1. Good Construction & Materials
Modern dutch ovens are typically made from aluminum or cast-iron. They might also have an enamel over the layers of metal, such as porcelain or another non-stick coating. Since aluminum is a thinner material than cast-iron, dutch ovens from aluminum will usually have at least two layers of heavy-gauge or anodized aluminum. The hard-anodizing process makes the aluminum significantly more durable. In terms of which material is better, cast-iron is known for its even heat distribution and retention due to its natural thickness. Aluminum, even with multiple layers, often heats up too quickly for slow cooking with your dutch oven, so it is common to have to deal with hot or cold spots. While most dutch ovens are either cast-iron and aluminum, some are made from ceramic.
A key feature of all dutch ovens is the tight-fitting lid that seals in moisture. This ability to seal in moisture is one of the main differences between dutch ovens and regular pots. Some dutch ovens use lids made from tempered glass so you can see inside the pot without needing to lift off the top. Since dutch ovens get so hot, you should be sure to get one with a heat-resistant knob or lid handle.
Dutch ovens come in just about every size. Most dutch oven models start at about 5 quarts, though some brands offer ovens as small as 1-quart. 5 quarts is big enough to hold 20 cups of soup, so most families do not need dutch ovens any larger than that. Really big dutch ovens range from 8-12 quarts. These are also more expensive than the standard 5-7 quart dutch oven, and are great for cooking one-pot meals for a crowd.
The surface of a dutch oven will either be non-stick, or will require seasoning with oil. Cast-iron dutch ovens always require seasoning, or else food will get stuck and the bottom of the pot will burn. The advantage of getting a cast-iron dutch oven you need to season is that the flavor of food is more complex. You also do not run the risk of dealing with a synthetic non-stick surface, which often chips over time and emits toxic fumes. When you use a cast-iron dutch oven, you cannot use soap or the oil will come off. Simply wipe the oven clean with a paper towel. Aluminum dutch ovens typically come with a non-stick surface and do not require seasoning. Ovens with porcelain enamel (which include cast-iron) often need less maintenance, and provide a good compromise for those who want the benefits of cast-iron, but do not want to deal with extensive seasoning upkeep.
Dutch ovens are known for their versatility. You can use them on the stovetop, in the oven up to 400 or so degrees, under a broiler, and even outside, provided that the specific model allows for it. Cast-iron is the most flexible material, so you can cast-iron dutch ovens on every kind of stove top, including induction, ceramic, and electric.
You should always be careful when handling your dutch oven because they can be very heavy. The larger dutch ovens can weigh nearly 30 pounds, and that is without food inside of them. Cast-iron dutch ovens are typically heavier than aluminum ones, which can weigh as little as 10-11 pounds. The lighter weight is one of the advantages of aluminum. Regardless of the material you choose, be sure to look for heat-resistant handles, which make using the dutch oven a lot safer, especially if you are transferring it from the stovetop to the oven, or vice versa.
Lodge is one of the United States’ oldest cookware companies and is famous for its cast-iron cookware. Lodge’s biggest accomplishment is its pre-seasoning process which all of its cast-iron pieces now have. They bake a vegetable oil right into the cast-iron of all their dutch ovens, so you do not need to season the oven yourself when it arrives. Lodge creates a variety of styles for dutch ovens, from very colorful, sleek ovens to rustic ovens intended for camping. Lodge also makes some of the most affordable dutch ovens, even ones in bigger sizes.
2. Le Creuset
Founded in France in 1925, Le Creuset is the brainchild between a professional iron caster and an enameling expert. The two men worked to transform cast-iron cookware by adding a porcelain enamel over the traditional iron. They created the signature color “Flame,” which remains the most popular color for Le Creuset dutch ovens. The brand came over to America in the 1970’s and is known as one of the higher-end dutch oven companies. Even small dutch ovens can cost over $100 with the large ones heading up into the $600-$700 range.
As one of the few brands that make dishwasher-safe dutch ovens, Calphalon specializes in hard-anodized aluminum pots. They were the first company to master this electrochemical process, in which raw aluminum is treated to become more durable. Calphalon has been around since 1963, and has many dutch ovens that are in the lower to medium price range. They prioritize convenience with the dutch ovens that are dishwasher-safe, so you do not have to spend a lot of time hand-washing the cookware.
While the American division of Tramontina did not appear until 1986, the company has been around in Brazil since 1911. They make a wide range of non-stick aluminum and cast-iron cookware. Their dutch ovens come in a gorgeous selection of different colors, and are often enameled in porcelain for easier clean-up. Some of the Tramontina ovens can be pretty expensive, but they do have many affordable ones, as well.
1. Camping capabilities
Not all dutch ovens are usable outside, but the ones that are tend to be made from cast-iron, look very rustic, and are extremely versatile. They often include a wire bale so you can hang the crockpot over a fire, and are constructed with iron feet so you can set the oven right on top of hot coals. You can also use camping-capable dutch ovens on grills, and with any indoor stovetop and regular oven. Dutch ovens intended for camping are not automatically more expensive; they can even be more affordable because they are not colorful.
2. Multi-functional lid
Many dutch ovens – especially ones intended for outdoor use – have special lid features that make the oven more versatile. Flanged lids, or lids that have a deeper, scooped-out surface, are meant to hold coals so you can roast food. There are also a lot of lids that transform into griddles and skillets when you flip them over, so you can make meals like pancakes or eggs. Another lid feature that can be found on some indoor-only ovens, like the Tramontina Oval 7-quart, are self-basting lid ridges. These are grooves found around the lid that direct food vapors back into the pot for increased moisture.
Dutch ovens are rarely dishwasher-safe, but they do exist. Aluminum ovens or ovens with porcelain enamel are occasionally dishwasher-safe, but not always, so do not assume unless the oven specifically highlights this feature. The advantage of a dishwasher-safe dutch oven is that you save a lot of time on cleanup and do not have to worry about messing up the cleaning process in some way, i.e. using soap on a cast-iron oven.
Pre-seasoning is when you get a cast-iron dutch oven that has been seasoned by the company, so you do not have to worry about doing it yourself. All of Lodge’s dutch ovens come with this feature, and they use a natural, vegetable-based oil, so you can be sure you are not being exposed to any potentially-harmful synthetics. You still need to use oil when you cook with a pre-seasoned dutch oven, and the layers that build up create great flavors as well as a non-stick surface. After time, you do need to repeat the seasoning process, but it is relatively easy. You just bake more oil into the surface of the dutch oven. Also, be sure to not use soap to wash your pre-seasoned dutch oven, as the soap breaks down the oil and strips off the surface.
5. No synthetics
Aluminum dutch ovens frequently come with a non-stick surface, which is a concern for a lot of people. Non-stick surfaces have come under fire in recent years because they are often made with toxic chemicals that can scrape off into food and pollute the air. Many dutch ovens with non-stick surfaces, especially Tramontina, are now using porcelain enamels that are PFOA and PTFE-free. This means you get the convenience of a non-stick surface where you do not have to worry about seasoning or cooking with a lot of oil, as well as the peace of mind that you are not exposing your family to dangerous chemicals.
6. Color & Design
Traditional dutch ovens were just large cast-iron pots, but now you can choose from a wide selection of beautiful, vibrant colors like red, blue, orange, purple, white, and so on. These colorful dutch ovens are often enameled with porcelain, and color can make the oven more expensive. The advantage to choosing a colorful pot is that you can pick one that goes with your decor and that looks good on the table. The rustic, cast-iron look is great for camping, but not everyone wants that sort of look for dinner parties and other large gatherings like Thanksgiving and Christmas.