook with them, durability and versatility are key selling points.
"This is cookware you can keep for a long time," says Kate Dering, a cookware buyer for Seattle-based kitchen retailer Sur la Table. "You can braise and bake all in the same pot and make an economical meal, like a roast or soup. That's why people are buying them."
Retailers across the spectrum have responded to the demand. The pots are standard fare for Williams-Sonoma, where a 15 1/2-quart red oval Le Creuset Dutch oven fetches $415, and for Wal-Mart, where a green 3 1/2-quart Tramontina goes for under $30.
Le Creuset and Batali brand Dutch ovens are among Sur la Table's best-selling items, says Ms. Dering. To keep up with demand, the company stocks 40 percent more of them than just a few years ago, she says.
Cast-iron Dutch ovens have been around for centuries, dating to at least 17th century Europe. Because they originally were intended for hearth-style cooking, most early versions had legs for standing them over a bed of coals.
They still are prized for their ability to retain heat and moisture and move easily from the stove top to the oven, making them ideal for stews, baked beans, roasts, braising, even baked goods.
"They're the original slow cookers," says Vernon Winterton, the author of 101 Things to Do with a Dutch Oven .
Erin Doland was a reluctant convert to Dutch ovens, at least initially. She was happy with her electric slow cooker, wasn't sure she had the kitchen real estate to dedicate to another pot, and figured she'd someday inherit her mother's black Dutch oven.
Then the Reston, Va., freelance writer saw a black 9 1/2-quart Le Creuset on sale for half-price at an outlet. Memories of her mother's kitchen and macaroni and cheese with just the right crunch on top came flooding back.
She says the memory alone was almost worth the $169.26 she paid for the pot.
"As a kid, it was one of the few foods I would eat. I was quite a picky eater," Ms. Doland says. "And it was the first thing I imagined myself making in my Dutch oven."
Lisa McManus, the senior editor at Cook's Illustrated magazine, says the hype about Dutch ovens is merited. She spent a month testing numerous models for a review.
She says they excel at keeping food moist, and even double as a deep-fryer.
Le Creuset and All-Clad versions were test-kitchen favorites, McManus says, but testers found that a cheaper version, such as the 6 1/2-quart Tramontina model sold for about $40 at Wal-Mart, was a good, inexpensive alternative.
"The ones that we tested, we use them every day and we make everything in them," she says. "It's one of those pots you buy once and hand down to your grandchildren."