What Is a Dutch Oven and Do You Need One?
Kitchen Expert Jacob Cummings explains what exactly a dutch oven is and why you should have at least one in your own kitchen.
Table of Contents
- What Is a Dutch Oven?
- What Types of Dutch Ovens Are There?
- Enameled Cast Iron
- Standard Cast Iron
- Other Materials
- Are There Any Substitutes for a Dutch Oven?
- Camping With Dutch Ovens
- What Is the Difference Between a Budget and an Expensive Dutch Oven?
- Do You Need a Dutch Oven?
What Is a Dutch Oven?
With a tight-fitting lid, a broad cooking area like a skillet, high walls like a saucepan, and two large handles, the cast-iron Dutch oven can do almost any job in the kitchen. Cast iron is made from a combination of melted iron and steel. The liquid metal is then poured into a mold of sand, where it is left to cool and harden. Enameled cast iron takes the steps further through a process of applying the protective finish and drying it in an 800°F furnace.
What You Need to Know:
- Available in a wide variety of capacities, Dutch ovens can range from one quart up to 15 quarts. The most common size of five quarts is large enough to feed 3–5 people.
- Some cast iron pots have an enamel coating that is great for grains, rice, or simmering acidic tomato sauce and boiling pasta.
- All cast-iron Dutch ovens are compatible with gas, electric, and induction stovetops.
- Enameled cast iron is dishwasher-safe, but manufacturers suggest that washing by hand will prolong the life of the cookware.
- Cast iron has poor heat conductivity, but once it is hot the cookware has even heat distribution and heat retention that is great for deep-frying and slow cooking.
What Types of Dutch Ovens Are There?
Aside from capacity, shape, and finish, most Dutch ovens are all very similar in form and function. The differences were outlined above, but let’s go deeper below.
Enameled Cast Iron
A porcelain-enameled, cast-iron pot is always going to have a unique look in the kitchen. These are available in a wide variety of colors and are most frequently used for dishes that have a lot of liquids, like grains, slow-cooked stews, and soups. The function of the enamel serves a number of features: from the quality of the resulting food to the ease of care for the dish.
- For acidic and slow-cooked foods like beef stew and tomato sauce, the enamel coating protects the flavors of the food from adopting the metallic flavor of the cast iron while the ingredients simmer.
- The pieces of cookware that are fully covered in the porcelain enamel coating will not rust, which is a constant challenge with traditional cast iron.
- Lower cost and expensive options that I recommend here will all be very durable, resistant to scratching, chipping, and other defects. All of the pots recommended here will have lifetime warranties in case a defect were to appear.
- Great for any stovetop (gas, electric, induction) and to bake bread and cakes in the oven.
- An enameled cast-iron dish will always cost quite a bit more than a standard cast-iron pot. Even the enameled Dutch ovens by Lodge are about twice as expensive as the same iron Dutch ovens without the enamel.
- The coating is very durable and does not require the pot to be seasoned. But it’s not perfect; it can be prone to scratching. Wooden or silicone utensils are recommended. Hand washing with soap and water or a little baking soda is preferred. No steel wool scrubbers allowed!
- The enameled surface is not as naturally non-stick as a well-seasoned iron pot, requiring more fats and oils to prevent sticking.
- Lower heat capacities than traditional cast iron, usually the maximum temp for these is 500° F.
Standard Cast Iron
Iron Dutch ovens that do not have enamel coating are black and traditionally made from molds of sand. Because of this crude and ancient design, it’s common for a cast iron pot to have a rough texture in the bottom of the pan. This basic cookware is essential for achieving crispy textures.
- A well-seasoned pot can perform with some non-stick effect, requiring less oil and fuss to keep foods from sticking.
- Cleaning cast iron cookware is easy with chainmail or steel wool with no worries of damaging the pan (however, metal utensils can be tough on the seasoning).
- Bake bread in the oven with the lid on to retain moisture, or use it in high-heat cooking beside a campfire.
- Incredible durability and lifetime warranties mean these pots can hang around the family for lifetimes.
- Rusts easily when not cared for. Luckily, the rust does not mean the pan is ruined—it just needs some care and seasoning!
- Cast iron makes for a heavy cooking pot. Especially once food ingredients have been added, the dish can weigh tens of pounds, requiring both hands for transport.
- Meals with lots of liquid and acidic ingredients like tomato sauce can eventually cause an undesired metallic flavor to appear in the food.
- Although compatible with glass cooktops, the unpolished underside of lower-quality pots can scratch the glass.
Less popular and more uncommon are Dutch ovens made with stainless steel or aluminum. Stainless steel does not have great heat retention and has very poor heat distribution, so it is not an ideal material for a slow-cooking vessel.
- Stainless steel weighs less than cast iron, so it’s a great option for anyone who might have limits of how much they can lift.
- Great for frying, braising, and high-heat use on the stovetop.
- Glass lids make it easier to see what’s going on with the cooking that’s going on inside.
- Very durable, stainless steel will endure lots of use for years, and it’s easy to clean with steel wool or chainmail.
- Stainless steel is not compatible with induction burners.
- Many ingredients are very prone to sticking to stainless and it can be more work to get foods unstuck from the inside of the pot.
- Because the lids are often made of glass with a silicone grip, the maximum oven temps are below 350° F degrees.
Are There Any Substitutes for a Dutch Oven?
There’s not a single piece of cookware that can fully replace the wide versatility of a Dutch oven. But there are plenty of options that can perform some of the more specific tasks a bit better. Here are a few of them:
Dutch Oven vs. Stockpot
Stockpots have high walls and larger capacities. A stock pot will often be made of stainless steel and have a lightweight glass or stainless lid to go with it. Stock pots have handles on both sides for transporting with two hands. Stock pots will be better for making large amounts of soup.
Dutch Oven vs. Casserole Dish
A casserole dish is made of cast iron, usually enameled, and is similar in shape to a braising dish. It’s the shape of a skillet without the long handle. A casserole dish has two looped handles ensuring safe transport of heavy meals that get served out of the same dish. These are not to be confused with the square and rectangular casserole dishes that are made out of porcelain, most commonly used for lasagna and brownies.
Dutch Oven vs. Slow Cooker
A slow cooker is able to cook slowly and keep things warm. A Dutch oven can slow cook in addition to frying, boiling, braising, searing, and baking. A slow cooker is great for keeping a large pot of food warm at a party, whereas a Dutch oven would otherwise get cold or require a heat source. The durability and versatility of a Dutch oven far outweigh the expected lifetime of a slow cooker.
Camping With Dutch Ovens
Cooking food outside is a treat. Here are a few things to know about cooking with cast iron on the campfire.
- Core temperatures of campfires can reach over 1500° F, which is enough to damage standard cast iron, and will certainly ruin enameled cast iron. To prevent damage to the cookware, avoid using enameled cast iron, and place the oven on the edge of the fire—away from the core.
- It’s best to always use oven mitts when handling the cookware that has been in a campfire.
- The heat source might be uneven, so it’s often required to stir the food more frequently to prevent burning.
- The flame and smoke emitting from the fire will form carbon deposits on the outside of the Dutch oven. This carbon buildup can be easily scrubbed off once the cookware has cooled down.
What Is the Difference Between a Budget and an Expensive Dutch Oven?
Overall performance differences between low-cost and expensive Dutch ovens can be minimal. For example, Lodge enameled cookware is about one-third the cost of a dish from comparable Le Creuset but will perform almost exactly the same.
- The overall fit and finish of more expensive cookware will be notable, especially with enameled cast iron.
- Durability of enamel finishes will be higher quality and less likely to chip or scratch.
- Le Creuset is almost always lighter in weight than similar capacities from other manufacturers.
- The premium finish will be a joy to bring to the dinner table and the additional color will be appreciated by hungry dinner guests.
- The cooking performance of an expensive Dutch oven will be similar to lower-cost options. The main benefits of expensive options are their refined edges, durability, and location of manufacturing.
Do You Need a Dutch Oven?
I am biased, but, yes! I think you need a five-quart Dutch oven in your life to start. From there, you can decide on buying something larger for dinner parties or a smaller two-quart for breakfasts and quick meals. Want some more help on finding your options? Check out my guide to Cast Iron Dutch Ovens Here where I talk about some of my very favorites. Questions about how to season, clean, and care for your cast-iron cookware? Check out our guide here.
If you’d like some one-on-one help with a Kitchen Expert, feel free to reach out and chat! We’re always happy to help.