For almost 300 years, Dutch ovens have been a tried-and-true pot used for cooking everything from stews and soups to brisket and bread. Some might even argue the Dutch oven is the pinnacle of kitchen tools; it's thick walls make it seemingly immune to destruction.
So where did the Dutch oven come from? How do you know which one's right for you? And perhaps more importantly, why don't more people own them?
A Bit of Background
Hailing from — where else — The Netherlands, Dutch ovens made the journey outside the country thanks to a man named Abraham Darby. According to John G. Ragsdale, author of "Dutch Ovens Chronicled: Their Use in the United States," Darby worked to obtain a patent before mass-producing the heavy cast iron pots and sending them almost all over the world.
But let's back up. Dutch ovens came onto the scene during the aptly-named Dutch Golden Age: This was a period of wealth for the Dutch Republic that laid the foundation to what we now know as The Netherlands. A result of this time of riches, renaissance and renovation was the Dutch oven. Called a "braadpan" in The Netherlands, this multiuse pot was originally made of brass before Darby experimented with a cast iron design.
What Can I Cook in a Dutch Oven?
So that brings us to the question, why do you need a Dutch oven? Well first, probably any chef will tell you that you can cook almost anything in one.
"They don't heat up your kitchen like an oven," says Ed Harris, chef and winner of the Food Network season four of "Chopped, Turbot Powered." "I use mine to make vegan chili with pasta, vegan paella and African-style roasted potatoes."
Because of its heavy weight, a Dutch oven is ideal for soups or sauces that require an all-day simmer. "If you cook items like stews and roasts, having a Dutch oven is great," Harris says.
But the uses don't end there. You can also prepare sauces like Bolognese or even casseroles. These versatile pots are also ideal for long braises in the oven — think short ribs or lamb shanks. And even a simple roasted chicken will come out crispier and tastier when cooked in a Dutch oven because it allows the bird to be roasted from all sides at the same time — something you can't achieve using a broiler pan. You can even test your bread-baking ability and bake a no-knead bread in less than two hours.
And because the Dutch oven is so heavy with especially thick walls, it's perfect for someone living in a small space. Not only does it retain heat, but it conducts it, too.
Which Dutch Oven Is For You?
So now you're intrigued and think you need a Dutch oven, there a couple of popular brands that dominate the scene. Lodge and Le Creuset are two of those trusted brands. What's particularly interesting about why these two are tops is the material they're made of: enameled cast iron.
Enamel and enamel-coated cast iron are widely viewed as more versatile, easier to clean and better for achieving an even temperature, so keep that in mind.
You also need to consider size. A 5- to 6-quart Dutch oven is large enough for preparing meals for about two to four people. If you typically cook for more than that, consider a 7-, 9- or even 13-quart. (Just remember, though, the bigger they are, the heavier they will be, especially when filled with food.)
What about cost? Here's a little tip you can apply to almost every kitchen appliance: The higher the price usually means the better the quality. That applies to Dutch ovens, too. Think of it this way: You can buy one $90 Dutch oven twice during your lifetime or spend $200 on a Dutch oven that you can pass down to your children's children.
Start at the top and get one from a trusted company like Le Creuset, Lodge or Great Jones. Le Creuset tends to be on the pricier side, but this 2-quart Dutch oven (which serves one to two) starts at $230, while this 6-quart "Dutchess" from Great Jones goes for just $155.
Caring For and Cleaning a Dutch Oven
The other reason a enamel cast iron Dutch oven is the way to go is because it's so easy to clean. Just scrub and rinse and you're golden (unlike cast iron, which needs to be seasoned regularly). However, the hard part comes when you're making sticky sauces or meaty stews. Harris has seen his share of messes in Dutch ovens.
"Allow it to cool before beginning the cleaning process," Harris says. "Fill it with warm water, a few pumps of dish soap and a couple of tablespoons of baking soda. Allow the mixture to sit for 15 to 20 minutes. Use an abrasive scrub to remove stuck-on food. Pour out half the water, continuing to scrape carefully until all food particles are removed. Once the inside is clean, wipe down the inside with a touch of oil."
Whether it's brisket or bread, the Dutch oven's robust lineage is one of many qualities that makes this versatile cooking pot a must-have in the kitchen.