Why “Dutch” oven instead of a multitude of other country choices? There may be as many as three different cooking devices all sharing that particular name. However, the most known version is the heavy pot with steep sides and a secure lid.
Funnily enough, the Dutch oven was the catalyst for the use of cast iron to make cookware, and actually a viable entry into the burgeoning industrial age. A British metallurgist was visiting the Netherlands in the early 1700 and saw the cookware that was in use there. Liking what he saw, and the sand casting technique used for the brass, he took the ideas back with him. However, he wanted to find a cheaper metal than brass, and settled on cast iron…after a few attempts anyway. Once he’d gotten help to figure out the casting technique, he was selling the ‘Dutch’ oven, and the cast iron cookware industry was begun.
In the last 300 years Dutch ovens have migrated across the globe. Domestically, we have seen regular references to them. Paul Revers is credited with a flanged lid that allowed for coals to be set on top for true oven results. Mary Washington (George’s mom) bequeathed her many Dutch ovens with her other “iron kitchen furniture”.
From Lewis and Clark, to the cattle drives of the west, they have been a part of America’s kitchens and westward expansion. One is even memorialized in the Mormon statue of handcart companies, settlers who used handcarts to move their belongings as they migrated to Utah and Salt Lake City.
One Pot, Many Functions
The variety of cooking styles that a Dutch oven can accommodate is the most likely reason for the longevity that it has experienced. Some of that diversity has been expressed in design. The flanged top mentioned allowing a heat source from above. Little legs to keep the oven of the ground for heat circulation. Concentric sizes allow for stacking the pots to utilize all the heat of a fire.
When steel came around, the less brittle lighter metal became common. The Dutch themselves are credited with the enameled steel versions also still around…although they call the device a braadpan. Steel boosted the popularity in Australia. Variations are used in South Africa and curvier versions in Russia. All of them can cook low temperature, high temperature, stewing, braising, baking, smothering or roasting.
How They Work
Enameled steel and cast iron, and bare cast iron, all have excellent heat conductivity. Although cast iron is a pretty clear winner in this category. What a Dutch oven does, because it is typically a hefty casting, is to disperse the heat evenly around the pot and into the food. We are spoiled by having so much control over the application of heat to our modern cooking processes. Back in the day, ovens and stoves were still flame driven. An experienced cook had a decent amount of control over their temperatures, but they were still subject to the vagaries and variations of flame sourced heat.
Quality Dutch ovens are typically pretty heavy. In addition to dispersing the heat, this weight also enhances a steadier transmission of heat from the source to the food. With slow cooking the heat source may dissipate, but the residual heat-sink offered by the pot will hold heat. This allows for the cook to catch up, increase the heat source, add more wood or whatever, to keep the cooking process going. This kind of consistency has been a great factor toward the longevity of Dutch ovens in the kitchen yesterday and today.
The weight also helps get decent seal on the lid limiting the escape of steam, but still allowing for excess pressure to vent as needed. Although it does not allow for pressure build up in the same fashion as an actual pressure cooker. Water vapor is a good conductor of heat, so containing the steam will enhance the cooking process. Especially this group of cooking styles – braising, stewing, simmering et al – that are fluid driven, it makes sense that the Dutch oven is effective at these cooking techniques.
Non-Stick properties and Cleanliness
When the Dutch oven appeared in cast iron it showed what a great, and cost effective, material it is for kitchen use. Long before any synthetic non-stick surfaces were imagined, cast iron was filling that particular duty. Properly seasoned and maintained, you get great results both in terms of the quality of the cooking process, bur possibly more important, the ease of clean up for future wholesome safe food. With so many options when it comes to purchasing a Dutch oven it’s best to skip on the cheapos and go with a more well known brand.
The biggest difference between steel and cast iron is the carbon content. Cast iron has a higher content, which is what gives it a slightly pebbled more coarse texture to the touch than steel. That is why seasoning the device is crucial, it fills in some of those pores in the surface for better release of food particles. This is also why preheating is so important, the expansion from the heat helps close those pores. Steel however, offers a smoother surface which, while still requiring maintenance, is easier to care for than cast iron.
The next evolution into enameled steel got similar results, and many feel even superior on the clean-up aspect. The enameling helps somewhat with heat dispersal, but mostly it offers a smoother surface, easier to clean with low maintenance needs. Enameling of cast iron then filled out the choices that are available in the material production of most Dutch ovens.
Braised Beef Shanks in a Dutch Oven
We’ve established you can do amazingly diverse cooking in a Dutch oven. But from a classic pot roast to and even more classic beef bourguignon, it may shine the best when slow cooking beef. We’re going to share a classically inspired recipe with a notoriously tough cut of beef that really benefits from a patient cooking technique.
Braised Beef Shanks Recipe
Coarsely chop and set aside the classic mirepoix vegetables;
- ½ large onion
- 1 carrot
- 2 stalks celery
Over medium heat in the bottom of the Dutch oven with 2 Tablespoons oil, sear for approximately 5 minutes per side;
- 2-3 pounds sliced beef shanks with bone in
Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Remove the shanks and set aside.
Still over medium heat add chopped mirepoix. Cook until lightly browned and caramelized. Add;
- 1 Tablespoon minced garlic
- 1 teaspoon black pepper
Continue to cook for another 2 minutes. Add;
- 1 can petite diced tomatoes with juice
- 2 cups dry red wine
- 2 cups beef stock
Bring to a soft boil then return the shanks to the pot. Also add;
- 2 bay leaves
- 6 inches fresh rosemary (a mesh ball will keep the rosemary needles contained)
Cover and put in the oven. Cook for 3-4 hours until tender. Check halfway through to see if more liquid is needed, if so add warm water to cover the shanks.
Pull from the oven. Remove the shanks, rosemary and bay leaves.
Put everything else in a food processor. Also, remove the marrow from the bones and add it to the mix along with two Tablespoons of butter. Pulse a few times until well incorporated.
Serve the shanks on smashed potatoes, rice, couscous or noodles topped with the sauce puree.