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Dutch Ovens: Everything You Need to Know

Until I read about Dutch ovens, I had no idea that they could do so much. I share that information here along with a collection of Dutch oven recipes to help you make the most of yours.

January 1, 2018

A collection of Staub Dutch ovens

Unlike the woman in the holiday commercial for jewelry who was disappointed to unwrap a Dutch oven, I was delighted when my Kris Kindle, my brother-in-law, gifted one to me. I realized after hearing about the amount of research he did before purchasing one that I didn’t know much specific information about them at all. I’m the new owner of a beautiful 5.5 quart Staub Dutch oven, and I want to know how to make the most of it. Everything I’ve learned about Dutch ovens is here, to help you select one for yourself, use the one you already have in new ways or maximize the joy from the one you were given for Christmas.

I wanted a Dutch oven because I’m trying to perfect Chad Robertson’s method for sourdough bread as explained in his book, Tartine Bread. They create heat and steam that replicate the environment of a professional bakery oven. It’s the home bread baker’s only chance of achieving a crust that shatters and a pillowy interior full of holes. If I only made bread and stews with my Dutch oven for the duration of our time together, it would more than earn its keep in my tiny kitchen. But, as I now know, that would ignore its potential and limit its applications. I started my Dutch oven education with the basics, becoming more excited the more I learned.   Le Creuset Dutch Ovens in green

What is a Dutch Oven and Why is it Dutch?  

To start with the very basics, a Dutch oven is a heavy, thick-walled pot with a tight fitting lid. The core material can be cast-iron, aluminum or stainless steel. In this post I focus on cast-iron Dutch ovens, which are safe to use on any type of cooktop, including induction, and in the oven. Bare cast-iron Dutch ovens, without an enamel coating, can be used indoors or outdoors with open fires. A subset of this type of Dutch oven, called a camp Dutch oven, have little legs attached to its base, for balancing on the fire, and a lid that can hold coals to transmit heat from above to the food in the pot.

In the UK, a Dutch oven is known as a “casserole dish” or simply “casserole”, and the French call it a “cocotte”. French manufacturers originally added the enamel coating to the Dutch oven design and attempted to market them as “French ovens” to English speakers, but the name never took off. 

In his book, Dutch Ovens Chronicled, Their Use in the United States, John G. Ragsdale names an Englishman, Abraham Darby, as the person responsible for developing the Dutch oven. In the 1700s, Darby travelled to Holland where he learned the technique of casting brass vessels in dry sand molds. This resulted in a smoother surface than the English were producing at the time. Although it’s not proven, Ragsdale suggests that the term “Dutch oven” may have generated from Darby’s adaptation of the process he observed in Holland. In 1708, Darby patented his Dutch-inspired method of casting iron. Within a few decades, his cast-iron pots were available to the American colonies where they became valuable possessions. So valuable that they were accounted for in people’s last will and testament, as was the case with Mary Ball Washington, George Washington’s mother.

Camp Dutch oven topped with coals

Bare Cast-Iron vs. Enamel

Washington no doubt owned bare cast-iron Dutch ovens rather than enamelled. They are virtually indestructible when properly maintained and treated. They do require extra care though. In order to be non-stick, they must be well-seasoned and cleaned in a special way. Acidic foods, such as tomato sauces, will eat away at the bare iron’s coating and produce off flavors in the food.

Enamel-coated Dutch ovens with a cast-iron core require no special cleaning techniques and there’s no limit to what you can cook in them. Acidic foods are fine. A drawback is that the enamel can chip, which is more likely with lower-priced pots. Also, the knobs on the lids of some brands are not suitable for very high temperatures. The enamel of coated Dutch ovens is made of highly shock-resistant glass and comes in two varieties. There’s satin enamel which is glossy and extremely nonstick. Then there’s matte enamel which is usually black in color and doesn’t have as much of a sheen. It requires a thin coating of oil gently heated for a few minutes before cooking to create a polymerized layer for a nonstick surface. This makes it very similar to cooking over bare cast-iron. The benefits of matte enamel is that it can handle higher temperatures than satin enamel, and the surface won’t discolor over time.

Three small enameled Dutch ovens on a chopping board

How a Dutch Oven Works

Whether enameled or not, a cast-iron Dutch oven is a versatile workhorse suitable for any kitchen. Cast-iron, one of the best conductors of heat, diffuses heat slowly and redistributes it evenly on any type of cooktop. Inside an oven, cast iron conducts heat from all sides and conveys it to the food within. Even distribution of heat results in consistency in texture and taste. Because cast-iron retains heat so well, your Dutch oven will continue to cook the food inside and keep it warm for a long time, even when removed from a heat source. This means less energy is required to keep foods at a consistent temperature. The oven-proof lid seals in moisture and humidity which prevents food from drying out. This sealed environment also holds in the nutrients of the food.

At the end of this post I’ve linked to several recipes that show-off all a Dutch oven can do.

Biscuits baking in a bare cast-iron Dutch oven

What You Can Do with a Dutch Oven 

The even distribution of heat and trapped moisture create ideal conditions for braising and stewing. These are forms of  low-and-slow cooking which relax and tenderize proteins and break down starchy ingredients, thickening the liquid they’re suspended in. You can also bake, roast and even deep-fry in Dutch ovens. Le Creuset make a deep-frying basket for the task of transferring food to and from their Dutch ovens. Before setting off to make homemade chips, check with your Dutch oven’s manufacturer just in case your brand can’t handle the high temperatures of deep-frying.

I was surprised to learn of several unexpected uses for Dutch ovens. Making yogurt is one of them. Another is cooking pasta and sauce together, eliminating the need for a separate pot of boiling water. America’s Test Kitchen (ATK) offers a brilliant list of ingenious uses for Dutch ovens. They suggest turning the lid of your Dutch oven upside down, lining it with foil, then using it as a roasting tray for vegetables while the main course braises away in the pot. Along the lines of pulling double duty, some Dutch ovens are sold with steamer baskets.  The idea is to steam vegetables over the main course as it cooks. If your Dutch oven doesn’t have a companion steamer, ATK recommends the OXO Good Grips steamer which is expandable and fits various pot sizes.

The ATK article also gives instructions for turning your Dutch oven into a smoker with foil, wood chips and an aluminum pie plate. And this one I was really impressed with: you can turn your Dutch oven into a cooler. Either leave the empty pot in the fridge for 30 minutes, or fill it with ice water for 5 minutes. Once empty and dry, your pot will keep salad leaves, raw vegetables, chilled seafood, or whatever else you’d like, crisp and cold.

A store display of Le Creuset Dutch ovens

Points to Consider Before Buying

When choosing a Dutch oven for yourself, keep in mind the dishes you want to cook and the amount of people you want to feed to decide which size is right for you. ATK recommends one that is at least 8 inches wide and holds 6 quarts or more for browning to be most effective. Mine is 10 cm wide and holds 5.5 quarts, perfect for the stews, bread and yogurt it’s destined to make. The top brands with proven track records include Staub and Le Creuset, both French companies, and Lodge, an American company that’s been around for a long time. Tramontina is a budget brand available at Walmart I noticed on several “Best Of” lists.

No doubt, price will have a huge bearing on your choice. Less expensive Dutch ovens tend to be lighter, which is desirable if you’re not up to lifting heavy ironware on a regular basis. This does however, mean it’s less efficient at conducting and retaining heat and will cook less evenly. Chipped enamel is another common complaint about lower priced Dutch ovens. Generally speaking, the more expensive the pot, the better the quality, the higher the temperature it can handle, and the more durable it is. Beauty and design correspond with price as well. I’ve yet to see a Dutch oven as beautiful as the Staub I now own, yet this piece is an investment that, for most, will not be acquired lightly.

I admit I’m spoiled when it comes to Dutch ovens. My parents own a beautiful one by Le Creuset, which I’ve had the pleasure of cooking with many times. The gorgeous Staub cocotte that I now own was made in Alsace. They cast their pots in sand molds which are destroyed after each use, so no two are identical. The black matte enamel of the interior contains traces of quartz which results in a textured surface to promote better browning, fewer hotspots and improved resistance to thermal shock and scratches. One of the most innovative features of Staub Dutch ovens is the nubs on the interior of the lid. These are placed so that moisture rains down evenly on the food within to create a self-basting system. The flat-contoured lid itself is designed to maximize humidity-retaining properties. The enamel coating on the outside is composed of glass powder and mineral pigments, applied in several coats to produce brilliant glossy colors. It’s also highly resistant to chipping and discoloring. I write about these features not to make you jealous of what I have, but to highlight just how advanced and detailed a top-of-the-line Dutch oven can be. This is something to keep in mind when you’re selecting one for yourself, based on your own needs.

A Dutch oven with stains on the outside

How to Take Care of your Dutch Oven

Overall, there isn’t much to taking care of Dutch ovens. Enameled cast-iron must be heated gradually to avoid fracturing from thermal shock. It’s best to use wooden or silicone utensils rather than metal so as not to scratch the interior. If the exterior enamel chips, the pot is still safe to use. If the interior enamel chips, you risk small fragments getting into your food. Discontinue use and call the manufacturer to see if your Dutch oven is under warranty that covers chipping.

When cleaning your Dutch oven, avoid abrasive, corrosive or scouring products, be they cleaning solutions or pads. To remove stuck-on food, fill your pot with water and a squirt of detergent then gently heat and use a wooden spatula to scrape away the food. Most enameled Dutch ovens are dishwasher-safe but it is cautioned that regular dishwashing can damage the product or remove the patina that builds up over time and improves cooking. Primarily with satin finish/light colored interior ovens, food stains will build-up on the bottom. To remove these, soak overnight in one part bleach and three parts water then wash thoroughly with warm soapy water. You’ll be better able to monitor browning with a clean, stain-free bottom. To avoid fractures from thermal shock, always let your Dutch oven cool completely before submerging it in water to clean.

A red Staub Dutch oven

Recipes

Now for the fun part. This collection of recipes showcases the various capabilities of Dutch ovens. They really are so versatile. Now that I have a good understanding of what they can do, I doubt mine will ever have a day off. I’d love to hear in the comments about what you achieve with yours. For this New Year, I wish you a reliable Dutch oven as a mainstay in your kitchen to bring happiness and pleasure to you everyday.  

Breakfast

Yogurt – Raspberry Rose Jam –

Bread

Alton Brown’s No Knead Sourdough – Chad Robertson’s Country Sourdough – Serious Eats’ Irish Soda Bread –

Pasta

Spaghetti and Fresh Tomato SauceCooking Light’s List of Dutch Oven Pasta Dishes Anna Jones’s Pea and Lemon Linguine

Vegetarian

Anna Jones’s Carrot Dal – Pumpkin ChiliRatatouille –  Indian-Style Spinach and Chickpeas (a favorite of mine) – Baked Risotto (sub in vegetable stock) – Butternut Squash Baked Risotto – Southern Greens and BeansCreole Pinto BeansCauliflower Chickpea Korma Vegetable Pot Pie (just leave in Dutch oven to bake) – Golden Lentil Stew Lentil Curry

Meat

Chicken in a Pot with Potatoes and SquashChicken in MilkClassic Beef Pot RoastRed Wine-Braised Short Ribs –  Korean Braised Short Ribs –  Soy-Braised Short Ribs with Shiitake Shawarma-Spiced Leg of LambCarnitas Baked Beans with Bacon and Breadcrumbs

Dessert

–  Food52’s Skillet CookieCherry ClafoutisCake DoughnutsAny Cobbler, Crisp, Crumble or Buckle Recipe

A note about the Amazon links on this website: I get a small commission when you make any purchase after following the links throughout this post. I’m confident that each item I’ve linked to would be a valuable addition to your kitchen or reading list. The links wouldn’t be here otherwise.

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