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You’ve probably heard the term “Dutch oven” over and over again. Perhaps you’re happy thinking of them simply as an enameled cast iron pan, and feel you don’t need to know more. Quite possibly, however, your cooking stands to benefit from one of these. Here we’ll be covering everything about Dutch ovens: their definition, their background, what they do, a few good options for you to consider and why they’re good… and, even how to care for yours!
The Burning Question: What Is A Dutch Oven?
It’s not because they’re made in the Netherlands! To understand the name, we need to take a brief trip back in time.
While it was the Dutch who first began using metal for their cast cooking vessels in the 17th century, they initially made them in brass. An Englishman by the name of Abraham Darby studied the casting process and refined it, being the first to succeed in producing cast iron cookware.
Casting Dutch Ovens
When patenting the casting process, he dubbed it “Dutch oven”, and the name carried over to the pot with thick walls and tight-fitting lid that would soon become widely popular due to being so reliable and versatile. Its solid construction, high temperature tolerance, and certain modifications (some by Paul Revere, no less!) made it ideal for campfire cooking, which was done very frequently in that era of explorers and pioneers.
The Dutch ovens of today are not like the ones of old, but the principle remains the same. They are good for making soups, stews, roasts, casseroles, even deep frying!, in addition to just about anything a conventional oven can do. Interested? Then, let’s dig a little deeper!
Dutch Ovens: What Changes Between One and Another
They all build on the same principle: solid construction, high temperature tolerance, tight lid. But there are variations between one unit and another, and also between one brand and another. Let’s look into their main differences.
You may have seen medium sized Dutch ovens and think that’s it. If that is the case, you might be surprised: units available can be as itty-bitty as 1Qt, and as large as 13.5 Qt (and beyond!). We will cover some options towards each end of the size range.
The most common is cast iron, as it has been since its origins long ago. Nowadays, you will also find them in ceramic, stainless steel and cast aluminum. With material come some changes such as weight, heat resistance and durability. Cast aluminum, for example, is much lighter than cast iron, and ceramic needs to be handled a bit more carefully lest it breaks.
If you go for stainless steel, raw cast iron or aluminum, then you get only one color. For most other materials, you have better chances of finding a wider array of options.
Little known fact: the Dutch ovens of old were designed to be, quite literally, portable ovens! They had legs to keep them steady over the campfire, and more coal was placed on their lids. That way, heat flowed both from the top and the bottom, enabling cooking much like a conventional oven.
The units of today have changed: most don’t have legs and special, coal-holding lids, and some materials simply can’t take the heat of an open fire. You will still find Dutch ovens made in the old style, perfectly good for outdoor cooking. But be warned! Due to the extremely high temperatures they must withstand, those can only be found in cast iron and, therefore, you should expect them to be as heavy as 20 pounds.
This applies mostly to cast iron: you may find it raw, or enameled. A raw finish brings with it concerns for possible rusting, which brings us to our next point.
No, we’re not exactly talking about the food. As solid and resilient as it is, cast iron does not have non-stick properties, and it may develop rust spots (to the detriment of your cooking) due to constant exposure to water. The seasoning procedure addresses these weaknesses by creating a protective layer on the surface of your Dutch oven (or pan), although this is a concern only if you go for cast iron or aluminum: ceramic or enameled Dutch ovens usually do not need seasoning. Of those who do, many come pre-seasoned, which will save you the trouble of doing it yourself.
We will go more into detail about how to care for your Dutch oven between uses (including seasoning), a bit further down.
Ceramic and enameled cast iron Dutch ovens usually come with one of two options for coating: sand colored ceramic, which promotes caramelization and makes it easier to check on food if one is a less experienced cook; and a black matte, rough cover which is harder to clean but better at non-stick (and it also gets naturally seasoned through use).
Options available in the market can go as low as $50, or reach a few hundred dollars. We will be covering units of different price levels to accommodate your desired investment.
Staub vs Le Creuset: Addressing The Controversy
When shopping for a Dutch oven, you will find many brands, and several of them quite reliable. These two, however, will keep coming up over and over as some of the best out there. Which one is better? It’s not easy to say: Both brands have existed for a long time, both are from France, and both are so committed to quality their wares are inspected by hand several times before being released into the market. It comes down to minute details and, ultimately, to personal preference:
Le Creuset’s palette range is both wider and brighter. Staub prefers earthy hues, and offers about half as many as Le Creuset does. This might come down to the coloring theme you chose for your kitchen.
Several points to pick at here. When it comes to interior coating, Le Creuset goes usually for a sand-colored, smooth surface, whereas Staub goes for a rougher, black finish. The more smooth surface can get stickier, and any scratches will be more visible. The upside is, a lighter color makes it easier to spot certain milestones when cooking, such as when butter has changed color.
Lids are different as well. Staub’s version is flat and spiked on the inside, which allows moisture to drip back down after rising to the top, self basting your food constantly. Le Creuset’s lids are domed and of smooth interior. The knob on the lid is another factor: Staub sticks to metal, but Le Creuset often defaults to plastic. While this makes it easier to lift the lid when cooking conventionally, you will have to order a metal replacement (and pay for it) before you can use it in the oven. Staub lids fit more tightly too, which is important to consider when adding moisture to what you are cooking.
There is no need to make this a deal breaker, as neither brand is too cumbersome. Still, it’s probably worth pointing out that Le Creuset Dutch ovens tend to be lighter than Staub, and with larger handles.
They don’t differ significantly, but Staub usually stands a bit lower, and it is easier to find on sale.
The Best Pick
We’ll be covering their individual perks and downsides in detail a few lines down but, at a glance, Le Creuset might be a better fit if you are a casual cook and intend to use your Dutch oven occasionally. Aside from being simpler to handle, its interior allows you to check on your food quick and easy, and being so smooth it is not terribly difficult to clean. The plastic knob on the lid might not even be an issue if you usually cook on the stove-top, or if you don’t set your oven higher than 390°F. Its wider range of colors could prove helpful in finding the right match for your decoration theme, too.
If cooking is more than just a hobby to you, then you might want to look at Staub more closely: it will be harder to clean and to carry around, but thanks to the metal knob on the lid, it can go into the oven without any further adjustments. The rough interior, while more difficult to clean, will be also better at keeping anything from sticking to it.
The Tricky Art of Cleaning Your Dutch Oven
For cleaning, most cookware goes in one of these two directions: hand wash, or dishwasher. Not so with Dutch ovens: how to maintain it between uses so they will last (for generations even, in some cases), will vary by material, and even by coating. Let’s break it down:
Raw Cast Iron
This is the original, the sort of construction and finish that you find even today on campfire Dutch ovens: heavy duty, prone to sticking and vulnerable to rusting. How do we prevent this? Through seasoning. This process, which varies between first time and subsequent, is better done outside, as it will create smoke; but if you don’t have a grill big enough for your pot to fit in with the lid closed, then you can do it in your oven, with the windows open.
First time seasoning
Here’s how you season a brand new Dutch oven:
1. Heat your oven or grill to 400°F.
2. Wash your Dutch oven with hot soapy water and a Brillo pad or steel wool, inside and out. This is the one and only time you should be ever using soap on your pot! Make sure to rinse thoroughly and dry completely before moving on to the next step.
3. It’s time to grease the pot. It is important to pay attention to your choice here, not all greases are adequate. Whatever you pick, make sure it is not rancid, or the smell with linger for a long, long time. The best options are:
- Vegetable oil, such as canola or flax. Olive oil works too, but it is not as optimal.
- Vegetable shortening (like Crisco).
4. Use a paper towel, rag or your fingers to rub your grease of choice all over the surface of your Dutch oven, inside and out (lid is not mandatory, but recommended). Make sure to go into every pockmark and hole. No corner or crevice should be left uncovered.
5. If your Dutch oven will be sitting straight on the grill, with nothing in between, then you should thoroughly wipe the grease off your pot, multiple times if necessary, until it looks like there is none left. If you have a cookie sheet covered with aluminum, then you can skip this step.
6. Place your pot (and lid, if it was also greased) in the oven or grill sitting upside down on the rack or covered cookie sheet. Bake it for 45 minutes to an hour. It should not be longer than 2 hours. IMPORTANT: Do not try to handle the pot immediately after done baking it! It will be dangerously hot. Let it sit there for a while after you turn off the heat, until it is cool enough for you to lay hands on it.
Once it is cool enough and out of the oven, the pot is ready for use. You can repeat the process if you wish, until you are satisfied with the sheen. For further reference, you can see how Martha Stewart gives two cast iron items their first seasoning here.
As mentioned before, you don’t usually involve soap when caring for your cast iron Dutch oven. Instead, you ensure the protective layer you achieved when first seasoning keeps going strong. You can bolster it by cooking fatty foods, and also when frying and deep frying. Acidic foods, such as tomatoes and beans, might weaken it. If you feel the seasoning needs to be reinforced, follow these steps:
1. When every last scrap of edible food has been scooped up, and once the pot has cooled off some, pour some clean water into it.
2. Put the lid on, and heat it for a few minutes. Let it cool off.
3. When it is cool enough to handle, scrape away any bit of food still in there, using a plastic scraper or a sponge. Remember: no soap!
4. Pour the water out. Repeat if needed until the inside is clean.
As long as you give your cast iron Dutch oven proper maintenance, it should serve you faithfully for a long, long time, and even for generations!
Stainless Steel & Aluminum
These are the easiest to care for, as they are usually dishwasher safe by default. You can always stick to washing by hand. If this is your preference, an option even better than water and soap is discussed below.
Staub, Le Creuset, and Other Enameled Cast Iron
Many of these are declared dishwasher safe, but it is best to err on the side of caution with special cleaners like the one offered by Le Creuset, which can be used on smooth sand-colored and matte black interiors. You can even get it with nylon brush included.
Another option, very popular and with great results, is Bar Keeper’s Friend. Wet the inside of your Dutch oven, sprinkle a little dust and scrub away. Stainless steel and aluminum can also benefit from it. Remember to use softer, non-abrasive items when scrubbing, so as to not put the enamel at risk.
Some manufacturers, like Tramontina, advise to do a bit of seasoning on their cookware:
Your enameled cast iron doesn’t need to be completely seasoned like a traditional cast iron skillet. There is, however, a thin border of exposed cast iron along the rim of the vessel and lid that needs to be seasoned in order to protect the surface. To season, use a paper towel to rub a light coating of neutral, high smoke-point oil (canola is a good option) on the edge, where the cast iron is exposed. Place in 350ºF oven upside down on a baking sheet to prevent the oil from dripping, and bake for 1 hour. Let cool.
Dutch Ovens Worth A Look
And now, time to check out some great options for you to peruse!
Made by a company that has been long in business, this one’s lid is flanged to better hold coals, and it can be inverted to use as a griddle. Aside from the campfire, and it can also be used on the oven, the stove, or the grill. Even though it comes seasoned from the factory, the maker recommends to season it between uses. Cookbook included.
- Versatile: usable with several heat sources, and its lid is double-purpose.
- 6 sizes to choose from, from 2Qt to 10Qt.
- 3 designs, including one inspired by the Boy Scouts of America.
- Pre seasoned with vegetable oil, not chemicals.
- Priced in the lower range.
- Finish can be spotty, often showing rust even before use.
It has been known to arrive without the cookbook it promises to include.
This might be a good alternative if you’re looking to get a Dutch oven for various uses without going broke. Built for campfire use, its lid has a double purpose holding coals and as a griddle when flipped. It is possible to buy one of each size and stack one on top of the other, and you can use it on the stove as well.
- Decent multipurpose service for a low price.
- It can be used on stove top aside from outdoors.
- Pre-seasoning is spray-on, and it may be less than thorough right out of factory.
- Fairly thin, it can break without too much difficulty.
If you want a Dutch oven with the convenience of modern construction, then this might be a good fit for you: made in 18/10 stainless steel, its aluminum disc bottom helps distribute heat evenly, and the tempered glass lid with steam hole makes it easy to check on your food. You can put it in the dishwasher, and it is oven safe at up to 500°F; the glass lid tolerates up to 350°F.
- Sturdy build and reliable performance at low price.
- Its looks make it a good fit for many design themes in the kitchen.
- Its handles are good at staying cool.
- Overall lower temperature resistance than other Dutch ovens, especially with the glass lid.
- Food can easily stick to it.
This one might be worth considering if you are pursuing a specific color palette for your kitchen. It is known to perform well, and it comes in sizes ranging from 1.5 to 7.5 quarts. It is dishwasher safe, but it is still recommended to wash it by hand with warm soapy water.
- Convenient variety of sizes.
- 10 colors, easy to find one to suit your taste.
- Enamel can chip with relative ease on the outside.
- Units that arrive after being ordered online often turn out to have been made overseas, which may be a cause of disappointment for those looking to buy something made in the US.
It’s been mentioned before: aside from decades in the business, Le Creuset offers a decently wide range of colors, and this unit is no exception. Its interior is coated in sand colored enameled with smooth finish, which does not require seasoning; and the dome-shaped lid helps keep moisture and heat in constant flow when cooking.
- Bright color selection, you are likely to find a good boost for your kitchen’s theme.
- The knob on the lid is stainless steel, not the more common plastic; this should eliminate any potential need to secure a replacement so as to raise oven temperature tolerance.
- At 2.25 qt, it is rather small, which might make it unsuitable to cook for larger gatherings.
This 9 qt option is the answer if you like to entertain often, or if your house is the usual gathering point for your tens of relatives during the holidays. Aside from 45% larger handles, you get the customary shock resistant enamel, sturdy and thoroughly tested cast iron body, phenolic knob, and smooth light-colored interior. 9 colors available to pick from.
- Its handles are so roomy they can be held even with oven mitts
- Large enough to cook for numerous people
- Its composite lid knob can take temperatures only as far as 500°F
- Its price might far surpass your intended investment.
If Staub has piqued your interest and you want to start small, then you might want to look more closely at this one: the spikes at the underside of the lid send moisture dripping back down onto your food, essentially basting it over and over again. The lid knob, made in metal, will not limit your oven temperature range. The matte black interior will be seasoned on its own through use, needing no intervention on your part. Aside from its conventional duties, you might want to try this little cocotte (as they are known in French) for making rice, and even oatmeal.
- You can go small at 1.5 qt, or even smaller at ¾ qt.
- 5 earthy colors to choose from.
- Price can be too steep, unless found on sale.
Staub quality with an extra decorative touch! The lid comes with the standard spikes to keep moisture raining back on your food, and the knob in the shape of a little pig (or cochon, in French) should be a good conversation starter for when you have guests. This cocotte works on all stove tops, including glass, and is safe in the oven at up to 900°F, although the lid tolerates only as far as 500°F.
- Handles are more comfortable than the conventional Staub design.
- Available in 6 colors.
- Dishwasher safe (although hand washing is still recommended).
- And, of course, the uniquely shaped knob!
- Only one size available.
- Knob has lower temperature resistance, which limits oven usage.
Aside from helping it last longer and making it dishwasher safe, the hard anodizing treatment is what gives it this peculiar dark color. Its interior features three layers of coating, which boost durability and ensure food is easy to peel of. You only get one color to pick from, but that color should be a match for almost any kitchen. Both the body and its tempered glass lid are oven safe at up to 450°F. If you have a large family to feed, this unit should serve you well.
- Affordable, especially for its size.
- Available mid-size (5 qt) or large (8 ½ qt).
- Its handles will remain cool when placed on the stovetop.
- Temperature range is significantly lower than with other Dutch ovens.
- The coating on the inside has been known to scratch with relative ease.
If 13 qt happens to be too low for you, then this could be what you’re looking for: this unit comes in 3 sizes, going as high as 24 qt. Built in Tri-ply stainless steel, and its handles are riveted for extra reliability. It is compatible with all sorts of cook-top, induction included. It is dishwasher safe, able to tolerate oven temperatures of up to 500°F, and it comes with NSF certification. Keep in mind, however, than the 24 qt version might be too heavy for some people.
- Smaller option is light enough to be used even on glass stovetops.
- Its size offer goes farther high than the average.
- Unlike other stainless steel options available, the lid is not glass.
- It is known to change color with use, although it may be prevented to a degree through regular maintenance.
Best Pick: Le Creuset LS2532-2616SS
Hefty though it may seem, this is almost certain to be a one time investment: as long as you care for it appropriately, you can bet this Dutch oven will stay with you for a long, long time. It is light, and its handles easy to grip. Its sand-colored interior is a breeze to clean, and it lets you get the progress of your cooking at a glance. Its stainless steel knob can take any oven temperature you need… and you get many colors to choose from!
Its 2.25 qt capacity is among the lowest available, but it should still be enough for most occasions, unless you frequently host large gatherings. All in all, this is a reliable, sturdy, aesthetically pleasing option. All that’s left now is, choose the first dish to make in the new Dutch oven when it comes. There are many recipes out there!