Sunday, May 23, 2010

How to Buy a Dutch Oven

I got a post on my facebook fan page from someone asking about how to choose and buy a dutch oven.  Rather than reply there with what will be way too long of an answer for facebook, I posted this article:

The simple answer is...  Send me some money and I'll buy you one!  :-)

I guess the real title for this article should be:  "How to shop for a dutch oven, and buy one that's the best for you." There's a lot of "That depends on what you're looking for" in the answer, so let's break it down. I'm presuming, by the way, that those reading this are primarily interested in buying their first dutch oven.  If you've already got one or two, and you're looking to buy another, you'll still be looking for the same basic things, but your reasons for buying will be different, and you'll have a different result, possibly.

There are four basic variables that you'll want to consider when you're deciding which kind to buy: The type, the size, the material, and the quality.

The Type

You have two basic options here:  "Camp" dutch ovens, or "Stove" dutch ovens.  Which you choose will depend on what you're going to do with it.

A "camp" dutch oven is primarily designed for outdoor cooking using wood coals or charcoal briquettes.  It's got a lip around the perimeter of the lid that keeps the coals on the lid, and prevents ash from falling down into the food when you lift it.  It's also got legs on the bottom that lift the dutch oven up above any coals you want to put underneath.

A "stove" dutch oven is designed primarily for use indoors, in a conventional oven or on your stovetop.  It won't have the legs, because you're setting it in your oven or resting directly on your stove's burner.  It doesn't have the lip around the lid because there's no coals to be put on top.  Some of these will even be coated in colored enamels. 

It IS possible to use a camp dutch oven indoors, but it's not as convenient.  It's possible to use a stove dutch oven outdoors, but it's tricky.

The Size

Dutch ovens are primarily measured by diameter, and sometimes by quart capacity.  Common sizes are 10" and 12".  You can buy them as small as 5" or as large as 22" (which take considerable effort to lift, even without food in them). Which one you end up buying will depend largely on who you'll be cooking for.  If you're cooking for yourself, or you have a small family, you won't want one as big.  If you have a larger family, or if you're thinking you'll end up cooking for groups of friends, you'll want one bigger.

If this is your first oven, and you're just interested in experimenting a little, I'd recommend a 12" shallow oven.  This will have the capacity to feed a family of four with some leftovers, and can easily cook for a gathering of as many as 8, depending on what you're cooking.  Breads, stews, chilis, desserts, and even small roasts can easily be done in a 12" dutch oven.

Larger and smaller ovens will come in handy in more specialized situations.  For example, I use my 14" ovens to cook turkeys and larger specialty meats.  My 8" dutch oven I'll use for sides of rice or sauces.

The Material

There are two basic materials used to make dutch ovens:  Cast iron, and aluminum.  There are advantages and disadvantages to both.  Even though all of my dutch ovens are cast iron, I've seen chefs that swear by each one.

Cast iron is probably the most popular.  It's the historic choice.  It heats very evenly (if slowly), and it holds the heat very well, so your food stays warm in it, even after it's "done" cooking.  It can take a lot of heat without damage, too.  Unfortunately, it's also very heavy, and the bigger the oven, the heavier. Cast iron has to be seasoned to be used effectively, but with regular use that seasoning patina gets better and better, and it becomes non-stick.  Cast iron also lasts forever.

Aluminum dutch ovens are much lighter than cast iron, so it's often the pot of choice for campers, river runners, and backpackers that carry their gear in to their campsites.  It won't rust, so you don't need to season it.  It heats up quickly, but that also means that it cools quickly, and it's prone to developing hot spots.

Some say that cast iron-cooked food tastes better, but I've tasted delicious food from both kinds.

The Quality

The best dutch ovens I've ever seen come from three companies: Lodge, Camp Chef, and Maca. There are lots of littler brands, like Texsport and a few that are even no-name.  You can often come across dutch ovens at yard sales and antique stores.  Some dutch oven chefs I know will swear by one brand or another.  While it's true that there are some that are better made, keep in mind that our pioneer ancestors cooked successfully in dutch ovens made hundreds of years before modern companies were formed and contemporary casting procedures were invented.  I've cooked delicious meals in off-brand dutch ovens.  I prefer my lodge, but you can be successful with anything.

Here are some hints to check with the quality:

First, check to see that the lid fits well.  Press down on the lip of the lid all the way around.  If you find a spot where the lid rocks back and forth, that's a sign of a poorly fitting lid.  That will let more moisture escape when you're cooking.  Again, you can still cook well in that pot, but it won't be quite as effective.

Some off-brands will use different alloys or different sources for their cast iron stock.  That can make for variations in the thickness of the pot, as well as the density of the metal.  In either case, that can make for more uneven heating and hotspots.  Unfortunately, you can't really check for that in the store.  It's one reason why you might want to go with a more respected brand.

Still, my forefathers that crossed the plains didn't have a Lodge or a Camp Chef.

Summing it All Up

Ok, so this is really a $75 answer to a $10 question.  What dutch oven should I buy?  My recommendation is that if you're wanting to get started in outdoor dutch oven cooking, get a 12" shallow Lodge or Camp Chef (these, and all other links in this article are affiliate links, by the way, and I'll get paid if you buy from them).  You'll possibly notice that almost all of the recipes in my blog use that basic size.  My two 12"ers are the workhorses of my cast iron collection.

Whatever you end up buying, now you have some knowledge to help you make a wise choice, either to get started, or to expand once you've gotten a few recipes down!


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Mark has discovered a love of Dutch Oven Cooking. Mark also has other sites and blogs, including MarkHansenMusic.com and his MoBoy blog.


4 comments:

  1. Up until recently, I've been using all my cast iron indoors. It's beautifully seasoned inside and out after all these years. A few weeks ago I went outside and put the Dutch oven over some briquettes, and some of the seasoning on the outside surface burned completely away. The seasoning inside the oven is still perfect. Is this just what happens? It's not enough to make me give up using the oven outdoors, in fact, it was so much fun I'm going out today to buy a new, larger Lodge. I'm just wondering if this is normal.

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  2. I've not experienced this. The nice thing with cast iron is that it's virtually indestructible, so you can just reseason it and it will replace what flaked off.

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  3. Nice, descriptive article on choosing a dutch oven. I just started my own dutch oven blog, but will be talking about cooking indoors, both on the cook top and in the oven.

    My 13 year old daughter found your blog while looking for other dutch oven blogs.

    We have Le Creuset and Staub dutch ovens, definitely designed only for use inside and not in or over a camp fire!

    I am do glad to see so many other people that LOVE how good food is when cooked in cast iron.

    Changed our family's life! Seriously! We eat some GOOD FOOD, and a big part of that is that we love the cookware, and the ease of most dutch oven recipes.

    Please keep posting the good stuff like this and we'll keep coming back to read it!

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  4. I think I got my first dutch oven at a local store--not one of the main brands, but it's done well for me. The next dutch oven, which came with a fry pan, griddle and a lid lifter, I got at an auction at our local church. Someone donated it and I ended up getting it. The only think I don't like is that it doesn't have any legs on it, which I prefer.

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