What kind of pot can be used indoors and out, for baking and frying, and braising and roasting? The Dutch oven.
Dutch oven cooking is, in my opinion, not given the attention it deserves. It’s one of the oldest, tested-and-true cooking methods in the United States, and yet in the general population, few people even know what it entails.
Curious to learn more about the art of the Dutch oven? This post is dedicated to Dutch oven cooking, including what it is, how to choose the right Dutch oven for you, and a discussion of all of the delicious things you can create with this unique vessel.
What is Dutch oven cooking?
Photo via Flickr member naotakem
Dutch oven cooking refers to any number of recipes which are characterized by a unique vessel: a thick-walled cooking pot with a snug-fitting lid.
The style is referred to as “Dutch” because in the late 17th century, the production of these vessels was perfected in the Netherlands, where artisans used dry sand to create molds which yielded a smoother surface. Their work was imported to Britain, and from Britain it traveled to the original American colonies.
Over time, the Dutch oven enjoyed some technologic advancement, though the name stuck. The pot itself became shallower and legs were added to suspend the oven above coals (and also helped lend it a new nickname, “spider”). The lid was reformulated so that coals could rest on top, too, while heating from above and below, yet not in the food.
It’s hard to underestimate the importance of Dutch oven cooking in the early days of the United states. A Dutch oven was among the gear packed by famous explorers Lewis and Clark; many westward travelers in horse drawn carriages brought their Dutch oven as a vital item. Perhaps its role in feeding travelers plays into the fact that the Dutch oven is the official cooking pot of Texas, Utah, and Arkansas.
Why Dutch oven cooking?
Dutch oven cooking has persisted for a reason. The Dutch oven is a versatile vessel which can be used for boiling, baking, braising, frying, roasting, and more. It could be used to make dinner, bread, dessert, and more. Its durability made it an enduring and worthwhile investment: in fact, during the 18th and 19th centuries, Dutch oven collections were frequently given their own listing in final will and testaments.
As you’ll see in this post, Dutch oven cooking remains just as versatile today.
Supplies: Choosing a Dutch oven
Photo via Flickr member saaby
The most important supply for Dutch oven cooking is, of course, the pot itself. If you start to browse online or in stores, you’ll find a huge variety of materials, sizes, and prices. Which one is right for you?
Dutch ovens can be made out of materials as varied as ceramic, clay, aluminum, or cast iron. Hands down, cast iron is the most durable sort, suited to the most purposes, and you’ll find it’s the most commonly and readily available in stores. So for this post, we’re going to primarily discuss this type.
Unfortunately, Dutch ovens are not cheap. Starting around $50 on the low end and ascending to $300 and above, they are a significant investment. However, you get what you pay for, because this versatile cooking vessel will quickly become part of your regular cooking repertoire, and a well-made one might even outlive you.
What to look for
Choose a well-made, heavy Dutch oven with thick walls and a thick bottom and a snug fitting lid. Make sure the handles and knob on top feel comfortable to you; test holding it with oven mitts if possible. Ask store employees for suggestions; ask your friends if they have a suggested brand of Dutch oven.
How big should it be?
To start, choose a Dutch oven which has at least a 6-quart capacity. This will be large enough to braise a significant piece of meat such as a chicken, or make enough soup to serve and store leftovers. If you get a Dutch oven that is too small, you’ll find that you don’t use it as much.
Characteristics of Dutch ovens
There are many subtle differences between Dutch ovens. By learning the function of some of the different designs, you can choose the oven best suited to your cooking style.
With an indented lip on top
Photo via Flickr member wfryer
A Dutch oven with a lip on top is designed to hold charcoal on top, so that if you’re cooking over a fire outdoors, you can apply heat both above and below what’s cooking. If you intend on using your Dutch oven outdoors, this is a good thing; if you’re mostly going to use it indoors, this might not be of high importance.
Without a lip on top
A Dutch oven without a lip on the top, or with a tiny lip but a rounded shape, such as the one pictured at the top of the post, is better suited to indoor cooking. While you can stack charcoal on top, it’s not as easy to balance.
Spikes in the lid
You might see that some Dutch ovens have little spikes in the lid. No, these are not torture devices for your food. They help the condensation easily drip back down as you cook, so that the moisture won’t degrade the cast iron.
Photo via Flickr member dvortygirl
In addition to a knob/small handle on top, many Dutch ovens will come with long handle along the circumference of the top of the pot. This makes for easier handling outdoors, although a Dutch oven with a handle can be used indoors, too.
Necessary accessory: lid lifter
If you intend on cooking outdoors with your Dutch oven, a lid lifter is a vital accessory. It helps you lift the lid without venturing into the dangerous fire zone.
With feet or without?
Photo via Flickr member little_kingfisher
Some Dutch ovens have feet: these are designed to help the vessel stay upright and raised slightly above coals. If you’re using your Dutch oven for outdoor cooking, the feet can be helpful. They also make it possible to stack Dutch ovens, to cook multiple dishes at once. However, these feet make it difficult to use your Dutch oven on the stovetop or in the oven.
Personally, I suggest starting with a Dutch oven sans feet, because this will allow you the freedom to easily cook indoors and can still be used outdoors.
Caring for your Dutch oven
Like any piece of cast iron cooking tool, a Dutch oven requires care to stay in top working order. You can find a helpful article on seasoning and caring for cast iron pieces here.
Indoor versus outdoor Dutch oven cooking
Photo via Flickr member chippenziedeutsch
Should you cook indoors or outdoors with your Dutch oven? Mostly, it’s up to you. Here is a basic rundown of a few ways a Dutch oven can be used both indoors and out.
Indoors, a Dutch oven can be put on the stovetop or in the oven, or sometimes will start on the stovetop and be transferred to the oven to finish cooking or to keep the dish warm.
Outdoors, you can light a fire with charcoal in a grill or with charcoal or wood on a campfire site or grilling pit. An advantage of charcoal is that it can be placed on top of the Dutch oven, too, ensuring even cooking. You can even stack Dutch ovens to cook multiple courses at once!
Dutch oven inspiration
Ready to try your hand at Dutch oven cooking? Here are some inspiring examples of Dutch oven cookery.
Photo via Flickr member little_kingfisher
Cinnamon rolls cooked outdoors? Believe it: you can line a greased Dutch oven with store-bought cinnamon rolls and cook them to toasty perfection.
Dinner and a side at once
Photo via Flickr member busbeytheelder
See how the salmon and asparagus are being loaded into a Dutch oven at the same time, with a parchment paper divider? This will allow both of the items to cook at the same time and absorb the flavors of the supporting cast of ingredients for a memorable dinner.
Crisps and cobblers
Photo via Flickr member dangregson
Baking with a Dutch oven is a snap both indoors and out. This Dutch oven is loaded with the makings of a cherry crisp, and the thick bottom of the pot ensures that the bottom of the dessert won’t scorch.
Photo via Flickr member ionntag
The Dutch oven is ideal for a slow cooked one-pot dinner such as this Chicken Cacciatore. Not limited to meat, you can also create soups, stews, and vegetables in a Dutch oven.
Have you ever tried cooking with a Dutch oven?