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Dutch ovens have been a staple of kitchens for centuries. Originally made from cast iron, modern versions are usually made of enameled steel, stainless steel, or cast aluminum. A dutch oven is a versatile pot that can be used indoors on the stovetop or outdoors in a campfire. Many come with lids that have flat 'ears' at the side which allow you to place hot coals on top of the lid and cook using indirect heat.
The first thing to decide is what material you want your dutch oven to be made of. The traditional choice is cast iron, which distributes and retains heat well. However, cast iron is also very heavy and it can take a long time to pre-heat. A steel or aluminum dutch oven is much lighter in comparison and will require less time to preheat. On the downside, they won't retain heat quite as well and won't last nearly as long (a couple of lifetimes, literally). However, steel and aluminum ovens are quite affordable.
The lid of your dutch oven has two primary functions: it holds in moisture (which keeps food moist while cooking) and it allows you to place coals on top of the lid for indirect-heat grilling. For these reasons, many people choose to buy a lid with 'ears' attached, though this is not necessary. A clear knob on the center of the lid will make it easier to pick up the lid (which can be very hot).
Another thing you'll need to consider is the weight of the oven you choose. A small oven with a short handle and legs is going to be the lightest, while a large oven with three short legs on the bottom and a long carrying handle on top will be the heaviest. The size of your oven should directly correlate to what you'll be cooking in it most often: for example, if you often cook for large groups of people, you'll need a larger oven. A smaller oven is better for individuals or couples who are simply cooking for themselves.
Most dutch ovens have flat bottoms which will fit on any stovetop without requiring a special stand or support. However, some dutch ovens have three short legs at the bottom which will fit on top of a stove better than they will sit in the coals of an outdoor fire. If you plan to use your oven primarily indoors or both indoors and out, then this isn't that much of an issue. If you mostly plan to cook over an open fire, be sure to get an oven with three short legs on the bottom of it.
The last major consideration prior to purchasing is how you plan to carry your oven around. Traditional cast iron dutch ovens have long, curved handles which make them easy to carry by hand or sling over your shoulder. Aluminum and stainless steel ovens tend to have shorter, straight handles and can be a bit awkward for carrying around. Some stainless steel models come with an optional aluminum bail handle which can make carrying the oven easier.
If you are new to camp cooking, I suggest starting with a good quality cast iron dutch oven. Cast iron is heavy, but it distributes and holds heat well. It can be used over coals, on hot stones, or directly on the stovetop. This versatility makes it the ideal choice for beginners.
The price of your dutch oven will largely depend on the material it is made from. Cast aluminum and stainless steel cost more than enameled steel, which in turn costs more than cast iron. That said, price doesn't necessarily correspond directly to quality; some of the most expensive ovens are poorly designed and made of poor-quality materials while some inexpensive ones are beautifully crafted with excellent materials.
Q: What is the dutch oven best used for?
The dutch oven is one of the most versatile cooking vessels on earth, so it can be used for almost anything! You can use it to bake cakes, roast vegetables, fry foods, simmer stews and soups, boil water, or even barbeque. They can also be used to keep food warm at a buffet.
Q: Can I cook directly in my dutch oven?
In most cases, no. With some exceptions, you should never place cold foods into a hot cast iron or aluminum oven - this will cause the metal to warp and your oven will no longer be safe for cooking. However, you can put cooked foods back into a hot oven for storage or keep them warm until serving time.
Q: Can I cook directly on the coals?
Yes! Cast iron is ideal for cooking over an open fire because it distributes heat well and holds in moisture while retaining heat. You will need some flat stones to place under the oven and on top of its legs to raise it up from the coals. The best method is to build a small fire on top of your flat stones and let it burn down to coals before placing the oven over the coals.