Q: What are the alternatives to Le Creuset? Are Chinese-made enameled cast iron ovens safe?
A: The short answer:
If you want to pay Le Creuset level prices but get a comparable (and in some ways better) product, consider Staub.
If you want to pay less money and get something that performs as well as Le Creuset but probably isn’t as durable, there are a ton of Chinese knockoffs, the most popular of which may be Lodge (made in China under contract to an American company).
If you want to split the difference, buy Staub’s sister company’s products, which don’t seem to be as well-made or have as good quality control, but at least it’s made in France and has a good warranty and lid handle.
Chinese-made enameled cast iron is safe if made by contract to major brands like Lodge, who have the resources and incentive to closely monitor their production in China in order to defend their reputations.
But don’t buy cookware from companies that don’t operate their own Chinese factories. Many companies–even big-name companies–merely import product from Chinese factories for resale, and often don’t spend enough resources to verify quality after the first batch. (They would rather spend money on marketing, such as slapping some celebrity chef’s name on the cast iron instead, with the celebrity chef having nothing to do with the cookware except collecting royalties.) It takes money and expertise to continuously ensure that products lie flat, do not contain harmful or radioactive chemical contaminants, are polished properly, and so on. If a company doesn’t operate its own factories in China, it could end up like Lumber Liquidators, which sold floorboards with excessive formaldehyde that leaked into the air of the homes it was installed in, which increased consumer cancer risks among other things. Lumber Liquidators told its Chinese partner that it wanted in-spec product, but received out-of-spec product anyway, and nobody caught the discrepancy until end-users started getting unexplained symptoms like headaches and nausea. There are many more examples of Chinese and Indian exports containing toxic or radioactive chemicals, and even more examples of Chinese cookware falling apart, such as handles breaking off while in use, frying pans exploding or popping rivets off, enamel coatings cracking and flying off, ceramic roasters shattering, lids breaking, etc. In contrast, chemical contamination and structural failure are almost unheard of with cookware made in the USA/EU, such as All-Clad and Le Creuset.