What Is a Dutch Oven?

It may sound like an overstatement, but it’s true: Every serious cook should have a Dutch oven. Here’s everything you need to know about choosing one, cooking in one and caring for one.

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August 18, 2021
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A yellow enamel casserole, with its lid on, sits on a lit gas burner creating steam as it heats.

Photo by: RapidEye/Getty Images

RapidEye/Getty Images

By Fraya Berg for Food Network Kitchen

Fraya is a chef and a contributing writer at Food Network.

The enamel cast iron Dutch oven has been put on a pedestal in the current world of home cooks, and it pretty much deserves it. The tasks a Dutch oven can be used for are endless, and it can be used almost every day: from simply searing chicken and mushrooms to whipping up an elaborate dinner like homemade bread, steamed mussels and fried pommes frites - all made in your trusty vessel. Let's take a look at what, exactly, your Dutch oven is, all the ways to use it and how to care for it so it'll become a family heirloom.

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Beef Bourguignon in an Enameled Cast Iron Dutch Oven

Photo by: rudisill/Getty Images

rudisill/Getty Images

What Is a Dutch Oven?

A Dutch oven is a heavy, wide, fairly shallow pot with a tight-fitting lid. We tend to think of enameled cast iron casseroles with two small handles and a lid as the only pot that qualifies as a Dutch oven, but that isn’t the case. The most important thing about a Dutch oven is that it is heavy because it needs to maintain a constant temperature either in the oven or on the stove for a long time, and that it has a tight-fitting lid to ensure heat remains in the pot.

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Photo by: Elizabeth Livermore/Getty Images

Elizabeth Livermore/Getty Images

What Is a Dutch Oven Used For?

The truth is, anything you can cook in a pot you can cook in a Dutch oven.

When thinking about what to cook in a Dutch oven that needs its special qualities, the first thing that comes to mind is a braise: cooking a tough cut of meat in liquid at a low temperature for a long period of time. A brisket or a chuck roast, a pork shoulder or lamb shanks: the pieces of meat that are typically less expensive. The heaviness of a Dutch oven and its tight-fitting lid mean you can cook in the oven at 300 degrees F or on a low flame on your stove without evaporating the cooking liquid before the meat is cooked and tender. In this vein, Dutch ovens are also commonly used to cook soups and stews, which simmer away on the stove for a long time.

Because enameled Dutch ovens are typically made out of cast iron, they can get scorching hot and retain that heat well, meaning they're great for searing all kinds of foods, including meats and veggies.

A Dutch oven can stand in for a deep fryer when you need a large amount of oil. The pan stays hot so the time it takes to come back to the perfect frying temperature after you drop some food into the oil is shorter than if you were using a thin pan.

You can roast a chicken in a medium-size Dutch oven and a turkey in a 15-quart oval, but you might need help getting it in and out of the oven: if the turkey is 20 pounds, it’s going to be 45 pounds when it’s in the pot.

And then there is what may be the most famous use of a Dutch oven: baking bread. The heat retention and tight lid are key to getting a crisp crust on rustic bread. The steam that stays in the pan while the lid is on is what give you the best crust.

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1182684881

Roast Chicken in a Cast Iron Dutch Oven

Photo by: rudisill/Getty Images

rudisill/Getty Images

What Is the Best Thing to Cook In a Dutch Oven?

There isn’t a best thing, but there sure are a lot of amazing things to cook in a Dutch oven. In addition to everything mentioned above, Dutch ovens are great for one-pot meals. You can get the Dutch oven hot enough to brown meat and sauté onions, add herbs and veggies and anything else you want, add the liquid and bring it to a boil and then lower the heat. When you put it in the oven you know it’s going to keep the low heat and cook just the way you want it. If you always make cornbread in a cast iron frying pan and it’s in use, use a Dutch oven, it will be fine.

Why Is It Called a Dutch Oven?

The story goes that a man from England visited the Netherlands and saw round, fairly shallow pots being made by casting molten iron in molds made from sand. That’s why it’s called cast iron. The Dutch part was to honor the people who were making them.

What Size Dutch Oven Is Best?

Only the cook can decide what size Dutch oven is the best, and it's helpful to think about what you'll be using it for the most. (Of course it's nice to have a few different sizes, but that’s where the cost can become an issue).

If you're looking for a multi-purpose Dutch oven, Food Network Kitchen's product testers tend to prefer 5.5-quart to 6-quart Dutch ovens (head over to their review of the 5 Best Dutch Ovens for all their favorites). It's important to also think about the shape, too. If you're going to make soups, stews and standard-sized roasts, a round Dutch oven will do the trick. However, if you plan on doing whole roast chicken or larger roasts of meat, opt for an ovular Dutch oven.

If you're more of a bread baker, Food Network Kitchen finds that it comes out better in a 2 or 4-quart size. Since the brand isn’t the most important piece, a less expensive one is always an option. And every year there are birthday and holiday wish lists…

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Saucepot with hot water and steam

Photo by: Sviatlana Lazarenka/Getty Images

Sviatlana Lazarenka/Getty Images

What Can Be Used Instead of a Dutch Oven?

Enamel cast iron Dutch ovens from countries in Europe are beautiful, but they are also expensive. Here are some alternatives. There are companies in the U.S. making them and they’re just as beautiful and effective. There are also heavy ceramic Dutch ovens: the glazed earthenware bean pots from Mexico come to mind. A heavy 6 or 8-quart sauce pot that’s part of a good stainless-steel set of pots and pans is also fine. Remember: maintaining an even heat is the important factor.

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two bright orange pots from cast iron with enamel at an old vintage gas stove

Photo by: Brinja Schmidt/Getty Images

Brinja Schmidt/Getty Images

How to Care for a Dutch Oven

There are a few rules to follow when caring for an enameled Dutch oven. Do not put a hot Dutch oven in cold water or it may crack. Wash with hot soapy water and a gentle sponge, as a metal scrubber or steel wool can scratch the enamel. If you're in a time pinch, Dutch ovens can go in the dishwasher - but over time, it could dull the enamel, so we recommend dishwashing sparingly.

It’s quite possible that over time the enamel on the rim of the pot and lid will chip, and this is a cosmetic issue only. Your Dutch oven will still be usable, so don't get rid of it. To stave off chips, be gentle when you put your Dutch oven away so the lid and base don't clang against each other.

With proper care, Dutch ovens can last for several lifetimes and become family heirlooms.

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Dutch over in a campfire.

Photo by: EntropyWorkshop/Getty Images

EntropyWorkshop/Getty Images

Camping with Dutch Ovens

Has there ever been a Western movie where there wasn’t a campfire that had a stew or chili cooking in a cast iron Dutch oven? Maybe one. A Dutch oven is a perfect pot for cooking over or in a campfire, because it's heavy weight insulates food from burning over the heat. Instead of cooking over the direct flames, bank the hot coals around your Dutch oven, and dinner will be ready in a few hours. If the fire goes out, that Dutch oven will keep the food hot for a long time.

Dutch Oven Recipes

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Photo by: Matt Armendariz ©2013, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

Matt Armendariz, 2013, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

This Beef Stew has it all: carrots, celery, onions, the beef (of course) and fresh tomatoes. A heavy Dutch oven will help you cook this one-pot dish just right.

Food Network Kitchen Step by Steps

Photo by: Lucy Schaeffer

Lucy Schaeffer

You’ll probably agree that this is the best chicken and dumplings ever, and you’ll be glad you made it in a Dutch oven. The chicken is cooked on the stove at just a simmer and the dumplings cook in the pot with everything else. Only one pot to wash. Gotta love it.

BBQ Baked Beans

Photo by: Teri Lyn Fisher

Teri Lyn Fisher

It really is OK to cheat a bit when making BBQ Baked Beans, especially because you’re adding a bunch of extra ingredients to make it your own. The recipe calls for cayenne but you only have those red pepper flakes that came with a pizza delivery last week? Go for it.

Slow Cooker Pork Chops

Photo by: Teri Lyn Fisher

Teri Lyn Fisher

This pork shoulder recipe may be one of the most perfect recipes ever. With just two ingredients, it certainly is one of the easiest. You do need a large Dutch oven when you use the 6- to 7-pound whole pork shoulder called for, but it really is the one doing the work. All you have to do is flip it and change the oven temperature.

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A round loaf of bread with a part of it missing that is placed on a cutting board along with a knife

©Con Poulos

Con Poulos

We couldn’t do an article about Dutch ovens without including the recipe for No-Knead Peasant Bread. With just a few ingredients, you can add your name to the list of humans who have been harnessing the power of yeast, flour and heat to make bread for more than 10,000 years.

Classic 100 Bolognese

Photo by: Caitlin Ochs, Caitlin Ochs, Caitlin Ochs

Caitlin Ochs, Caitlin Ochs, Caitlin Ochs

The most traditional, best Bolognese sauces are made with a variety of meats, minimal tomato and some milk or cream. The Dutch oven maintains the low temperature required to cook the sauce without curdling the milk.

There’s a very old joke about a family brisket recipe passed down through generations, and step one is to cut the brisket in half. When you’re making this brisket for tacos, you’ll need a Dutch oven large enough to fit the brisket in one layer. If your Dutch oven isn’t large, be sure to add Grandma’s step one and cut the brisket in half. Brown each piece separately, then put it all in the pot and proceed.

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