The Dutch oven is often an overlooked piece of kitchen cookware, but there are a ton of reasons why your kitchen should have one. This handy and useful cooking gadget performs multiple culinary feats -- it can bake bread, slow cook stew, roast meat and even fry chicken. With all that a Dutch oven can do, it is a must-have for cooks of all skill levels.
The Dutch oven was invented in the early 1700s, and though it has changed a bit over the centuries, it is still a durable, well-used and loved kitchen essential. Originally crafted for outdoor use over open flames, it was also widely used in fireplaces and had feet to hold the pot above the coals and a concave lid to place more hot coals on top. This created a more balanced heating method.
Dutch ovens are large, deep cast iron, ceramic, aluminum or enamel pots with close-fitting lids that are able to withstand high temperatures. A good Dutch oven will have thick walls and a heavy feel. Today, they can be used on top of the stove, in the oven or over a fire. They're known for cooking foods with an even, steady heat. A Dutch oven also allows the cook to use various cooking methods in one recipe; it can easily be transferred from stovetop to oven or vice versa.
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For use on the stovetop, a Dutch oven with a flat bottom is best. This type of kitchen appliance lets the cook create a stew from scratch without having to use multiple pots. Simply sear the meat in the Dutch oven, deglaze the pot with water, broth or wine and add in the rest of the stew ingredients. None of the flavor from the sear is lost, and the Dutch oven will slow cook the stew to perfection. This method is also used to cook soup, simmer sauce, slow cook chili or beans, sauté vegetables, create stir-fries, fry bacon or sausages, braise meat or cook eggs and a myriad of other foods. With a Dutch oven, you can also start a casserole on the stovetop and finish cooking it in the oven.
Aside from finishing off a casserole in the oven, a flat-bottomed Dutch oven can bake a wide variety of dishes. Often used to slow roast chicken, a Dutch oven can also roast potatoes, tenderize tough vegetables and dry roast nuts. It does not need to be used for just savory umami foods, either. Bake a fruit cobbler, a giant chocolate chip cookie, sweet cornbread, pies or cheesecake. Dutch ovens can also be used to bake bread, biscuits or the brunch favorite Dutch baby, a sort of thick, baked pancake.
The Dutch oven with short legs is made to be placed over hot coals. For this type of Dutch oven, the lid is either flat or slightly concave so you can place hot coals on top of the oven and achieve an even bake. A flat-bottomed Dutch oven can be used as well, but it should be placed on top of bricks so the bottom does not touch the hot coals directly. However, not all models are campfire compatible. Baking over coals achieves the same effect as cooking on a stovetop, and adding coals to the lid is the same as sticking the dish in the oven.
Cleaning a Dutch oven depends on what it is made from. A cast iron Dutch oven requires special treatment -- a pre-seasoned cast iron pot (meaning it is covered in vegetable oil for use) needs to be washed in warm water with a soft sponge and thoroughly dried. Once dried, apply a thin coat of oil and store for later use. An unseasoned cast iron pot needs to be seasoned before use, but most cast iron Dutch ovens come pre-seasoned.
For an enamel coated cast iron Dutch oven cleans the traditional way, simply use soap and warm water. Hand washing is recommended for helping the cookware to last longer. For stubborn messes, use a nylon scrub, as metal or wire may chip or scratch the finish.
Like most kitchen appliances, Dutch ovens vary in quality and price. For those looking to use a Dutch oven regularly, purchasing a higher-end model might suit best. For those who wish to use it only occasionally, a more economical Dutch oven will do the job.
Le Creuset has been rated one of the best Dutch ovens on the market. Ranging in price from about $140 to $350, it is also one of the most expensive. But there isn't much this French cookware can't do. The core of the oven is cast iron, which is then covered in enamel. This combination allows for even heating, exposure to high temperatures and protection against acidic foods. Sometimes referred to as a French oven, this enamel coated cast iron appliance comes in a variety of bright colors to enhance kitchen décor.
Lodge has been in business for more than 100 years and is a large manufacturer of cast iron. Prices for Dutch ovens range depending on size, but none exceed $120. This Dutch oven is porcelain-enamel coated cast iron and can handle high temperatures. The porcelain-enamel finish is chip-resistant with a smooth glass surface.
For those who will be doing most of their Dutch oven cooking in the great outdoors, Lodge also ranks at the top for campfire-approved ovens. This cast iron cookware can withstand extremely high temperatures and is great for both campfires and the fireplace. The lid is equipped to hold hot coals and can even be inverted to use as a griddle. Lodge's camp Dutch oven is pre-seasoned and ready to use immediately. And at just $60, this tough cast iron is guaranteed to last for generations.