How to pick, care for and cook in your Dutch oven

Becky Krystal

THE WASHINGTON POST – 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 realise a more apt question might be “What can’t I do in my Dutch oven?”

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.

Cooking falafels using a Dutch oven. PHOTO: THE WASHINGTON POST

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, said 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 said 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, enamelled 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 said, 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 enamelled 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.

How to pick one

One of a Dutch oven’s signature traits is its heft. That should be a key consideration, said 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-coloured 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 said 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 said a 5 1/2-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 favours models that hold at least seven quarts.

Price is, of course, another consideration. At typically well over USD300, 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 said 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 colours during the holidays. That being said, ATK named a Cuisinart model, which retails for closer to USD100 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.

Care and tips

Enamelled 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 enamelled 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.

Stevens said she prefers to use wooden utensils to protect the enamel. If you’re scraping up fond (flavourful 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 said. You may see marks left behind on the enamel, but it’s cosmetic.

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 discolouring, ATK has found success with an overnight soak with a three-to-one solution of water and bleach, which it said was approved by Le Creuset.

Obvious ways to use it

Stevens has written the definitive tome on braising, so, naturally, that’s one of her favourite ways to cook in a Dutch oven. The constant exchange of moisture and flavours 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.

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 said 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 favourite 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 enamelled 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.

Each loaf I made was a little different in shape and colour, but they all tasted great. So, please, don’t sweat about getting the perfect round. We’re all about flavour and character here – and, in this case, crust. That, you’ll get every single time.

Ingredients:

300 grammes (2 1/4 cups) bread flour, plus more for the work surface

100 grammes (3/4 cup) whole-wheat flour

1 1/4 teaspoons salt (table)

1/2 teaspoon dried instant yeast

300 grammes (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.

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).

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 one to two 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.

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 4 1/2- to 5 1/2-quart heavy Dutch oven or pot with a lid in the centre of the rack. Preheat to 475 degrees.

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.

6. Remove the lid; continue baking until the loaf is a deep chestnut colour 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 centre 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.