We have fielded a lot of questions about cookware over the years. One of the most recurring themes is something along the lines of “What can I do with my Dutch oven?”
I have a few theories about this. One: Dutch ovens of a certain cachet, namely Le Creuset, are typical gifts or big-splurge investments, and no one wants to mess up a beautiful, pricey piece. Two: Home cooks are faced with indecision once they realize a more apt question might be “What can’t I do in my Dutch oven?”
“I love them,” says cookbook author Molly Stevens, who knows a thing or two about Dutch ovens as the owner of seven. (Her new book publishing next month, “All About Dinner,” calls for one in a few recipes.) “They are just so bulletproof and so reliable.”
Whether you’ve already acquired a Dutch oven, or are considering acquiring one (or, um, six more), here’s what you need to know about choosing and using them.
What it is. French manufacturer Le Creuset has done a lot of research into the origins of the Dutch oven, but it’s difficult to pinpoint one specific time or person, says Nate Collier, the company’s director of marketing communications and culinary. Its current form — a large, heavy pot with a tight fitting lid — probably arose from the need to cook outdoors over coals or in an indoor hearth. As to the name? Collier says one theory involves an English manufacturer who went to the Netherlands, saw the process in which the pot was cast and so named it Dutch. Today, most recipes work under the assumption that a Dutch oven is made of cast iron, enameled or uncoated, although you can find stainless steel and ceramic models, as well.
Why you should consider buying one. There are a variety of reasons to add a Dutch oven to your kitchen arsenal. I love that it can be used on the stove top and in the oven. Its tight fitting lid sets up a constant, convective flow of moisture and air in a sealed environment, which would be impossible to replicate with an uncovered dish in a standard oven. It has all the advantages of cast iron, Collier says, namely an ability to retain a steady heat at high and low temperatures, ideal for, respectively, searing as well as slow, gentle cooking. If you go with an enameled Dutch oven, you also get the benefit of food that is easier to release and a surface that’s simpler to maintain. As great as they are as cookers, Dutch ovens are also lookers, meaning they can double as beautiful serving pieces and even kitchen decor.
1. How to pick one
One of a Dutch oven’s signature traits is its heft. That should be a key consideration, says Stevens, especially if you struggle to lift heavy objects or will have to bend or lift a lot to get the pot in and out of the oven. In America’s Test Kitchen’s equipment test of large Dutch ovens, the heaviest model clocked in at more than 18 pounds with the lid. If you can, check out models in the store so you can gauge the weight, as well as how easy it is to grip and maneuver the lid and handles, particularly when you’re wearing oven mitts.
The rigorous ATK equipment testers suggest that thicker pots are better, as thinner ones can run hot and scorch food. Lighter-colored surfaces, such as enamel, a type of glass, let you monitor browning better. You want plenty of surface area for browning in as few batches as possible, so consider a wider, shorter pot rather than a taller, narrower one. Taller pots can be tricky to fit into the oven or your refrigerator, and even if you succeed, you may need to rearrange your racks or shelves.
ATK says oval Dutch ovens are just as effective as round ones, as long as you give them sufficient time to preheat. Keep in mind that ovals might limit what else you can fit on your stove top on adjacent burners. As far as size, Stevens says a 5½-quart model is a great starter, and close to a decade into owning one of those, I have seldom found myself limited by the smaller size. ATK favors models that hold at least 7 quarts.
Price is, of course, another consideration. At typically well over $300, a Le Creuset of one of the above sizes is not cheap (Staub is another popular high-end brand), as ATK has pointed out in routinely naming the brand its top pick for Dutch ovens. But, given that these pieces can last for generations, the investment might be easier to swallow. Collier says those looking to save should visit one of the brand’s outlet locations, stay abreast of its pop-up factory-to-table stores or be ready to pounce on promotions on discontinued or overstocked colors during the holidays. That being said, ATK named a Cuisinart model, which retails for closer to $100 give or take depending on the retailer, as its best buy. Other established brands, including cast-iron mainstay Lodge and Crock-Pot, churn out more affordable Dutch ovens, as well. In recent years, newer brands, such as Great Jones, have sought to disrupt the market with stylish, lower-price options, too.
2. Care and tips
Enameled cast iron can hold up to a lot, but you do need to keep a few things in mind. (If you have “raw” cast iron, treat it as you would a skillet, which you can read about in this primer.) Like glass such as Pyrex, enamel can be subject to thermal shock when exposed to dramatic temperature changes. That’s why you should never heat an empty enameled Dutch oven on the stove top, although Collier confirms it’s perfectly safe to preheat it in the oven with a gradual increase in temperature, as you do for something like bread. Generally, you also want to stay away from using high heat, except for boiling. Even then, you’ll likely want to turn down the heat eventually, as the cast iron’s efficiency could lead to a boil-over.
If you’re using your Dutch oven in the regular oven, be sure your lid and knob are oven-safe. If the knob is not, such as the black ones on some older Le Creusets, or you’re not sure, remove the knob temporarily or buy one that is. (Yes, I heard from a few readers about popping knobs when I published one of baker and cookbook author Jim Lahey’s bread recipes.)
Stevens says she prefers to use wooden utensils to protect the enamel. If you’re scraping up fond (flavorful browning on the bottom of the pot), definitely stick with wood, nylon or silicone. You can, however, safely use metal utensils, especially for serving, Collier says. You may see marks left behind on the enamel, but it’s cosmetic. Cleaners such as Barkeepers Friend can help restore the surface. Do not bang metal utensils on the side of the Dutch oven, or you risk chipping the enamel. Still, an inadvertent chip or two is not the end of the world and will not render the pot unusable.
Soap and water can handle most of your routine cleaning. An abrasive such as Barkeepers Friend can help remove caked-on food and some stains. If you’re really disconcerted by discoloring, ATK has found success with an overnight soak with a 3-to-1 solution of water and bleach, which it says was approved by Le Creuset.
3. Obvious ways to use it
Stevens has written the definitive tome on braising, so, naturally, that’s one of her favorite ways to cook in a Dutch oven. The constant exchange of moisture and flavors means you can get amazingly tender and tasty meat, whether it’s pot roast, short ribs or chicken. That’s the kind of situation that also lends itself to something like overnight baked beans.
Of course, soups, chilis and stews are a given. You might as well make a bread to go with them, right? I can’t recommend Dutch oven bread enough, either, as you get a superb crust, thanks to the heat of the cast iron and the steam trapped inside of it.
Also don’t be afraid to use your Dutch oven as what it is: a pot. Mine is my go-to for boiling pasta and making broth. Stevens uses a little one for making rice. They’re not too precious to use on an everyday basis. Promise.
4. Less obvious ways to use it
Dutch ovens are great for frying, shallow or deep. High sides reduce concerns about splattering, and that heat retention I’ve been hammering home means it’s easier to manage the temperature of the oil. Plus, it reduces the time you need to wait in between batches. So you go ahead and make that fried chicken! Or falafel!
ATK offers a number of clever ideas, including roasting a side of vegetables on the overturned lid of a Dutch oven while your main course braises below. Collier says Le Creuset partnered with ATK on an especially smart recipe for a pot pie in which the filling is cooked in the Dutch oven while the crust bakes on the inverted lid, allowing it to remain crisp. Then the crust is slid onto the filling.
Keep in mind that a Dutch oven’s ability to maintain a steady temperature is just as applicable when that temperature is cold. If you’re serving a chilled or composed salad, Collier recommends using a Dutch oven as a serving vessel. Pop it in the fridge or freezer, or fill it with ice water first.
No-Knead Whole Wheat Bread
One of my favorite Julia Child anecdotes involves her epic quest to achieve a perfectly baked French baguette in a home oven for the second volume of the seminal cookbook “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.” It took a year (yes, a year!) to accomplish, but in her trademark doggedness, she, with assists from her husband and others, did it.
An important part of achieving an authentic bread: The crust. And key to that was figuring out how to replicate the heat and steam of a professional oven. The answer, as recalled in Bob Spitz’s 2012 biography of the trailblazing cookbook author and television host, lay in lining the oven with quarry tiles and dropping a hot brick in a pan of water.
Thankfully, we don’t have to go to the lengths (and use the 284 pounds of flour) Julia did to get a good crusty bread — and not only because the bricks she and her husband, Paul, were using contained asbestos.
Instead, the answer lies in a common piece of kitchen equipment you may already have: A pot, ideally a Dutch oven. Yes, if your prestige piece of enameled cast-iron (which might start with Le and end in Creuset), isn’t getting as much use as you think it should, now is the time to pull it out. Get ready for some of the crustiest bread you’ve ever had.
For a crusty loaf to be made in a Dutch oven, I turned to Jim Lahey, the baker and cookbook author who helped turn no-knead bread into a mainstream concept.
My first loaf: Superb. My second, third, fourth and fifth loaves: Just as wonderful. One of the star attractions was the crusty crust. The oven within the oven makes all the difference. You preheat the Dutch oven for about half an hour before baking, so it’s screaming hot by the time you gently dump the dough in. It’s so hot you can actually hear the dough start cooking when it hits the surface of the pot. You’re also going to start generating steam almost immediately, which you seal in by putting the lid on. That environment is what gets you the kind of crust you would only expect from an artisan bakery.
Wonderfully crackling, if a bit messy when slicing, this crust encases a delightfully chewy interior made especially airy by the high proportion of water in the dough. (Refresher: No-knead doughs work because the wetter dough means the gluten, or protein, strands can slip around to find each other and form that trademark structure.) The contrast between the two textures was satisfying, and the inclusion of whole-wheat flour mixed with bread flour provided appealing color and nutty flavor, amplified by a long rise at room temperature.
Lahey calls for a ratio of 3 parts bread flour to 1 part whole-wheat flour. Feel free to experiment with the proportion of whole wheat, but keep in mind that too much might lead to a texture that is too gritty or dense (the sharp edges of the other parts of the wheat included in whole-wheat flour can shred that coveted gluten structure).
Each loaf I made was a little different in shape and color, but they all tasted great. So, please, don’t sweat about getting the perfect round. We’re all about flavor and character here — and, in this case, crust. That, you’ll get every single time.
Note: The dough needs to rest and rise twice; first for 12 to 18 hours, and after it’s shaped, for 1 to 2 hours (all at room temperature).
2 1/4 cups bread flour, plus more for the work surface
3/4 cup whole-wheat flour
1 1/4 teaspoons salt (table)
1/2 teaspoon dried instant yeast
1 1/3 cups cool water (55 to 65 degrees)
Wheat bran or cornmeal, for dusting (may use additional flour)
Step 1: Stir together the flours, salt and yeast in a medium bowl. Add the water; use a wooden spoon or your hands to mix until you have a wet, sticky dough, about 30 seconds. Cover the bowl and let the mixture sit at room temperature until its surface is dotted with bubbles and the dough has more than doubled in size, 12 to 18 hours.
Step 2: Generously dust a work surface with flour. Use a rubber spatula or lightly floured hands to scrape the dough onto the surface in one piece. Use your lightly floured hands to lift the edges of the dough up and in toward the center. Gently pinch the pulled-up dough together, cupping the edges in your hands as needed to nudge it into a round (don’t worry about making it a perfect circle).
Step 3: Place a clean dish towel on your work surface; generously dust the towel with wheat bran, cornmeal or flour. Gently place the dough on the towel, seam side down. If the dough feels sticky, dust the top lightly with more wheat bran, cornmeal or flour. Fold the ends of the towel loosely over the dough to cover it. Place the dough in a warm, draft-free spot to rise for 1 to 2 hours. The dough is ready when it has almost doubled in size. When you gently poke the dough with your finger, it should hold the impression. If it springs back, let it rise for an additional 15 minutes.
Step 4: About half an hour before you think the second rise is complete, position a rack in the lower third of the oven and place a 4½- to 5 ½-quart heavy Dutch oven or pot with a lid in the center of the rack. Preheat to 475 degrees.
Step 5: Use pot holders to carefully remove the preheated pot from the oven, then lift off the lid.
Uncover the dough. Quickly but gently invert it off the towel and into the pot, seam side up. (Use caution — the pot and lid will be very hot.) Cover with the lid; bake (lower rack) for 30 minutes.
Step 6: Remove the lid; continue baking until the loaf is a deep chestnut color but not burned, 15 to 30 minutes more. (If you like a more precise measure, the bread is done when an instant-read thermometer inserted into the center of the bread registers 200 to 210 degrees.) Use a heatproof spatula or pot holders to carefully lift the bread out of the pot and place it on a rack to cool thoroughly before serving or storing.