A Dutch oven is a thick-walled metal (usually cast iron) cooking pot with a tight-fitting lid. It is commonly referred to as a 'camp oven' in the Australian bush, and a cocotte in French, and is similar to the South African potjie. (An Australian 'Bedourie oven' is made of steel rather than cast-iron, so that it is more suitable for carrying by packhorses.)
Cast metal vessels were used for cooking in Europe at least as early as the late Seventh Century. Metal pots and kettles were among Columbus’s supplies when he journeyed to the Americas in 1492. The Mayflower also carried cast metal cooking vessels when the Pilgrims landed in Massachusetts in 1620. (John Ragsdale, Dutch Ovens Chronicled 1-3 (1991))
Early European History
During the late 1600s the Dutch system of producing these cast metal cooking vessels was more advanced than the English system. The Dutch used dry sand to make their molds, giving their pots a smoother surface. Consequently, metal cooking vessels produced in Holland were imported into Britain. In 1704, an Englishman named Abraham Darby decided to go to Holland to observe the Dutch system for making these cooking vessels. Four years later, back in England, Darby patented a casting procedure similar to the Dutch process and began to produce cast metal cooking vessels for Britain and her new American Colonies. It is possible that because Darby’s patent was based upon his research into the Dutch foundry system that the cooking vessels he produced came to be referred to as “Dutch” ovens. Other researchers believe that this term may have come from the itinerant Dutch traders who sold cooking vessels out of their wagons as they traveled from town to town and door to door. Maybe both accounts are true. In any event, the term “Dutch oven” has endured for over 300 years. (Dutch Ovens Chronicled 3-4)
Over time, the Dutch oven used in the American Colonies began to change. The pot became shallower and legs were added to hold the oven above the coals. A flange was added to the lid to keep the coals on the lid and out of the food. There is an unauthenticated legend that this lid flange was invented by Paul Revere. (Dutch Ovens Chronicled 11-14)
The cast-iron cookware was loved by colonists and settlers because of its versatility and durability. It could be used for boiling, baking, stews, frying, roasting, and just about any other use. The ovens were so valuable that wills in the 18th and 19th centuries frequently spelled out the desired inheritor of the cast iron cookware. For example, Mary Washington (mother of President George Washingon) specified in her will, dated 20 May 1788, that one-half of her "iron kitchen furniture" should go to her grandson, Fielding Lewis, and the other half to Betty Carter, a granddaughter. Several Dutch Ovens were among Mary's "iron kitchen furniture." (Dutch Ovens Chronicled 28)
When the young American country began to spread westward across the North American continent, so did the Dutch oven. A Dutch oven was among the gear Lewis and Clark carried when they explored the great American Northwest in 1804-1806. The pioneers who settled the American West also took along their Dutch ovens. In fact, a statute raised to honor the Mormon handcart companies who entered Utah’s Salt Lake Valley in the 1850s proudly displays a Dutch oven hanging from the front of the handcart.
Mountain men exploring the great American frontier used Dutch ovens into the late 1800s. Dutch oven cooking was also prominent among those who took part in the the western cattle drives that lasted from the mid-1800s into the early 1900s. (Dutch Ovens Chronicled 33-54)
Types of Dutch Ovens
A camping, cowboy, or chuck wagon Dutch oven has three legs, a wire bale handle, and a slightly convex, rimmed lid so that coals from the cooking fire can be placed on top as well as below. This provides more uniform internal heat and lets the inside act as an oven. These ovens are typically made of bare cast iron, although some are aluminum. See cooking on a campfire.
Modern Dutch ovens
Modern Dutch ovens designed for use on the cooktop or in the oven are typically smooth-bottomed and have two handles. They are usually made of bare or enameled cast iron, but may also be made of aluminum or ceramic. Le Creuset, a famous maker of enameled Dutch ovens, refers to their ovens as "French ovens."
Use in Cooking
When cooking over a campfire, it is possible to use old-style lipped cast iron dutch ovens as true baking ovens, to prepare biscuits, cakes, breads, pizzas and even pies. A smaller baking pan can be placed inside the ovens, used and replaced with another as the first batch is completed. It is also possible to stack dutch ovens on top of each other, conserving the heat that would normally rise from the hot coals on the top. These stacks can be as high as 5 or 6 pots.
Seasoning and care
Bare cast iron
Americans traditionally season their bare cast iron Dutch ovens like other cast iron cookware.
As with other cast iron vessels, a newly seasoned oven should not be used to cook foods containing tomatoes, vinegar or other acidic ingredients. These foods will damage the new seasoning. Instead, newly seasoned ovens should be used to cook something high in oil or fat, such as chicken, bacon, or sausage, or used for deep frying.
Bare ovens are typically cleaned like other cast iron: with boiling water and a brush, and no or minimal soap. After the oven has been cleaned it should be completely dried.
With care, the surfaces of the Dutch oven will become dark black, very smooth and shiny, and as non-stick as the best teflon or other non-stick cookware available. When properly cared for, a dutch oven is good for decades or even centuries of use.
Where possible, a Dutch oven should be stored in a clean, dry location with the lid off to promote air circulation and avoid the smell and taste of rancid oil. If the Dutch oven must be stored with the lid on, a paper towel should be placed inside the oven to absorb any moisture. The lid should also be propped open slightly to allow air to circulate inside the oven.
Enameled ovens do not need to be seasoned before use. However, they lose some of the other advantages of bare cast iron. For example, deep frying is usually not recommended in enameled ovens - the enamel coating is not able to withstand high heat, and is best suited for water-based cooking.
Enameled ovens can usually be cleaned like ordinary cookware, and some brands can even be put in the dishwasher.
Dutch ovens and the Boy Scouts
American Boy Scouts have embraced dutch oven cooking as part of their ritual and culture. Dutch ovens are part of standard camping equipment list, and some manufacturers even produce special production runs with the Boy Scout logo.
Other cooking devices also called Dutch ovens
The term "Dutch oven" is also used for two other cooking devices: a metal shield used before an open fire for roasting, and a brick oven in which the preheated walls do the cooking.
- International Dutch Oven Society A non-profit foundation that preserves art of Dutch oven cooking and promotes its use in modern society
- International Dutch Oven Society forum A gathering place to ask questions on Dutch oven cooking and share recipes
- The Old West Dutch Oven Cook Off An annual Dutch Oven contest held in Orem, Utah. Includes recipes and cooking tips
- Byron's Dutch Oven Cooking Page
- 'Round the Chuckbox A cooking blog that features the cast iron Dutch oven