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Features 3 minutes 16 December 2019

Tools of the Trade: Dutch Ovens

You don’t have to spend hundreds of dollars for a great Dutch oven.

kitchen tools Tools of the Trade

Dutch ovens aren’t appealing just because they’re beautiful, expensive heirloom pieces that you can (and should!) wow your friends with on Instagram. Dutch ovens are also incredibly versatile and reliably useful.

But what can be a potential shock to your wallet is the incredible range in cost. Models from reputable companies like Lodge can easily be found for less than $100, while a similar product from Le Creuset or Staub will set you back multiple times that amount.

What’s the best choice for features and utility? Read on!

What Is a Dutch Oven and How Does it Work?

A Dutch oven is a heavy cooking pot with thick walls and an equivalently sturdy lid. While Dutch ovens can be made out of a variety of materials, including aluminum and ceramic, the ones you’re most likely to encounter are made of cast iron and have a porcelain enameled interior.

In many ways, Dutch ovens were basically the Instant Pot of the pre-appliance era, able to sauté, braise, shallow fry and even bake bread. Tim Mussig, CEO of the chef supply company JB Prince, says that Dutch ovens are a holdover "from a bygone era [when] appliances weren’t a thing," and that their lasting appeal is connected to their enduring utility. When enameling was later introduced they gained even greater longevity—porcelain enameling makes them less susceptible to rust—and also became far more non-stick.

One of the greatest benefits offered by a Dutch oven is heat retention. Cast iron Dutch ovens heat slowly and are prone to having hot spots, but also retain heat extremely well. This makes them well suited for browning meat or vegetables, as they won’t lose temperature quite as fast as pans made of other materials.

Mussig says a Dutch oven’s ability to maintain heat also makes it a great choice for shallow frying food in lard or hot oil, as heat stability is important for cooking with larger volumes of hot oil. This same quality makes Dutch ovens well suited for braising and baking bread.

Which Dutch Oven Should I Buy?

Regardless of brand, modern Dutch ovens are often quite similar when it comes to construction, meaning that companies seek to differentiate themselves by features and price. A good size for most home cooks is 5 ½ quarts, although people with larger families, or who simply prefer to prepare more food in one go, may want to scale up to 7 or 9 quarts.

At the top of the luxury pyramid are Le Creuset and Staub, whose Dutch ovens retail for multiple hundreds of dollars. These two brands offer nearly identical function and have differentiated themselves in particular ways. For example, newer model Le Creuset Dutch ovens have wide, comfortable handles, and the inside of Staub’s Dutch oven lids have small metal studs, which they say collect condensation and redirect it back into the pot, essentially basting your food for you.

What’s most important to focus on is the fact that Dutch ovens, regardless of brand or price, are often remarkably similar when it comes to function. Unless specifically noted as being raw cast iron, they’ll all have porcelain enameling oven-safe knobs rated up to 500˚F (although check the specs when buying). Some of them may even have lids that are ridged or studded on the interior, similar to Staub’s design.

Liz Seru, who with her partner John Truex founded the design studio and metal casting workshop Borough Furnace, says that brands don’t publish the gauge (thickness) of the walls and lids of cast iron Dutch ovens, but that thickness and weight is generally synonymous with quality. She recommends cooks select the heaviest pans they can comfortably use.

Beyond that, what you should select is almost entirely based on personal preference and budget. Le Creuset and Staub products cost between $350 and $450 for a 5 ½ quart oven made in Europe.

Borough Furnace’s Dutch oven is similarly priced at $350 and offers a combination of the bells and whistles offered by Le Creuset but with its own iconic design (such as a tight fitting knobless lid and a dark colored interior enamel). Seru says their ovens are the only ones of this kind manufactured in the United States, and that they offer all the benefits of a “French-legacy brand” at about $100 less.

Brands like Lodge, whose 6 quart Dutch ovens costs less than $100 and are manufactured in China, offer remarkably similar utility for a fraction of the price.

How Do I Use a Dutch Oven?

Dutch ovens operate very similarly to other forms of cast iron cookware. For searing, place your Dutch oven over a medium-high to high flame and add your cooking oil, making sure not to let it scorch. It's important not to crowd the pan, as Dutch ovens are designed to trap moisture and overcrowding can lead to steaming your food instead of searing it.

For braising, bear in mind that Dutch ovens are great at providing gentle, indirect heat, and you’ll likely get better results if you place the Dutch oven inside of your actual oven, as opposed to braising on a stovetop.

For baking bread, you’ll get a more even bake and a better crust if you preheat your Dutch oven before adding in the dough and line the interior with parchment paper. Most recipes are not going to be designed for baking bread in a Dutch oven, and this method may require some trial and error to get the best results.

How Do I Take Care of a Dutch Oven?

With relatively minimal care, a good quality Dutch oven can be handed down from one generation to the next. Here are some tips to make sure it lasts:

• Always wash your Dutch oven by hand and never put it in a dishwasher, regardless of whether the care instructions say you can. While the porcelain used to enamel Dutch ovens is sturdy it’s not invincible, and caustic, abrasive dish soap can damage the finish.

• If you soak your Dutch while cleaning it make sure that the water does not reach the lip of the pot. Many fully enameled Dutch ovens do not have an enameled lip (they tend to chip) and exposure to water can lead to rust.

• Wait for your Dutch oven to cool down before washing it, and avoid plunging it into cold water when it’s hot. "Like glass, enamel can sometimes crack if subjected to thermal shock," Liz Seru explains.

• Burnt foods can lead to discoloration of the enameled interior, so keep an eye on the stove to keep it pristine.

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