A Dutch Oven is a heavy-duty pot with a tight-fitting lid. You can braise, stew, roast, and even bake in it, making it a versatile kitchen workhorse. In my view, it is one of the most essential pieces of cookware you’ll find in a modern kitchen.
The Dutch oven as we know it has been around since the early 1700s. It was created as an inexpensive, functional, and durable piece of cookware. Now, more than 300 years later it remains largely unchanged.
We’re going to explore how the Dutch ovens available today have improved (or not), what are some of it’s best uses, and if it deserves a place in your kitchen.
Why Is It Called A Dutch Oven?
An Englishman by the name of Abraham Darby, was working in the Netherlands. While there, he observed the Dutch, casting copper and brass cookware in sand molds. This was some of the finest metalwork being produced at the time.
Darby took what he had learned and began using similar techniques, but utilizing much less expensive cast iron for his cookware. With great success, Darby was able to obtain a patent for his sand molds, and used the name “Dutch oven” to pay homage to the originators.
How Does A Dutch Oven Work?
A Dutch oven is a cooking pot made from a heavy, well insulating material with a tight fitting lid. These pieces were designed to cook on a wood burning stove or hung over/near a live fire.
A heavy material that distributes heat well is an important factor, as cooking over flame or coal can be very uneven. The tight fitting lid helps to retain moisture and adds additional heat retention to the cooking vessel.
A great amount of heat can be built up and radiated from the inside of the lid, creating an oven like effect within the pot. Cooking food from all directions.
What Material Makes The Best Dutch Oven?
Raw Cast Iron
Traditional Dutch ovens were made from raw cast iron. This was done not only for it’s excellent heat retention and distribution, but for the materials’ inexpensive nature. Raw cast iron has stood the test of time and it remains the most popular material for Dutch ovens.
The down side of raw cast iron is that it is very reactive. Without any protection it will rust when exposed to moisture or acidic ingredients. A process called seasoning is used to create a protective barrier between cast iron and food/moisture.
The seasoning is a layer of oil that is cooked onto the surface of the iron. This layer protects the pot and over time can offer excellent nonstick properties.
Enamel Coated Cast Iron
The other common choice still utilizes cast iron as the base material, but adds an enamel coating for ease of use and maintenance. The enamel completely encases the cast iron, creating an impermeable and non-reactive layer.
The coating makes cooking and cleaning exceptionally easy, but can also limit some of the Dutch ovens uses. Each brand is different, but many options are only oven safe to around 500 F. That’s fine for most cooking tasks but unlike raw cast iron, these pieces should not be placed directly in a fire or over coals, as that can cause the enamel to crack.
Many brands feature enamel that is incredibly durable, but even the best and most expensive options can chip or crack under the right circumstances.
Aluminum or Stainless Steel
Less frequently you will find other materials being used such as aluminum or stainless steel. Whether or not these should be called Dutch ovens is up for debate.
If the cookware in question is thick walled, provides good heat retention, and has a tight fitting lid with the same attributes, I think it gets a pass. But, I am very weary of nonstick options for their lack of durability. And also those equipped with glass lids, for their lack of heat retention and oven limitations.
Aluminum is used to reduce weight, maintenance and to keep the cost low. One of the most important attributes of a Dutch oven is its weight, which adds to its heat retention and distribution.
Aluminum is also one of the most conductive cookware substances, and it quickly adjusts to changing temperatures. That can be an asset in a fry pan, but it’s a deal breaker in a Dutch oven. The high temperature capabilities of today’s ovens can even be volatile for many aluminum options.
A strong case can be made for a stainless steel Dutch oven. Stainless steel is very durable and it’s safe to use with any ingredient, all with virtually no special maintenance required.
Stainless steel provides good heat retention, and additional layers of steel or other materials can be added. This cladding process allows you to tailor specific performance qualities to the cookware.
The only downside I can think of with stainless steel is that the cost tends to be quite high, but so are the prices of the best enameled versions on the market.
What Are The Best Uses For A Dutch Oven?
Their heavy nature and excellent heat retention make them particularly well suited for items that need a long time to cook. Things like tough cuts of meat or soups and stocks. They also lend themselves very well to some more specific cooking tasks like baking and deep frying.
Braising and Stewing
Braising and stewing is generally done to break down tough cuts of meat over a long period of time.
Dutch ovens are a perfect vessel for this as they offer great searing abilities and can maintain very consistent temperatures on a stove, in the oven or over a fire.
The tight fitting lids help retain moisture, which can be especially important when cooking something for several hours.
With “oven” in the name, you would hope that baking can be handled as well.
The even heat distribution works very well for gentle tasks like baking a cake. Even in an oven with hot and cold spots, the Dutch oven will work to regulate an even temperature throughout the cooking material.
For a less gentle and very hot application, you can create an ideal environment for baking crusty loaves of bread.
Cast iron Dutch ovens can be brought to very high temperatures, with the lid radiating heat inside. The very hot, sealed environment, traps moisture and offers great oven spring when baking bread.
Thin, metal cookware reacts to temperature changes very quickly. When deep frying this leads to oil that is always fluctuating between too hot or too cold.
A thick walled Dutch oven is an excellent device for deep frying. Once you get your oil to the right temperature, the heat retaining qualities of the pot will help to maintain it. Especially important when cold foods quickly drop the oil temperature.
With that in mind, oil that becomes too hot, will also take much longer to cool down. For that reason, it’s important to come up to temperature very gradually over low or medium heat.
Steaming and Smoking
If you’re the owner of an electric rice cooker, you may be familiar with the plastic inserts used to steam food above the rice as it’s cooking. The same technique can be employed with a Dutch oven.
Rather than plastic, a wire rack can be fitted for a second level of cooking space. Vegetables or fish are a couple of examples that work well with this method.
A simple wire rack placed over the entire Dutch oven opening is also a great platform for smoking food. All you need are smoldering wood chips underneath and a domed lid or metal bowl placed over top to catch and concentrate the smoke.
I would only recommend the smoking process with a raw cast iron oven. The coals and smoke can cause damage or discoloration with enamel coated varieties.
What To Look For When Buying A Dutch Oven
When looking to buy a Dutch oven, choosing a material is a good place to start. This will narrow down your options and brands.
Next choose a size. Dutch ovens are generally sized in quart increments (i.e. 2qt, 4.5qt, 7qt, etc.). An easy to remember sizing guide is that each quart is approximately one serving. So, a 5-quart Dutch oven is a good size to feed around 5 people.
Think about how many people you cook for on a regular basis and choose your size accordingly.
If you decide to go with an enameled Dutch oven, you will find options ranging from around $40 all the way up to $400 and beyond.
The more affordable options are generally mass manufactured and the overall fit and finish can be somewhat lacking. With that being said, the cheaper variations can still get the job done. And at 8-10 times less than the high-end models, it’s definitely worth exploring.
If a few hundred bucks is in your budget, the top of the line brands generally offer a much wider variety of sizes and colors. On top of that, the enamel should be durable enough to last for several generations, with proper care.
Beyond all of that, each brand may include specific features that are important to you. Things such as self basting lids, larger handles, or a lighter weight design.
There’s good reason that the Dutch oven’s design has remained relatively unchanged for hundreds of years. It is an excellent and well thought out piece of cookware that offers incredible versatility in any kitchen.
Today, there are such a wide range of Dutch ovens available, it’s easy to find one to fit just about any budget. Even the least expensive raw iron versions offer exceptional utility and are built to last a lifetime.
If you are considering adding a Dutch oven to your cookware arsenal, It’s worth reading about brand specifics and what are some of the best dutch ovens on the market.