Even with all the fancy new pots and pans available today, the Dutch oven is still the veritable workhorse of cookware. It seems these days that you can’t turn on the television without tuning in to a cooking show featuring a master chef preparing some kind of mouth-watering morsel. They span every genre of cuisine, from bake-offs to children’s competitions, pioneer women and every type of dish in between.
There are entire cooking channels devoted to making you salivate before running to the store to grab up all the utensils to make your culinary experience the same as theirs. They have you believing that with the right pan or knife, you’re just a chop away from being the next Gordon Ramsay or Rachael Ray. It has inspired an entire new industry of kitchen and cooking gadgets that will literally make you have visions of sugar plums dancing in your head.
But do you really need all these new gadgets to make a MasterChef worthy meal? No, sometimes all you need to turn your cuisine dreams into reality is something as simple as a Dutch oven.
What Is a Dutch Oven?
You may be asking yourself, “What is a Dutch oven and do I really need one?” Quite simply, it is a large cooking pot, usually made of cast iron, cast aluminum or ceramic with a lid. And yes, you need one. We all need one.
Dutch ovens hold quite a bit of food and range mostly from 5 ½-6 quarts in volume size, therefore producing larger quantities of food at one time. But some Dutch ovens are substantially larger. Sometimes used without the lid, the “oven” aspect comes from placing the lid tightly on the pot and trapping the moisture inside while the food cooks. Allowing food to cook for a longer period of time seals in the flavor, tenderizes and perfectly prepares the meal.
The style of the Dutch oven also lends itself to extreme portability. Dutch ovens are great for camping and outdoor cooking. You can use them over open flames on campfires in addition to a stove top or a traditional oven. Some versions even have legs to situate them above the fire with a concave lid you can place hot coals on. This allows it to be heated from both the top and bottom. Others have a handle to hang it over an open flame. Its ability to withstand extreme heat makes it durable and practical in almost every way.
Standard Dutch ovens are pretty plain. Most are black in color and unremarkable to look at. But newer ones can also be quite pretty. Enameled versions (enamel inside and out, over the cast iron) have many home chefs scrambling to find the perfect color to accent their kitchens. These pricier pots still do the job of the traditional Dutch oven. But they also require a bit more upkeep than the standard cast iron version. Either way, both go from oven to table with little effort and can provide visual appeal beyond the contents of the dish itself.
History of Dutch Ovens
Long before there were Crockpots, there were Dutch ovens. These large simmering pots were the original slow cooker with lids that created a continuous basting environment for your food, sealing in flavor while leaving you with only one pan to clean.
Dutch ovens have a long history. You can find them in nearly every corner of the world and they’ve been used for centuries. Even Lewis and Clark carried them on their expedition of the United States, noting their use in their journals.
The term “Dutch” refers to the method used originally to cast the iron. The Dutch were known to make superior copper pots using sand instead of the traditional loam (sand, silt and a small amount of clay), which produces a finer finish. When the process was tried with cheaper metals, namely iron, the “Dutch oven” was born. It has been gracing kitchens around the world ever since.
You may remember your grandmother or mother tossing various stew ingredients into a Dutch oven when you were young and creating meals you now wax nostalgic about. With the flat surface of the bottom of the pot, the Dutch oven distributes heat evenly. This makes it a favorite, especially when marinating, braising and cooking meats. Using a Dutch oven, you can make soups, stews, meat, casseroles and even bake bread. It just depends on your willingness to try new cooking techniques. There are limitless ways to use it.
Why Do I Need a Dutch oven?”
The answer is really quite simple. A Dutch oven is an “all-in-one” pot that you can essentially cook just about anything in. Let’s face it, nobody likes to do dishes, especially after you’ve “slaved away” over a nice meal. Of course, with a Dutch oven, you aren’t having to put the same effort in. But who needs to know that anyway? Dutch ovens are wide and roomy and you can easily fit an entire chicken in the pot. Imagine the ease of simply caramelizing some onions in butter on the stove top, adding some chicken quarters in and searing them, pouring in some chicken stock and then tossing in a variety of chopped, seasonal vegetables, transferring it to the oven and returning an hour later to one of the best meals you’ve ever tasted. What could be easier? Who wouldn’t want that? Clean one pan and you’re done.
I grew up in the South and thankfully had a mother and grandmother who loved to cook and encouraged me to do the same. I learned a lot from both of them and one of the lessons I learned early on was that you need the right tools for the job. If you were lucky, like many great cooks, you would inherit cast iron pans from your mother or grandmother because when you have a great pan, the perfect tool for the job, you pass it down and make sure the legacy lives on. These pans are cherished so much that they are passed down through generations and I’m sure they have been fought over in a “last will and testament” a time or two.
Types of Dutch Ovens
Let’s face it, cast iron is tough as nails. Maybe that’s because it’s made of the same material as nails…iron. It’s almost impossible to ruin. However, if you don’t properly season it, the cast iron can sustain damage. It can rust over time and flake off into food. Nobody wants that.
That’s why some Dutch ovens take the cast iron process a step further and use enameling to coat both the inside and the outside. This makes them easier to clean than traditional cast iron. It also helps with durability and keeps iron from leaching into the food you’re cooking. And, well, they look really nice too.
Variety is the spice of life and enameled Dutch ovens come in nearly every color you can think of. You can find one that meets the color-coordinating needs of just about every kitchen. But of course, with variety comes a heftier price tag. Standard, basic cast iron Dutch ovens can run for a relatively modest $20-60. Enameled versions, on the other hand, can run upward of nearly $400, depending on the manufacturer and colors. Yet another reason why we hand these heirloom quality items down from generation to generation.
Caring for Your Cast Iron Dutch Oven
It is essential to season your cast iron Dutch oven. The process of seasoning is what gives cast iron its nonstick properties and keeps your cookware in tip-top shape. Most cast iron Dutch ovens come pre-seasoned, meaning the manufacturer has taken care of this step for you. As a result, they are ready to use right away. However, the day may come where your cast iron cookware needs to re-seasoned. If this sounds daunting, don’t worry. The process is actually very simple.
To season your Dutch oven (or any other cast iron cookware), all you have to do is coat it in oil and bake it. Any type of cooking oil will do the job, but vegetable oil and olive oil are the most common. Rub the oil in with a lint-free cloth. Then bake it in the oven at 425 degrees for about an hour. Easy peasy. If necessary, repeat this process two or three times.
Dutch Oven Mania
“I know it’s weird to be excited about a cast iron pot, but…”
Need a little extra encouragement before delving into Dutch oven ownership? You have to look no further than your nearest online retailer. There, you’ll find that the Dutch oven has an almost a cultish following. “I’ve had them only five months and I can’t remember my life without them,” raves one review. “The best pots I’ve ever owned,” exclaims another. Have you ever felt that way about your pots and pans? Probably not. So maybe it’s time to look into the mystery of the Dutch oven and add one to your kitchen staples. I have a feeling, you’ll be wondering how you lived without one for so long too.