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Stovetop cooking and baking in the oven are two of cooking’s foundational techniques, and a single device that can transition from one to the other really is a beautiful thing.
It unlocks flavors and textures that you’ve probably never had the opportunity to experience, and it’s amazingly easy to use. Both that fact and the superior heat distribution of good quality Dutch ovens make them my favorite multi-cookers, bar none.
In this post, I’ll go over how to use a Dutch oven for a wide variety of recipe types. I’ll also tell you some easy Dutch oven maintenance tips and tricks that will help you keep your Dutch oven in good shape for as long as possible.
What is a Dutch Oven?
Dutch ovens look like large and usually brightly colored casserole dishes from the outside, but their construction is what makes them truly special.
- They have extra-thick walls usually made from pure cast iron and a heavy lid, which makes it all but impossible for heat to escape.
- They also have better heat distribution and heat retention than any other kitchen implement because of their sunken design and their heavy lids.
- Last but not least, Dutch ovens can be used purely as stove top appliances or moved between the stove and the conventional oven in more complex recipes.
Not Just For Soups and Bread
Dutch ovens are most commonly used to make soups, stews, and breads, and it makes me so sad that some Dutch oven owners think that’s all they can make in there.
Because of the small size and superior heat distribution of Dutch ovens, you can actually cook tons of foods and get a uniquely crunchy and juicy consistency, as well as a delicious flavor that comes from the food’s aromas being baked into the recipe itself.
A few foods that are especially delicious when made in Dutch ovens are:
- Braised chicken
- Short ribs
- Macaroni and cheese
- Pot Pie
- Scalloped potatoes
- Battered fried chicken
Types of Dutch Ovens
Dutch ovens are not all created equal. Here are some factors that will determine in which areas a Dutch oven excels.
Cast iron is the best material for Dutch ovens because of its excellent heat retention and distribution. Cast iron is expensive and extremely heavy, though, and layered aluminum is a cheaper and lighter alternative that works fairly well too. Ceramic is another heavy-duty alternative that is effective and cheaper than cast iron, but it tends to wear out quickly.
Of course, larger Dutch ovens can cook for more people at once. They are heavier and more expensive, though. You also lose some of the aromatic cooking qualities caused by the “tight quarters” of a Dutch oven as opposed to a conventional oven unless you really are filling the larger Dutch oven.
Regular cast iron has some definite pros and cons when compared to enameled cast iron, so let’s just make a list of why each option might be better for you.
Pros of normal cast iron:
- It’s much cheaper.
- It’s more durable and will last for longer.
- It can withstand higher heats, including open flames.
- Seasoned cast iron (rubbed with fat or oil) has good nonstick properties.
Pros of enameled cast iron:
- It’s easier to wash.
- It won’t rust.
- It’s easier to cook soups or sauces in without them sticking afterwards.
- It comes in a lot of stylish colors, whereas normal cast iron is only black.
Ways to Use a Dutch Oven
You can do so many types of cooking with a dutch oven, both on the stove and in the oven. Whether you want to cook a steak over a flame, simmer a stew for hours on end, or bake a lasagna or a loaf of bread, a Dutch oven is the solution.
Let’s look at a few of the most popular ways to cook with a Dutch oven.
Because it can trap heat in and distribute it evenly throughout, a Dutch oven can bake anything from muffins to breaded fish filet just like a regular oven can… but better!
Not only can you just use the flame on the stove to heat up the Dutch oven (although you can use the regular oven too), but its smaller size makes for better heat circulation.
It only makes sense that a smaller oven that doesn’t have much empty space will lead to a more evenly cooked, crispier, and more flavorful meal. After all, without so much space in the oven, the heat and the aromas wafting off the food doesn’t have anywhere to go but into the food itself!
A dutch oven is right up there with the pressure cooker as the best way to slow-cook a meal. It’s so good a heating up to a specific temperature and maintaining that exact temperature throughout the pot for hours and hours on end.
Just buy a cut of meat (preferably something on the bone), put it in some aromatic sauce in your Dutch oven, and simmer the meat for a few hours or overnight.
When you take the meat out, you’ll have succulent fall-off-the-bone meat that’s deeply imbued with the flavor of the sauce you put in.
It’s one of my favorite cooking techniques, and it’s so easy that you’ll never look at tough meat the same way again.
When you heat a Dutch oven on the stove, the entire surface of the pan heats up evenly. This is different than a regular frying pan, which tends to heat unevenly even if it is made of cast iron.
After the pan has reached the desired heat (which should be pretty high if you’re searing something), slap your food on there and enjoy that satisfying sizzle. You’ll end up with a meal that is 100% evenly cooked and has that crispy caramelized crust that you want when searing foods.
A dutch oven is a simple way to make 5-star restaurant-quality food on your camping trips without hassle.
As long as your Dutch oven is made from cast iron, it can be placed over an open flame (such as a campfire) without issue. In fact, the extreme heat of a campfire flame will help the oven to heat up faster.
Just throw in some meat, vegetables, and broth, then cook for a few hours, and you’ll have a delicious stew. Or bring along a Dutch oven cookbook and prepare something a bit more complex, like a braised chicken with forest mushrooms and thyme.
Either way, the mouth-watering aroma will make the people at the next campsite over eating unevenly cooked hot dogs on sticks jealous.
If you’re not a fan of camping because you find it too uncomfortable (like I used to before I got a Dutch oven), having a belly full of delicious Dutch oven-cooked food while roughing it in the wilderness may change your mind.
Note that enameled cast iron Dutch ovens should not be used over a campfire flame because they cannot withstand heats over 500 degrees or so. If you intend to use your Dutch oven on camping trips, go for normal cast iron.
Tips & Tricks For Using Your Dutch Oven
Brown Large Amounts of Meat in Batches
Even though dutch ovens are fantastic at distributing heat throughout, it’s best if each layer of meat gets exposed to the heat on all sides rather than having another piece of meat lying on top of it for the entire cooking process. This tip also holds true for a conventional oven.
Use Kosher Salt
Since Dutch ovens cook food so thoroughly and for so long, they tend to pick up a lot of caked-on residue that’s hard to clean with soap and water. But adding a bit of kosher salt to water creates a cleaning solution that works like a charm! If even that is not strong enough to clean the dutch oven, add a bit of lemon juice too.
Sear Meat Then Vegetables
When you sear meat in a Dutch oven, some delicious residue from the edges of the meat gets stuck to the sides of the pan. If you use the Dutch over to sear vegetables after that, they will acquire a delicious meaty taste.
Add Oil While Heating to Sweat Onions
“Sweating” onions is a technique by which you can dull down the “oniony” flavor of onions and make them into sweet flavoring for a dish while at the same time keeping them from browning. It can be accomplished by adding the oil after the onions and letting them heat together rather than adding the onion to oil that’s already heated.
Add Tomato Paste Before Liquid
If you’re going to include tomato paste in a soup, sauce, or stew in your dutch oven, it should be allowed to caramelize before adding the sauce or liquid. Pouring the tomato paste into a broth that’s already in the oven will cause the paste to keep its tart mineral taste. If it is caramelized to the point of being brick red, it will take on a sweet and savory flavor.
Dutch Oven Recipes
When you get your own Dutch oven, try these out first – two of my very favorite Dutch oven recipes:
Owning a Dutch oven has convinced me that the folks in the Netherlands really know what they’re doing when it comes to food.
Dutch ovens were absent from American society for so long that it really makes me wonder what other amazing appliances they’ve come up with. A refrigerator/dishwasher? A toaster/blender?
Those ideas may sound crazy, but if you had told me years ago (before I tried Dutch oven food) that it could make as big a difference as it does, I would’ve told you the same thing.
Don’t believe me? I hope this post has convinced you to try it out yourself.