What is a Dutch oven? How to choose the right one for your kitchen

© rudisill/Getty Images What is a Dutch oven? How to choose the right one for your kitchen

  • A Dutch oven is an cast iron pot great for braising, stews, sauces, and more.
  • They come in different sizes, materials, and shapes that serve different culinary purposes.
  • Oval-shaped Dutch ovens are great for roasting, while round ones are better for stovetop cooking.

If you have foodie friends you may have heard the phrase “Dutch oven” a time or two – alongside heaps of praise about how wonderful they are to cook in. But what is a Dutch oven, and should you be adding this one-pot-wonder to your own culinary arsenal?

A Dutch oven is an extremely versatile piece of cookware that has a place in every modern-day kitchen, despite its old-school roots – we’re talking 17th century old. It’s made from enameled cast iron, meaning it has a cast iron core with ceramic enamel on the outside. Its construction makes it great for braising, baking, casseroles, sauces, and more.

The cast iron heats evenly and retains heat well, and the enamel makes it non-stick and easy to get a sear. The lid typically is ribbed or has dots or dimples on it, so when steam rises, it encourages condensation from the top down and reintroduces flavor to baste the meat.

So how has the Dutch oven made its way into becoming a household name?

History of the Dutch oven

Guess what? A Dutch oven isn’t actually Dutch.

According to Chef Shon Foster of Wood.Ash.Rye, the early origins of the modern Dutch oven was called a braadpan in the Netherlands, which roughly translates to “frying or roasting pan.” It was mainly used for frying meats or making stews.

“The modern French design transformed it to an enamel-coated cast iron pan, mainly used for braising meats and casseroles,” says Foster.

He further explains that the Dutch did produce a cooking vessel made of brass in the 17th century, creating a range of pots, pans, and casserole dishes. Their process used sand to make the molds and produced a high-quality pot with a smooth surface, compared to the English at the time who were using loam and clay.

An Englishman Abraham Darby visited the Netherlands to observe this casting process. He returned to England, and in trying to create a cheaper product, further refined the process to use the more economical metal of cast iron.

“Darby eventually patented a casting procedure and named it the ‘Dutch oven’ in 1707, thus explaining where the Dutch name originated for this cooking pot,” says Foster. “The Americans then brought these English pots to their new colony and continued to make changes to the English style Dutch oven during the colonial era.”

Fun fact: Paul Revere is credited with adding legs to the pots and designing a flat lid with a ridge for holding coals.

What is a Dutch oven made of?

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There are a few different competing materials that are used to make a Dutch oven: enameled cast iron and raw cast iron.

Enameled cast iron

Cast iron or enameled cast iron is the preferred material for Dutch ovens, says Meredith Abbott, chef and Manager of culinary content at Sur La Table. Enameled cast iron Dutch ovens cost a bit more, but with that comes no limitations for what you can make in it. Enameled doesn’t need extra seasoning, but you should take care to not chip or crack the enamel.

Raw cast iron

Raw or seasoned cast iron pieces are very affordable and are one of the few cookware pieces that get better with age and proper seasoning. ​​One major limitation with raw or seasoned cast iron is that you shouldn’t cook overly acidic foods in them, advises Abbott, “…so please don’t think about making your Nonna’s traditional Sunday Tomato Gravy in one,” the sauce will pick up a metallic taste and all of the seasoning you worked so hard at developing will dissolve.

Many confuse the traditional Dutch oven with the French oven, and rightfully so. A French oven is a cast iron Dutch oven that is enamel-coated.

Both cooking accessories are enameled and have very similar functions and looks. Unlike a French oven, you can put a Dutch oven directly in or over an open fire with coals directly on top – hence why they are beloved by campers.

Quick tip: Our Insider Reviews team tested different dutch ovens to determine the best one you can buy. The top pick is the Le Creuset Signature Enameled Cast Iron Dutch Oven:

Signature Enameled Cast-Iron Dutch Oven (small)

What to cook in a Dutch oven

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According to Institute of Culinary Education chef Christopher Arturo, Dutch ovens are great for a variety of applications from braising to soups, sofrito, cacio e pepe or other pasta favorites, one-pot meals, and even baking bread like sourdough.

“When I make sofrito, I can cook it over extremely low heat for hours – which is another benefit to this cookware,” says Arturo. It provides consistent, even heat at low temperatures for long periods of time. Soups are also great to make in Dutch ovens, because the pot heats evenly, and there aren’t any hot spots.”

For example, when you’re making sourdough, the heavy lid doesn’t allow steam to escape which contributes to a crisp texture.

Because Dutch ovens are so hefty, it does need time to preheat on the stovetop or in the oven. However as oven temperatures often fluctuate, the heft of the material gives it high heat retention and will ensure consistent temperatures inside the Dutch oven, says Abbott.

What about size?

Dutch ovens come in a variety of sizes – so how do you know which one is right for you? Arturo prefers an 8-quart Dutch oven, but it depends on what you’re using it for. He may reach for a wider pot if he wants to intensify flavor by reduction, or a taller pot if he wants to keep the liquid and infuse flavor without reducing it. But it really is about what fits with your lifestyle and needs:

“If you are only going to purchase one piece, I would recommend a round 5- to 6-quart enameled Dutch oven,” says Abbott. Depending on your household needs, she recommends the following:

  • For families of two to four: 4- to 6-quart capacity
  • For families of four or more or big-batch cooking: 6- to 8-quarts capacity

What shape should I pick?

Oval shaped: Perfect for roasting chickens, or large cuts of pork or beef since it more naturally mirrors their shape which allows for circulation and even cooking. An oval shape is great in the oven. Oval shaped Dutch ovens do not have as efficient stove top heat distribution, so this cookware should be an addition to your collection after purchasing a round Dutch oven.

Round shaped: Round pots usually fit better on the stove since the shape matches with the shape of the burner. They also take up less space and tend to have deeper sides while oval shapes will be wider and shallower.

How to care for a Dutch oven

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When cooking, make sure to heat it slowly. Do not put a hot Dutch oven into water to avoid thermal shock, which can cause the porcelain enamel to crack. And use wooden, silicone or plastic utensils while cooking to avoid scratching the finish.

To care for this cookware, make sure to wash it by hand when it’s hot. You don’t want to be too abrasive with the enamel or it can chip. Detergents may degrade the gloss on the porcelain over time. If food is really stuck, and you need to give it some more elbow grease, do not use steel wool.

Instead, soak your Dutch oven after it’s cooled, fill it with hot water and about two tablespoons of baking soda. Cover the pot and let it sit for about 15 minutes. Then, use a dish scrubber or sponge with hot water.

If your Dutch oven is not enameled and is made of raw cast iron, scrub the pan while it’s still warm with a sponge or stiff brush. After washing your skillet, dry it immediately with a towel or on the stove. In this case, never soak or put non-enameled cast iron cookware in the dishwasher, because that may cause rust.

To season or protect raw cast iron’s cooking surface after cleaning, coat cast iron with a thin layer of oil and throw it in a hot oven to seal the seasoning.

Insider’s takeaway

Dutch ovens are wonderful for everyday cooking and to create a depth of flavor. Their heft and versatility make them a welcome addition to any kitchen – and they look stunning atop your counters or even for serving straight out of the pot.

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