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Dutch Ovens, French Ovens, Casseroles

by Elizabeth Skipper | January 23rd, 2013 | Ask the Chef
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So many chefs use Dutch ovens when they cook. I debated getting one for my kitchen, but when I saw the price tag (over $100!), I decided that I didn’t need one. However, I keep seeing them in recipes and have been wondering if owning one is worth the expense.

You can easily spend not just over a hundred, but hundreds of dollars on a Dutch oven, depending on the size, material, and brand. Enameled cast iron by Le Creuset, favored by many serious cooks, is a big investment, even if you buy a second and get a discount. What’s all the fuss about?

A Dutch oven – or French oven or casserole – is a versatile piece of cookware. Whether it’s made of cast iron, enameled cast iron, or another metal, this cookware is heavier than a normal pan. Therefore it conducts heat well and evenly, so it’s ideal for browning of meats and maintaining the low temperature needed for cooking of soups, stews, and braises. It also can take high oven heat if you’re careful, which means you can use it for baking crusty breads. And while I wouldn’t do it with an enameled cast iron piece, you can deep fat fry in one of uncoated cast iron (it’s actually good for seasoning the surface) or a stainless steel one.

What kind of cooking do you do? How many people are you cooking for? And do you have any physical limitations? If you mostly do quick stove-top meals, stir fries and grilled items, you may not need one. Cooking for one or two, you may not be interested in making large quantities of stew or braising whole chickens and large roasts. The question about physical limitations is important because the pot itself is heavy, and when you fill it with food, it can weigh quite a bit. If you have any problems with weak wrists, carpal tunnel syndrome, or the like, using a heavy pan like this, especially when you’re talking a six- or eight-quart pot, can be cumbersome and awkward.

However, you say you keep seeing them in recipes, so you must be thinking of doing this kind of cooking. I think it’s an investment well worth making, as it will expand your repertoire significantly. Here are some things to consider.

Choose a size you think you’ll use most often, probably a four- or six-quart pot. Cast iron is the least costly, and many swear by it – especially those who enjoy outdoor or campfire cooking – but it requires seasoning. It must be extremely well seasoned in order to cook anything acidic such as foods containing tomatoes or lemon juice, or the acid will leach iron into your food. There’s no harm in that, especially if you’re iron-deficient, but it can give an off-taste to the food. And it must be carefully cleaned and dried after use, or it will rust.

A coating of enamel solves that problem. It also raises the cost. Another benefit, though, is that most coatings are light in color, which makes it easier to see your food. I want to see what’s going on in my pan. Peering into a pan with a dark surface is like trying to find something in a purse with a dark lining, frustrating. (Gentlemen, I’m sure you can think of another analogy more germane to you!)

A lighter weight choice is stainless steel with an aluminum clad bottom. All Clad makes a nice Dutch oven which I think any cook would like to have, but again you’re talking top of the line here. I won’t even go into what’s possible in the world of copper, which is gorgeous but a pain to maintain and very, very expensive.

Round or oval? Round is the common choice, but if you’re going to be cooking things like whole chickens or big roasts, an oval Dutch oven may be more suitable for you. It should have two handles, usually two “eared” or lug handles rather than one small and one long, which is awkward. Be sure they’re large enough to grasp comfortably when using oven mitts. One of the advantages of a Dutch oven is that you can brown food on the stove top and then move the pot directly into the oven; but those handles will get hot.

Another consideration is the surface area of the bottom. Some pots taper, with the bottom narrower than the top. The smaller the bottom, the more batches you may need in which to brown foods. How many times will you make stew? If each time you do you need to spend the time to brown one extra batch, you will spend many more hours standing at the stove over time!

Overall, I’d recommend an enameled cast iron Dutch oven. There are other brands out there that are less costly than the classic French casseroles, several of which come in at less than $100. I don’t know about their longevity, but if you follow the manufacturers’ care recommendations, I don’t see why you can’t have one for quite a long time. Do, if you want to bake bread in your Dutch oven, replace the knob with a steel one that won’t melt at high temperature. Barring that, and considering that even the best will crack or chip if you drop or abuse it, I think this is an investment you’ll be very happy with.

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