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.