What Is a Dutch Oven—and How Do You Cook With It?

This versatile pot is a kitchen workhorse and a must-have for every home cook.

dutch oven
Photo: Arina Habich/Getty Images

Dutch ovens are stunners in the kitchen. These thick-walled, large pots—usually made of cast iron—come in a variety of colors, captivating home cooks everywhere. But as gorgeous as they are, they're also truly worth it, thanks to their wide range of capabilities in the home kitchen. The heavy, tight-fitting lid makes it difficult for steam to escape, making a Dutch oven the perfect pot for moist-cooking methods like braising or stewing. Plus, its wonderful ability to retain heat also allows for perfect golden-brown searing or frying.

According to Barron's Food Lover's Companion, Dutch ovens are thought to be of Pennsylvania Dutch heritage, going back to the 1700s (!). Tried and true, here is your guide to your new favorite kitchen companion, the Dutch oven.

What Is a Dutch Oven Used For?

Oh, let us count the ways. A Dutch oven is one of the most versatile kitchen items you can own. We prefer enameled cast iron because it's stick-resistant (and comes in plenty of pretty colors!). If we had to pick a favorite way to use a Dutch oven, it would have to be for braising. From the start, a Dutch oven can facilitate a perfect golden-brown sear on meats or vegetables before you need to add any broth or other liquid for braising. It holds even heat for a long time, and it can go from stovetop to oven, and then straight to the table for a swoon-worthy and efficient way of serving a meal. Hello, one-pot dinners!

And it doesn't stop there. A Dutch oven can also be used for frying, again thanks to the consistent heat retention plus the benefit of the high sides, which minimize splatter. It's also an excellent vessel for baking bread, as it acts as an oven within an oven while creating optimal steam for tender boules with a crispy crust.

Of course, a Dutch oven can also be used for cooking soups, stews, sauces, stock, poaching or roasting chicken, a pot of beans, and even for baking some desserts, like cake or brownies.

What Size Dutch Oven Works Best?

You might be convinced now that a Dutch oven is just what you need. But now comes the big question, what size should you buy? There isn't one size that's better than the other, and it all comes down to your needs (and the space you have in the kitchen!). However, for ultimate versatility, a round 5 to 7-quart Dutch oven is the way to go, with the 5.5-quart model being the most popular size. This size is sufficient if you're cooking for four, and often yields leftovers. For smaller households, a smaller pot between 3 and 4 quarts is sufficient to serve up to three people, and is perhaps more enticing to bring in and out of the kitchen cabinet due to its lighter weight. Another option is to invest in a cast iron skillet set that includes a Dutch oven, such as Lodge's seasoned 5-piece set.

What to Use Instead of a Dutch Oven

There isn't a perfect swap for a Dutch oven, but if you're looking for an option to use instead of a Dutch oven, there are two key factors to look out for. First, make sure the heavy-bottomed pot you choose to use has a tight-fitting lid. Second, all parts of the pot and lid need to be oven-proof—this means no plastic handles. A stock pot usually fits the bill, although it's important to note that it might be too tall to fit in the oven if you're going from stovetop to oven.

How to Clean a Dutch Oven

Once you make the investment, it's important to take good care of your Dutch oven and help it live as long a life as possible. Avoid the dishwasher, it's better to hand-wash your Dutch oven once it's completely cooled. This helps preserve the coating in enamel-coated pots, or the seasoning of a traditional Dutch oven. Warm soapy water and a nylon scrub brush will do the trick. It's crucial to wait until the pot has cooled to avoid any drastic changes in temperature, which can affect the enamel and lead to cracking, and then, in turn, rust.

For stubborn stuck-on food, let the pot soak in warm soapy water before scrubbing with a silicone pan scraper or silicone spatula, which won't damage the enamel coating. Alternatively, bring some water to a boil in the Dutch oven to remove any bits of food. For Dutch ovens without an enamel coating, try to avoid any dish soap.

Be sure the pot is completely dry before storing. One easy way to do this is to place the pot over low heat for a few minutes until it's thoroughly dry.

Dutch Oven Recipes to Try

Ready to put your Dutch oven to good use? Here are some mouthwatering recipes to get you started with your new favorite cooking tool.

01 of 05

Spice-Braised Short Ribs

Spice-Braised Short Ribs
Greg DuPree

A Dutch oven is perfect for these rich and smoky short ribs that are fall-apart tender thanks to three hours of braising.

02 of 05

Spicy Rigatoni alla Vodka

Greg DuPree

Make this creamy, rich, spicy pasta sauce studded with caramelized shallots right in a Dutch oven.

03 of 05

One-Pot Chicken Sausage and Beans

Sausage and beans layer on the flavors in this simple one-pot recipe, which is inspired by the classic cassoulet.
Caitlin Bensel

Taking inspiration from the French cassoulet, this simple one-pot stew is a study in layered flavors, but without the hours-long work of the classic version.

04 of 05

Soy-Simmered Squash With Miso Hummus and Togarashi

soy simmered squash with miso and hummus
Greg Dupree

A Dutch oven is also great for searing vegetables, and this flavorful squash is proof.

05 of 05

No-Knead Crusty Boule

No-knead boule
Victor Protasio

This is the one recipe you need to bake bread in a Dutch oven.

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