The Dutch oven is one of the most versatile, essential cookware pieces. In this guide, learn what makes Dutch ovens so special. You'll know the features to consider to ensure you select an all-star piece.
Dutch Oven 101
The best Dutch ovens are the heavyweights of the kitchen. They are hefty, thick-walled pots. They come with a well-sealing lid to allow for different styles of cooking. They come in a wide range of sizes, shapes, materials and finishes.
Dutch ovens can handle just about every cooking endeavor under the sun. From braising to frying to simmering to baking, a Dutch oven has you covered. They can go on the stove top or in the oven. They can even go on the grill.
With the wide spectrum of tasks a Dutch oven can do, find one that is durable. Many models come with precise features and high-quality materials. The best Dutch ovens will last a lifetime. Think of the piece as an investment for your kitchen. You won’t have to break the bank to get your hands on a quality piece.
Dutch Oven Sizes
A standard Dutch oven is sized to hold 5 to 6 quarts of liquid. It boasts a 4.5- to 5-inch height. This should serve a group of two to four well. If cooking for a crowd is more your style, you can size up to a 7-, 9-, or 13-quart version. All sizes are pretty widely available. This width and depth mean you can fill the vessel with large quantities of liquid. It's easy to create soups and sauces of any kind.
The best Dutch ovens are ideal for large cuts of meat. They help meat get maximum surface contact with heat. The sides help minimize grease splattering while browning. Trying to decide between a wide and short Dutch oven or a tall, narrow one? Always opt for the wider. It provides greater interior access and gives you more searing surface area. This helps to avoid steaming, which happens when you crowd liquid-releasing foods. Experts recommend a pot that’s at least 8 inches in diameter.
Tip: It’s better to have a pot that’s too big rather than too small. Cooking small amounts in a large pot is easier than a small pot filled to the brim.
Dutch Oven Shapes
The best Dutch ovens are available in round and oval shapes. A round model will give you more flexibility. It fits well on a stove top and its surface area is greater than an oval piece. However, oval Dutch ovens are useful to those who braise long pieces of meat like racks of ribs. Oval can be the wisest choice for folks who want length but lack storage space. On the stove top, an oval Dutch oven won’t have as even heat distribution. But you’ll barely notice the difference if you preheat it in the oven first.
Tip: Another element to consider is a Dutch oven’s wall bend. An outward slope allows for greater stirring access and minimizes sticking.
Dutch Ovens Handles and Lids
The best Dutch ovens will come with exceptional handles. Good handles will help you carry the load of such a heavy item. Looped handles (the ones that look like half circles) are your best bet. They give more room for a secure grip. Avoid flat “tab style” handles. The bigger the loop, the better. This is because you’ll likely be using oven mitts to lift your cast-iron pot. You'll want maximum space to grab on securely.
While the best Dutch ovens can cover many tasks, their main purpose is to create tender braises. They enable a solid stove top sear and transfer well to the oven. The best should come with a lid. The lid should fit snuggly to trap moisture in as it cooks.
The shape of the lid is a matter of preference. Dome-shaped lids with smooth interiors will send moisture back down the sides of the oven. Flatter lids with bumps or ridges on the inside offer a self-basting feature. It redirects any condensation directly down into the pot.
Your Dutch oven’s lid should fit securely, but not be airtight. Many dishes like soups and stews want to evaporate slightly. This is to help with the concentration of flavors and development of mouthfeel. You aren’t looking for a pressure cooker seal.
Most Dutch ovens come with lids that are the same material as the pot. Some offer tempered glass lids that let you visually monitor the cooking. Some of the knobs on the lids of Dutch ovens may have a lower heat threshold than the oven itself. This is especially true for knobs that are non-metal. Buy a model with a metal knob to offset this. Or, you can buy replacement knobs for your Dutch oven.
Dutch Oven Materials
Some argue that a Dutch oven must, by definition, be made of cast iron. In actuality, there are many solid aluminum Dutch ovens on the market now. These aluminum “Dutch pots” are popular in the Caribbean. They aren’t used as widely as the best cast-iron Dutch ovens because they are quite reactive. They do not function on induction and have a slightly lower melting point.
Ceramic Dutch ovens are an option. They are more affordable than enameled cast iron with a similar aesthetic. It's made of high-fired clay. It's non-reactive and resistant to thermal shock. Unfortunately, ceramic is more prone to chipping and breakage.
Stainless steel is durable and non-reactive. It's very easy to maintain but doesn't hold heat as well as cast iron. This option is ideal for someone who doesn't want the heavy lifting with cast iron.
Beyond these four options, you should be wary. Don’t entertain any Dutch oven that is light and thin, as it will lead to uneven cooking. It may scorch your food and will break down quickly.
Personal preference is really going to guide your decision between an enameled and un-enameled Dutch oven. Uncoated Dutch ovens are generally cheaper. If price is your key concern, those are a good option. You’ll need to season your uncoated cast iron, but this can be done without breaking a sweat.
Enamelware is typically more expensive because of the ease of use it offers. When applied in a light color, it will guide you through the browning process. Enameled pots are also a safer bet because their coating helps eliminate reactivity between the metal and acidic foods. With an enamel-less pot that isn’t coated properly, acid can strip its seasoning. This allows metallic flavors to creep into your dish. Enamel finish is also ideal for deglazing thanks to its slick finish. It quickly releases those coveted brown bits stuck to the bottom of your pot.
Dutch Oven Care
Once you’ve identified your ideal pot, it is important to understand how to care for your Dutch oven. Remember, this is a piece of cookware meant to last you a lifetime.
First, avoid dry cooking anything in your Dutch oven. This merely means that when heating, you should add a bit of liquid or fat (oil or butter) to the bottom of the pan. As we’ve reviewed, enamel-coated options are very durable. They are even dishwasher safe. Nylon brushes are fine, too. Just make sure to let the pot cool before you wash it to avoid damaging the enamel.
Uncoated options, on the other hand, require a slightly more delicate hand. Following everyday cooking, you can use a spatula to pull food bits from the pot and then simply give the interior a good wipe with a towel. Wooden, silicone, or heat-resistant plastic spoons and spatulas should be used. Metal can damage it. For stickier messes or considerable buildup, hot water and salt are a great cleaning combo. Cleaning agents, soaps and detergents will remove the seasoning from uncoated cast iron. This is okay as long as you re-season it.
Never soak your cast-iron Dutch oven and dry it off immediately after cleaning. We also recommend following any water contact with an application of a few drops of oil. Give it a quick massage to protect the pot’s seasoning. Over time, this oil addition will build to a slick, protective surface that requires less and less cleanup and care.
By heeding these words of advice you’ll find it easy to select, maintain and understand how to use a Dutch oven. Find your perfect Dutch oven and enjoy great cooking for a lifetime. Looking for a Dutch oven to complete your kitchen? The Home Depot delivers online orders when and where you need them.