Long before the holiday season began, Jill began pointing out dutch ovens to me in the Williams-Sonoma kitchen store. I have to admit, she's extremely good about giving me hints for the few things that she wants. She pointed out the Le Creuset Dutch Ovens and I started researching my buying options. What I found was very surprising.
Apparently, dutch ovens have been around in one form or another for a long time. You might be most familiar with them in the form of a simple covered cast iron pot your grandmother used to make stews. But to cut this story short, let's just say that they have a rather long winded history that includes appearances around everything from cowboy campfires to early European hearths.
But cooking in a bare cast iron container is so 17th century. Today, the modern cast iron bean pot has been transformed into a stylish piece of attractive contemporary cookware. They come in a variety of sizes, shapes, have colorful, designer enamel coatings that give them a fashionable look to the trendy market. However, when you get down to it, they are still the same old trusty cast iron pot that your grandmother owned.
Choosing A Size
To narrow my options, I used a combination of in-store observations and online research. I learned that the modern dutch oven is offered in several standard sizes ranging from 3.5 to 9.5 quarts.
To me, the inner pot size really seemed to be more a matter of function than anything else. I decided to focus on the 7 quart models for Jill, because they offered plenty of cooking volume and their deep sides provided some amount of protection from hot bubbling liquids.
Choosing A Shape
The next major option to consider was shape. Dutch ovens come in round and oval shapes and as with size, deciding on either shape seemed to be more a matter of function than anything else. Dutch ovens can be used on the stove top and then transferred to the oven for additional cooking time. I happen to know that a round shape fits nicely on the burners of our electric stove and inside our oven, so round is what I chose.
Choosing A Color
Dutch ovens come in a variety of colors. All the pots I looked at had two colored areas, the decorative outside and the standard, white porcelain interior. The lids were the same set up.
Le Creuset, by far, had the most stylish designs that used gradient colors and engraved lids to visually set them apart. All the other manufactures offered strictly solid color options with less ornate lids.
Since enamel finishes are a big part of what makes the dutch oven new and fresh these days, I thought the paint job would play a bigger part in my buying decision. But after looking at several different brands, I didn't really see much of a difference from one to another. Le Creuset had the biggest advantage in terms of color and style, but when you got down to paint texture or quality, they all seemed about the same. In fact, I saw imperfections and paint chips on several display models and it didn't matter what their price tag said.
I'm not sure how many cast iron pot makers there are in the world, but overall their construction was very similar between the brands I looked at purchasing. All seemed to have sturdy handles on the lids and all seemed to have good enamel paint jobs. It didn't matter if it was the higher priced Le Creuset, the mid-range Martha Stewart Collection, or the lesser known generic names.
What About The Ring
The one thing that all the ovens did have in common was the exposed cast iron ring around the top rim of the pot and on the underside of the lid. At first, I wasn't sure if this was meant to protect the paint job of the pot from chipping over time or if it was a limitation of the painting process. Either way, I was a little concerned that this might be a place where rust would form if the pot wasn't dried after cleaning. It didn't matter if it was Le Creuset or Martha Stewart, all had the exposed cast iron ring of unpainted surface.
In the end, it became obvious that price was closely tied to manufacturer brand and size. If I wanted a bigger pot, then I would have to pay a higher price. If I wanted a certain brand name like Le Creuset, then I would have to pay a premium price as well.
Ultimately, I decided on was a green Martha Stewart brand 7 quart round dutch oven that cost me about a third of what the same size Le Creuset would have cost. It fits on our stove, goes in our oven, and doesn't take up to much room in the cabinets when it's not being used.
Living with the Dutch Oven
In the short time that she's had it, Jill has cooked a lot of meals (spaghetti sauce, lots and lots of soups, beef stews, etc.) in her new dutch oven. I'm beginning to wonder if she will ever use our old spaghetti pot again. She's told me she likes the way the pot heats evenly and uses a lower heat temperature. She, also, feels she's getting a better cooking experience and more control with the results of her recipes.
Places to find Dutch Ovens
Simple Daily Recipes Kitchen Store (See Cast Iron Cookware and Enamel Cookware)
From Cooking.com Le Creuset 6.75-qt. Round Enameled Wide Dutch Oven, Flame
From Kitchen Collection
Lodge Porcelain Enamel 6qt Dutch Oven Red