Cauldron Shopping

By now, we all know my paradoxical position on cauldrons.  There’s no strong reason to have them, but I adore the ones I have and will cart them all over the world if that’s what it takes to keep them with me.  It doesn’t make sense, but it is what it is.

Recognizing that there is a desire (or need) out there for cauldrons, I suppose the smart thing to do would be to set forth some sort of shopping guide.  Cauldrons aren’t exactly cheap, so you’ll want to get it right the first time around.

First thing’s first:  the practical matters.  For example, what metal do you choose?  You can usually find something to use as a cauldron in only two metals:  iron and brass.  My preference here is far and away the iron.  In the first place, it will always be made much thicker than brass, for cast iron is a brittle metal and cannot be thinly pounded.  As such, it will never warp, even if you’re putting it directly into a fire or building a fire in it.  In the second place, cast iron pieces are poured rather than shaped, so any handles or legs on the piece are part of the pot itself, not smaller things welded on later in the process.  This means that the cast iron pot is integrally stronger than an assembled pot.  Thirdly, cast iron seasons to a black color, which means scorch marks and other surface damage will be hardly noticeable.  Moreover, if damage does occur, it can be scoured off and reseasoned very easily.

Unfortunately, I have found brass pieces to be very thin, and that opens them up to more damage.  My poor little brass pot, for example, as a great ding in one side from where it got knocked against a rock in the dark.  The few alcohol fires I’ve burnt in it have warped it and loosened the joins between the pot and the legs, which makes me question its safety in future burnings.  In fact, the pot is so thin that it’s scorched through in one point near the base, weakening the metal to where there will certainly be a hole in that point sometime in the future.  The pot has also permanently discolored in some places where the heat was too intense for it.  Worse still, many manufacturers treat brass with a type of coating to prevent it from tarnishing.  My brass cauldron must have had such a coating, and the heat has utterly destroyed it.  Now the pot’s surface is peppered with all manner of black splotches and stains.  All in all, I cannot recommend the use of brass cauldrons at all unless it is the only option for your tradition (some that deal largely with fairy folk avoid the use of iron in all magical tools).

Another important consideration is how narrow the narrowest part of the pot is.  In short, you do not want a piece you can’t fit your hand into.  Cauldrons take a lot of abuse, and they require a good scouring when they get dirty.  It is practically impossible to scour something when you’ve got to get at it with a narrow brush.  Additionally, if the cauldron is to be used to burn something, you’re going to want as much oxygen as possible getting to the bottom of the pot.  As carbon dioxide is heavier than oxygen, it can get trapped in a narrow-mouthed pot and the flame will snuff itself out.

You’ll also want to consider how you’ll actually use the pot.  If, for example, you would cook something in it, you’d probably want a flat-bottomed pot so that you can use it on a stove top.  If you want to brew potions with potentially poisonous ingredients, you’ll want a pot that can be very thoroughly cleaned, which precludes seasoned cast iron as the material.  If you want to use it as a burning vessel (or have an intense desire to build fires every time you want to whip up a potion), a pot with three legs will be best, since it will keep the hottest parts of the pot from touching a large surface, which could burn it or potentially even start a fire.  A burning vessel should also definitely have a tight-fitting lid, which can be used to smother the fire in an emergency.  Intended use will also influence the optimal size of your cauldron.  If, for instance, you want to use it as an incense censer, you need only something the size of a fruit bowl.  If you want it to prepare food or potions, you’d probably want something with a capacity between 3 and 7 quarts, three being the size of a large saucepan and 7 being something you could make a coven’s worth of stew in.  If you’d like to burn fire in it, I’d strongly recommend going no smaller than about 5 quarts.

With these guidelines in place, then, where do you look to obtain your cauldron?

A small altar cauldron such as many pagan stores offer.

Well, there’s always have the option of patronizing a Pagan store.  This is always an admirable thing to do, since brick-and-mortar Pagan stores are on the decline and I’d even suspect that smaller online stores are becoming out-competed by larger ones.  Unfortunately, I’ve only ever seen one large-ish cauldron at these places, and it’s still too small to be very practical. Pagan stores typically offer tiny cauldrons, which are largely more decorative than functional pieces.  They often look just like the one pictured on the left, which is a tiny little fellow:  just 3 inches tall, 2 inches deep, and 2.75 inches across.  It will really only be useful as an incense burner, and it will probably cost you at least $20.

If this is a route you’d choose, I’d recommend that you try to find a piece without a symbol put upon it.  In this case, there’s a goddess symbol on the cauldron.  That might prove counterproductive to a god-focused ritual.  Moreover, air and fire–both elements involved in the censer–are masculine elements, so it wouldn’t make sense to have a highly feminine symbol on a tool involved with them.  Symbols just complicate matters unduly.

A Lodge Camp Dutch Oven

If you do want a cauldron for an incense burner, though, you don’t have to resort to the Pagan shops.  Lodge Cast iron offers a little 8 oz serving kettle (3.5 inches across, 2 inches deep) that makes a perfect censer as well as a slightly larger 1 pint country kettle (5 inches across, 2.5 inches deep).  The little one is just $10.95 and the larger is $15.95.  Lodge also has a large range of seasoned cast iron flat-bottomed dutch ovens that would make for a great stove top cauldron.  Five-quart pots tend to be around $55 and 7-quart pots about $85.  Lodge also has a large range of seasoned cast iron camp ovens, which are essentially dutch ovens with little feet.  Their 4-quart one runs about $66 and their 6-quart about $89.  I’ve seen their standard dutch ovens for sale in kitchen stores, in Wal-marts, and in hardware stores, and I’ve seen the camp ovens in the outdoor sections of Wal-marts and in camping stores.

A legged potjie.

If something more stereotypically cauldron like–the pot belly–is more what you had in mind, the potjie (pronounced poi-key) pots are a good option.  These are essentially Dutch ovens but are designed with a narrower opening to discourage a lot of evaporation.  Potjies today come in the traditional legged variety as well as flat bottoms for cooking in modern kitchens.  The no. 2 size, which is a 5 quart capacity pot, runs about $80 for both legged and flat styles.  The 8-quart no. 3 runs about $100.

I may be biased as I have a potjie for my cauldron, but I think they’re superior for cauldron purposes. Aesthetically, they’re certainly more “cauldron-y”, and if you want to burn fires in them, they’re a little safer.  Their legs are much longer than the standard dutch oven, which means there’s very little risk of the floor scorching.  I would certainly emphasize using some sort of trivet if you attempt to burn indoors, though.

A still from the fourth episode of “The Dresden Files” showing the wizard Harry Dresden’s cauldron. It is a simple enameled cast iron saucepan. In this case, it is a vintage Descoware piece.

For the “cook up a potion” crowd, there’s also an obvious option moving away from the stereotypical look of a cauldron, and that’s dedicating a special regular pot or pan for cauldron use.  In this avenue, I have to admit I’m influenced by what the fictional TV wizard Harry Dresden chose:  enameled cast iron.  It’s got all the heat-retaining qualities of cast iron, but it’s a little easier to clean up.  Plus, the porcelain enamel means that micro bits of your potions are less likely to cling to the pot as they would in seasoned cast iron.  This definitely makes enameled cast iron a lot more ‘potion friendly’ as you would be able to work with poisonous plants with more safety.

A vintage enameled cast iron Descoware bean pot: about as close to typical cauldron shape as enameled cast iron gets.

Enameled cast iron is, unfortunately, not very cheap.  Retail price for a new 5.5 quart Le Creuset dutch oven is $265, or about $200 more than a seasoned cast iron piece of the same size.  I prefer to look for good vintage pieces on eBay if I want enameled cast iron, and have been able to find lots of casseroles and such for dirt cheap prices.

If enameled cast iron seems more your speed and you desire a more traditional cauldron shape, I’d recommend trying to find a vintage bean pot, such as this one from Descoware.  It’s not a piece currently manufactured by any enameled cast iron company today, but they do pop up somewhat frequently on eBay.  Auctions often close anywhere between $20-$90.  I believe I spent about $60 on my bean pot…which has about a 2 quart capacity and which I use for simmering beans and grains.  A saucepan such as Harry Dresden’s will often be between 1 and 2 quarts and will auction for between $10 and $30.

For fairy-friendly pagan folk who might desire to potion without iron, I would suggest investing in a good copper sauce pan.  This is not going to be a cheap option, even with eBay.  Unfortunately, I would actually discourage anyone from the eBay route unless he or she has the aid of someone who knows a lot about vintage cookware, both for health and wallet safety.  In modern cookware, it’s exceedingly difficult to find copper cookware that doesn’t also include stainless steel, even amongst the old copper pot companies.  However, the French company Mauviel does still make one all copper pot:  their sugar saucepan.  Their 3.78 quart pan runs about $198.  Their smallest, a .9 quart pan, is about $100.  There are three sizes in between with prices increasing as the capacity increases.

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