This blog is now permanently located and updated regularly here -

Please visit my new blog URL!

Friday, August 13, 2010

The Down-Low on Dutch Ovens (Or Cocottes)

IKEA: Stil

Revol: Cocotte

Lodge: Logic

Staub Cocotte

All Clad Dutch Oven

One of the very first times I cooked anything on my own, it was up in the Rockies over a campfire. Potatoes, carrots, sage, onions, salt, and garlic tossed in a Dutch Oven with a stick of butter, half on top, half underneath. After leaving it on the coals while my buddy and I went for a hike (don't worry, there were adults at camp watching the fire), I opened the lid on that baby and thought I was a culinary prodigy.

Ever since, having a Dutch Oven in the kitchen has seemed like a secret weapon. At least I thought it was secret, unknown in contemporary North America to nearly all but grannies, campers, and foodies—and then a few years ago, it seemed like they started popping up all over the place. 

I blame it on the truly delicious, though super-hyped, "no-knead" bread recipe featured in the New York Times. Of course, I'm not sure that that's the causation. Perhaps it was TV Chefs, the renaissance of French cooking in America, or the increasing availability of Staub and Le Creuset—but for whatever reason all of the sudden I see the Dutch Oven on wedding registries, in store windows, and in recipe books. 

But, friends also ask me what on Earth to do with one, and how to pick one.

So I thought I'd take a go at sharing a few thoughts. . .
First, let me clear what I mean when I say Dutch Oven. 

The one I reminisced about above had little feet on its bottom and was specifically designed for campfire use. Plain, that is to say un-enamelled, cast iron, I don't know if it even had a brand name, as it was certainly older than I was. The thick walls (and sometimes legs) made early dutch ovens practical cookware for rustic fire-pit and hearth cooking—an alternative to a separate brick oven. These walls bring heat all the way up into the pot while iron varieties are also able to withstand temperature change and travel abuse (where ceramic casseroles could not. Tight fitting lids allow extended cooking times without drying food out, while the sturdy ear shaped handles make them easy to move around. While my (Dutch) Scoutmaster said that the term came from the clever thriftiness behind the idea, the consensus seems to be that the process used to cast early iron dutch ovens is of Dutch origin. 

Regardless, I mention it because the name of the pot is a clue to its purpose. Not really for frying or necessary for making stock (though one will do nicely to substitute for a slow cooker, and a cast iron or thick specimen will likely sear well), the Dutch Oven's raison d'être is long slow cooking. 

In fact, just between us, the most direct analog is the humble casserole dish†. And perhaps one of the best ways to bring a Dutch Oven into regular use is to dust off that card-file of casserole recipes on top of your Mom's fridge (I remember my brother and sister actually ate one that was wieners, scalloped potatoes, and dehydrated onions topped with crushed potato chips—I'm just saying, there's more than one reason I'm now vegetarian, and please, don't dust off that recipe).

But a Dutch Oven can do much more than that, they are ideal for braising, making stock, soups, or stews, as a cloche,* and can of course be used for frying/boiling.

To that end, picking a dutch oven is quite easy, simply a matter of considering what you will use it for, and your budget. 

Ceramic Dutch Ovens
While ceramic versions are quite pretty, they can only be used in oven or microwave. To cook with them on a modern gas stovetop requires a diffusion mesh specifically designed for that purpose (a brisse-flamme or cui-doux), and they are not suitable for other range types. 

Most commonly, these are glazed inside and out. They are eminently suitable for oven use, producing fine stews, roasts, and, yes, they make the no-knead bread just fine. Not to be confused with a terrine which has a hole in the lid for moisture to escape, ceramic dutch ovens should have a tight fitting lid. Check yours before purchase, as the lid-fit on ceramics always seems to be a matter of chance. As with all glazed cookware, buying vintage, or suspiciously cheap product is not advisable due to the possibility of lead in glaze.

Though it is not something I make nowadays, unglazed earthenware Dutch Ovens are fantastic for cooking game birds, or meats. In some recipes, the pot is soaked in water before the dish is prepared and set in the oven, and the steam and porosity of the pot work wonders. I've heard rumours that these are also excellent for microwave cooking a variety of meats. I shudder, and have no comment *grin.* Perhaps, I should also mention that unglazed ceramic Dutch Ovens will absorb the juices and oils from whatever you prepare in them, which is a point against their versatility (though it may be considered a point in their favour as the patina these pots accrue will imbue additional flavour to later like wok-breath). This means that you cannot use an unglazed clay Dutch Oven as a cloche after you have used it for stew, as it will be impossible to preheat without setting off your smoke alarm.

To those who state that Dutch Ovens are only made of cast-iron, I would point out that the ceramic models are their direct antecedents. I suspect the fact that Le Creuset and other French manufacturer's call their cocottes French Ovens in English is a form of protest against the removal of the still ubiquitous ceramic cocotteΩ from the Dutch Oven's lineage.

Cast Iron Dutch Ovens
Ah, here, here we really begin. Cast iron Dutch Ovens have been workhouses in the kitchen since industrialization. There was a time when cast iron was the material of the future, and the Eiffel Tower was a technological as well as aesthetic marvel. In North America, you can still walk into almost any hardware store or hunting-supply company and pick up a piece of pioneer kit, with legs to prop it above the coals, a ridge on the lid to place coals on top, with a basket-style handle to pull it off of the fire (obviously these are of little use in the home-kitchen). 

Non-enamelled Dutch Ovens are capable of use in the fire-pit, and flat bottomed ones can of course be used on gas, radiant, coil, and induction cook-tops, as well as in-oven. 

They are subject to all of the tribulations of any cast-iron pan, meaning that they must be seasoned, and then, that seasoning must be assiduously protected. Acidic foods may get a bit of extra iron in them, and if you do not treat your pot properly, it will rust. As with all cast-iron cookware, if you don't intend to use a piece often, and don't have a strong desire to cook on cast-iron, one of these is not likely the pot for you. Still, a cast-iron Dutch Oven will likely out-last you, and old or damaged specimens can be rehabilitated, and a proper patina, is in my opinion the ideal non-stick coating. 

I would say that in addition to the clean-up and maintenance required, their weak point may be in versatility, as it is easy to damage seasoning by attempting to make a single pot a Jack-of-all-trades.

Enamelled Dutch Ovens
Clearly the next evolutionary leap, enamelled Dutch Ovens are thick cast iron pots coated with a baked-on glass enamel. They share nearly all of the positive aspects of raw cast-iron Dutch Ovens, save that they may sometimes not suitable for hearth use (depending on the thermal rating suggested by the manufacturer). In addition, their enamel surface is easier to clean. Some manufacturers, including Le Creuset, state that select models are even dishwasher safe—with some caveats, such as taking them out right after the cycle is done. 

These are also absolutely beautiful pots, with a wide variety of finishes, colours and styles to choose from. I think it's important to consider the aesthetics of the pot you select, as one of the best things about Dutch Ovens is their ability to go from kitchen to table. As a serving dish, they keep food wonderfully warm, and elegant versions can certainly add charm to your presentation. Practically speaking, in selecting a Dutch Oven, there are several things to consider. 

While all of the enamels look very pretty, they vary widely in terms of quality. It's certainly worth trying less expensive brands, but before purchasing your pot, take a look to see if there are any pits or cracks already in the enamel. Secondly, check the fit of the lid. Finally, be aware that many manufacturers, including Le Creuset include a plastic knob at the top of the pot by default, great for stovetop use as they won't burn your fingers—but sure to melt in the oven.

In my experience, the quality of a pot is often reflected in the warranty offered by the manufacturer. Both Staub and Le Creuset offer limited lifetime warranties. Since these pots are essentially tanks, they don't have much to lose! The only thing I suggest being cautious of is heat shock, which can cause cracks to enamel.

I have, strangely enough, one made in Ireland. I can't recall the brand, but I purchased it from a a kitchenware shop just down the road from where I lived at the time. I've been happy enough with it, though I can honestly say that it doesn't compare directly to any of the Le Creuset I own. The enamel is not as evenly applied, with runs around the surface of the rim. Still, it suits my purposes fine, and is not likely to be replaced. 

The last kitchen I worked in was unusual perhaps in that they used cast-iron on occasion. We employed a variety of Staub Dutch Ovens, and I coveted them tremendously. What I like about these in particular as that the inside surface is covered in a coarse, matt glass enamel. Where mine has a cream coloured enamel which is impossible to keep stain-free, and where the smooth gloss finish on the enamel prevents real seasoning from developing, the Staub pots developed a patina quickly, and, because of their dark coloured interior, did not show stains.

Steel Dutch Ovens
Recently several cookware manufacturers have released pots which they call Dutch Ovens, but whose primary resemblance to the other types I list above is their shape. I would expect that their primary purpose is use in commercial kitchens where dishwashing, weight, and sanitation requirements prevent the use of cast-iron. Note that I mention weight, something to keep in mind is that cast iron and ceramic dutch ovens are extremely heavy!

As with most all metal pans, they can go from range to oven. Those with a proper base can even sear and braise properly, however the lack of thick heat-retaining walls pretty much negate the "oven" part of the equation. 

Size and Shape
While many contemporary manufacturers are experimenting with shapes, in general novelty Dutch Ovens are rather ramekins in disguise. They are wonderful for plating small portions of dishes, or for creating individual entrees, however are too small for practical use. I wish 12 $100 serving dishes was in my budget, but suspect if I had the cash, I would utilise it elsewhere.

The standard size is usually 5qts, and I would suggest this for most purposes. Larger sizes are both very heavy, and perhaps less likely to be used as often. The oven effect is improved by having the walls of the pot close to your food, thus it's not practical or trivial to oversize. Of course, if you regularly are feeding an army (or my brother and I), you may find a larger size practical. And if you'd like to cook large cuts, or larger birds, you are likely to want at least a 7qt model.

Of the two shapes, oval, and round, well. . . what shape are your burners? Oval cocottes are nice for oval shaped things, but less convenient for cooking anything else.
I hope that I've give you some ideas about selecting and using a Dutch Oven. A simple google search will pull up thousands of recipe ideas, but to wrap this all up, I thought I'd share the recipe most often made in ours:

French Lentil Soup
The simple peppery taste of French lentils, combined with their al dente texture make them the ideal backdrop for a hearty, lightly spiced soup.
2 T olive oil
1 T margarine
1/2 head garlic, minced
1/2 bulb fennel, diced
1 medium onion, diced
Sauté above vegetables in oil until transparent.

300 g French lentils soaked
5 c vegetable stock (or 5 c water, plus bullion)
1 T miso
1 bay leaf
1 " cinnamon
1 t cumin (I often use half each of black and regular)
1 T paprika
dash saffron
generous dollop of (I like red, but white is fine) wine
sprig rosemary
lemon zest
salt and pepper to taste
Add to vegetables, cover and simmer for about 45 minutes. Remove rosemary, cinnamon and bay leaves. Check for texture and cook for additional time if required.

bunch fresh basil.
Before serving tear fresh basil into shreds and garnish each bowl with this, as well as the fennel fronds if so desired.

All images in this story are property of the respective manufacturer or brand.

† Oh the confusion among cookery terms. In North America a casserole dish is a deep ceramic pan, often with a glass lid, generally disappointingly thin-walled, commonly made by/of Pyrex/Corningware, designed for optimal heat transfer rather than for heat retention, rather than as in the French (European?) sense of the word as an enamelled cast iron skillet. I apologize to Brits for whom the casserole and the Dutch Oven are true synonyms.

• No, you can't wear a dutch oven as a hat, or at least I wouldn't advise in this sense, cloche comes from the vessel often used to cook a single loaf of bread, which is pre-heated (originally in a hot fire) before being returned with a loaf inside. The walls on all side provide an even heat, while the thermal mass so close to the loaf produces a marvellous crust. This is the real secret behind the "no-knead" bread recipe, and I encourage you all to experiment with both hats and bread making. 

Ω In case you decide to google cocotte, I should explain that this term is also a colloquialism, en française, for a woman prostitute, but is also the diminutive for a cock (male chicken), the dish most traditionally associated with the Dutch/French Oven.