There are tens of thousands of threads, posts, and pages out there describing exactly what you absolutely, positively must have in your kitchen – And no two agree completely. That might be a good or a bad thing, depending on ones desires, budget, and available space. Arguably, the lions share of such information deals with cookware, and I’m ready to boldly wade in. What you absolutely need is cast iron, and if you had to pick one piece over all others, it should be the Dutch oven – It’s must have kitchenware.
First off, what exactly is a ‘genuine’ Dutch oven? The answer is, there are several, and most of them aren’t Dutch any more. In essence, it’s a flat bottomed, fairly deep, (typically 3″ to 5″), thick walled, (read, heavy), pot with a nice, snug lid. Past that, it’s called many things – Whether it’s a Dutch Braadpan, Aussie Bedourie, South African Potjie, an Eastern European Chugun, or a North American Dutch Oven, they’re pretty much the same thing and used similarly – that means that everything from stewing and roasting to baking and boiling gets done in this one marvelous pot.
There are dozens of folks tales about how the Dutch oven got its name, but here’s the straight skinny – Back in the 1600s, the Dutch refined the process of casting metal cooking pots by employing a dry sand mold, which yielded a notably smoother finished surface than what they’re neighbor’s were producing – That made using and cleaning them much easier, and once the rest of Europe got a taste, serious importation of the pot began and grew. In the dawn of the 18th century, Englishman Abraham Darby refined the casting process further by fueling a blast furnace with coke rather than charcoal, opening the way for cast iron cooking vessels. In a nod to the folks he learned the sand mold trick from, he called the pot he cast, (similar to a braadpan), a Dutch oven, and the rest is history. At his Cheese Lane Foundry, an apprentice named John Thomas further refined the molding process, employing a casting box and core that allowed relatively thinner and lighter pots to be produced. They were so successful that Darby enjoyed a virtual monopoly on the trade well into the 1700s – It was his wares that first made their way to North American shores.
So, what are they made of? While plain cast iron rules in North America, those Dutch braadpans are much more likely to be enameled steel. There are cast aluminum versions, and the legendary Le Creuset enameled cast iron French Oven has legions of fans – And for the record, technically, an enameled Dutch oven is a French Oven – It’s a formal nod to that famous company that first produced the combination.
Once the Dutch oven hit our shores, changes were inevitable. Shallower, wider pots prevailed over their English forebearers. Stubby legs appeared, to allow coals to be placed beneath the oven, and a flat, flanged lid followed, so that coals placed on top of the oven stayed there, and out of the food. Both those innovations are widely attributed to Paul Revere, who did indeed own a foundry, and who’s name graces a line of cookware to this very day, but beyond everybody saying he did it, I couldn’t find one solid confirmation of the legend. Bailed handles, lids with handles, and various other iterations followed, and remain available to this day. Check out the website for the ubiquitous Lodge foundry, and you get the picture. Dutch ovens were almost exclusively made of cast iron here, and were considered so valuable a commodity that they were religiously passed on from generation to generation, often to a specific recipient. As the country grew, Dutch ovens traveled, starting with the Lewis and Clark expedition, and they’re very much still with us.
So, with all that history and all those options, you don’t have one in your kitchen? Or worse yet, you do, it it’s gathering dust, unused? Time to remedy that. If you don’t have one, I’m gonna say again, you need to invest in one, and in investment is literally what you’re making – Just as it was back when, a good quality Dutch oven, properly maintained, will serve you for a lifetime, and then be ready to be handed on to future generations. If you’ve got one and aren’t using it, time to get it down, inspect it, clean it, and put that puppy to use.
Now, if you’re buying, what should you get? That depends on what your predominant use will be, and how many people you typically feed. The first decision is new or used – Either is fine, but don’t expect to readily find a killer cheap deal on first class vintage cast iron – Those days are largely gone, although if you’re not in a hurry, and diligent about searching garage and estate sales, eBay, and Craig’s List, you can still find a decent bargain now and again.
If you’re going to buy, you’ll be hard pressed to do better than Lodge – There’s a reason they sell more cast iron than anybody else – They’ve been doing it since 1896, and their products, service, and designs are tried, tested, and top notch, (There are other fine makers, so poke around before you land.) If you’re cooking for 2 to 4 folks, a 10″ oven will do just fine. More than that, and you’re going to be better off with a 12″ pot. If your primary use will be your home kitchen, with an occasional foray to the camping world, you’ll be well served by a Lodge L8DD3, a 10″ 5 quart, double Dutch oven with a domed, handled cover that doubles as a skillet at the campsite. Between the 4.5″ depth and the domed lid, you can get a lot of stuff into this oven – I know, ’cause this is the one we own and use here, and the one I got for my Sis, so yeah, I think that highly of ’em – And if you’re a regular visitor here, you know that’s no bullshit, because you’ve seen this very model working here many, many times. One caveat – The L8DD3 doesn’t have legs or a baled handle, so you need to be a bit more careful around a campfire, but I assure you there’s not much you can’t do with it out in the wild – and speaking thereof…
If you’re looking for an oven specifically to camp with, then you’ll do better with a Lodge L10DCO3, what they call a camp oven – This guy features everything you want in an oven that’ll get used predominantly with coals – Legs, bale handle, and that possibly Revere designed flat, flanged lid. Those attributes are important because, when cooking over coals or wood, you need to be able to effectively distribute heat in different ways, depending on what you need the oven to do. A few years back, I wrote a piece about camp cooking with a Dutch oven, and you’ll find that right here – It’ll provide plenty of specific info on how to vary the number and placement of coals or briquettes to achieve effective baking, roasting, or simmering when you’re out at the campsite.
And as for that versatility I mentioned a while back, suffice it to say that there’s truly not much you can’t do with this oven. From soups and stews, to braising and roasting, sautéing or baking, a cast iron Dutch oven will provide dependable, even heat and consistent performance. And then there’s the certain je ne sais quoi imparted by cooking in cast iron – Everything tastes a little better, at least to me it does, and frankly, I can’t think of a better reason to use one, (and not a single reason you wouldn’t.)
As with all good cookware, cast iron requires care and maintenance. Rather than repeat the mantras, I’ll just point you to Lodge’s page for seasoning, and for care and maintenance – Do what they tell ya, don’t do the stuff you shouldn’t, and that oven will serve you and yours for decades to come.
NOTE: Because, without fail, somebody always gets in touch and asks how much, in this case, Lodge gave or paid me, rest assured – We don’t take freebies, and we don’t get paid by purveyors – We bought our stuff, just like you do, every time, no exceptions.
It happens in every professional kitchen, to some degree, every day – And folks, truth be told, it happens exactly the same way in our home kitchens, too. Classically, it’s known as being dans le merde – You might not know the term, but I guarantee you know the feeling. You’re in the shit.
Anyone who’s worked in a professional kitchen knows the term. My first professional kitchen training was French, then a Basque kitchen, then another French outfit. ‘On est dans la merde,’ was a thing I heard early on, and quickly came to understand – If you want the proper pronunciation, it’s onnay don la maird – It means, we are in the shit, and in it deep. It’s a colorful phrase, indeed. The Americanized version is ‘in the weeds’, but it means the same thing, and it’s rarely good – I’ll explain my choice of rarely over never down the line a spell.
What in the shit or the weeds means is simple – It’s the Murphy’s Law of cooking – What can go wrong, will go wrong, and usually at the most inopportune moment. It makes sense, frankly. While some advocate that the phenomenon is more prevalent and has greater negative repercussions in a fine dining outfit, I personally think that’s hooey. Let’s face it, we’ve all been to a fast food chain when they’re in the weeds, and frankly, I have zero doubt that staff and patrons there feel it every bit as acutely as they would at The French Laundry. It sucks, bad, and sometimes it can be damn near impossible to get out of quickly or cleanly. Yet most of the time, that’s not true, thank the gods.
Before we explore the what, a moment to discuss the term – Where does in the shit/weeds come from – The etymology isn’t crystal clear. Some posit that it stems from a sports analogy, hitting a golf ball into the rough, or getting tangled in seaweed during a swim. Mark Liberman, a Professor of Linguistics at Yale, suggests it refers to getting off the beaten path, and that strikes me as closer to the mark, (no pun intended). It’s hard to say how old this chunk of kitchen lexicon is. A search for the origins or first use of the term as kitchen slang yields almost nothing of value, it’s an arcane term that apparently hasn’t been explored well. My earliest finding for it is George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London, published in 1933. The inference therein is that the term was common among kitchen staff then, so it likely has its roots back a spell from Orwell’s time.
What being dans le merde means is, overwhelmed. In a restaurant, it means that something has swamped a station or stations, and they can’t keep up. When everything, literally everything, must be precisely timed and finely coordinated, that’s all it takes to bring about disaster. And if the orders keep piling up after it’s happened, it’ll take that much longer to get out of.
What I do nowadays in the cafe during peak periods is expedite – I’m standing on the front of house side of the pass, the high counter where completed plates are placed by the kitchen staff when they’re ready to go. I give everything one more check, confirm each element of the plate with my QC, and then hand the plate on to a server. But in reality, I’m watching the clock, and all the stations. My QC, (literally Quality Control – The most important person in that kitchen), the one who has final say on what comes out to me, has control of her line, but her back is to it most of the time, whereas I’m facing the various stations – She can feel what’s shaking, because she’s really good, but I can see it – The expressions on faces, the sudden slow down in assembly steps as somebody gets bogged down, the lack of plates at a given station, where there should be several. As such, a great deal of what I actually do is orchestrate things to keep us from being dans le merde. It’s a constant, demanding dance, and I love it.
Now we reach the point of asking, so what? Why would we be interested in exploring a term that describes catastrophic failure? The answer, my friends, is simple – Search your hearts and memories, and you’ll find plenty of examples of this happening to you, in your own kitchen. Sure, we’re not Le Bernardin, but the fact is that, on a Tuesday night, after a long, hard day at work, when you’ve got to have dinner on the table for your family in X minutes, and the shit hits the fan, it matters a great deal. It has happened, and as sure as hitting a deer while driving eastern Washington, it will happen again, and therein lies the crux of the matter – When it does, what will you do? The sitcom and cartoon answer is, order pizza, and sometimes that works, but the fact remains that most of the time that’s not an option, so, just as I do at work, we at home must act to save the day.
Craig Thornton is the wildly creative LA Chef and founder of Wolvesmouth, what he describes as, “a communal dinner party, kind of like the old-world salon.” A dinner party that just happens to be one of the most sought after dinner reservations in that town. In an interview a while back, he said something that speaks perfectly to why understanding and studying being dans le merde is important – “Cooking is creating a big fucking problem and learning how to solve it.” Truer words were never spoken. No matter how accomplished you are, no matter how broad your repertoire, Murphy says that things will go wrong when you can least afford it. Made Yorkshire pudding a thousand times? You’ll fuck it up on Christmas Eve, with the whole fam damily in attendance. Think about it – Cooking is chemistry, math, history, memory, ambition, imagination, all done with a cornucopia of methods and processes almost guaranteed to make all that fail at some point. It’s a given, and as such, we need to recognize and acknowledge failure – Bow to the gods of chaos, and then smile back at ’em. Failure is, quite literally, a vital part of the cooking process. As with most things in life, it’s not what happens to us, but what we do about it when things don’t exactly go swimmingly that tests our mettle.
So, what’s the take away, S’il vous plaît? The answer depends on the disaster. Fortunately, this being the 21st century, answers are but a click away, if you don’t already know one. When a disaster hits your kitchen, it’s time to go into triage mode. Whatever the crisis, when it happens, you need to do what we do at work. Stop for a moment. When you’re in the shit, it feels like you’ve just got to forge on, a la the Winston Churchill quote, “If you’re going through hell, keep going.” Fact is, that’s usually not a good idea when everything is going to shit.
Disaster requires a moment of observation first and foremost – What went wrong? We may or may not be able to answer that question, but you need to take the time to observe and assess. Thats literally what I do at work – “Gang, stop – Let’s figure this out – Do we need to move people around, do we need more hands, what’s the deal? Let’s figure it out and fix it.” That’s why up there in that second paragraph I said being dans le merde isn’t always bad – If you’re barreling down the wrong path and something critical brings you to a full stop, it can be a hidden blessing – You only ruin one dish, instead of a whole meal.
Take stock of what happened – If you’re not sure what it was, grab your smart phone and google that sucker, ‘why did my Sauce separate?’ With all the resources out there, you’ll likely not only find the cause, but a wealth of possible solutions as well. For the time being, screw the sauce – What’s done is done, and a minute or two more isn’t going to do a bunch more damage. Here’s another tip – Ask for help at home. If you’re a solo cook, (as most of us at are), you’re probably not big on helpers, (I’m not, as many well know). That tendency is, in fact, the cause of many disasters – you’ve taken on a big ass menu of stuff that’s new to you for a party, and wham, things go to shit – Ask for help – Chances are good there’s a spouse, kid, hell even a neighbor you can call on in a pinch. That extra set of hands, eyes, and heart may be exactly what’s called for.
Finally, accept the circumstances. Soufflé pan cracked mid bake? May be salvageable, may not – If not, what’s your alternative? Perfect scrambled eggs are a thing of beauty – No, they’re not a soufflé, but after that disaster, who would argue with great comfort food? Burned the butter in the sauté pan? Don’t wipe it out and charge forward. Stop, get a new pan, take a sip of wine while it heats up. Take a deep breath, get rid of whatever distraction that drew your attention from where it should have been, and calmly go forth to culinary success.
If nothing else, I’ll guarantee you this – Screw something up in an epic kitchen fail, and it’s a safe bet you’ll never, ever do that again. Count your hidden blessings.
If you’re in the mood for a food read, pick up a copy of Jacques Pepin’s The Apprentice. It’s a delightful read, portraying some of the last days of old school French cooking via the apprenticeship method. There are some wonderful recipes as well.
Secondly, definitely check out Rowan Jacobsen’s Apples of Uncommon Character. It’s a fascinating look at what Jacobsen calls The Sexond Age of Apples, the recovery and resurgence of heirloom, regional varieties across the country and the world. And frankly anything else by Rowan is worth your time and money, especially American Terrior if you’ve not already read it.
What’s really cool is when the foremost Internet site for the food, history, travel through, and appreciation of all things Basque, EuskoGuide, tweets our recipe for authentic Basque Piperrada as the recipe you should check out and cook.
We are honored and humbled by this wonderful gesture – Big Thanks to EuskoGuide, from M and I!
Our friend Nandini owns Goan Imports, a wealth of recipes, insights, as well as wonderful ingredients and supplies from this truly fascinating culture. Goan food reflects a fascinating blend of Indian and Portuguese cooking traditions. The results are bold, subtle, and complex – And delicious!
Nandini just posted this wonderful Tomato Chutney recipe – we thought this was not only a must make, but a must share. Enjoy, and make sure you head over to her blog and dig right in – There’s much, much more there to get excited about.