Ask Peter: Dutch ovens
Every time I see a recipe that advises people to put a dutch oven in an oven, I ask myself WHY? The whole idea of a dutch oven is that it is a small oven by itself. Much cheaper to heat than a big oven (that’s probably why the frugal Dutch invented it). A dutch oven on the stove top only requires a small gas flame or electric element and is perfect for stewing dishes too. Why don’t these recipes say that if you own a dutch oven, you can make the dish on the stove top? Of course, I might be mistaken and a dutch oven in an oven is the way to cook things, but to this Dutchie it seems a waste of time and energy.
Funnily enough, talking about dutch ovens, I’m literally just back from a wedding in Amsterdam where the lovely grooms, Daan and Kerry, hosted a huge array of friends of family from Holland and New Zealand. While there I decided to do some research on your question among those present and I’ve also just spoken to my London-based Dutchie friend Mr B and he’s given the same answer.
As it turns out not one Netherlander I spoke to had heard the term. I found it hilarious and wondered where the name came from.
It turns out that these casserole dishes, as we’d call them, were being made in many European countries in the late 17th century, but the Dutch ones were considered superior to the English ones due to their smoothness. They were finer, had fewer sharp edges and were made of superior quality cast iron. Being smoother means they’d be easier to season (so they’d be a little more non-stick), and also less likely to damage delicate fingers and hands.
An English factory owner headed over to Holland to investigate why this was and several years later came back with a new technique. Eventually a version of the “dutch oven” went into production and so the name of these cast iron casseroles was born.
Around the same time, British folk were heading to the colonies of America, and the ovens went with them, and likely many a fireside meal for the pilgrims, cowboys and adventurers was cooked in them.
The Dutch, it turns out, actually now call them braadpan or braadslee. The reason they were traditionally used to cook on burning logs or charcoal was simply that ovens, as we know them, didn’t exist. The most successful dutch ovens were made with legs so they could stand above a fire or heat source — or they’d be suspended from a chain above a fireplace in the living room of a more modest house.
They also had slightly concave lids, or flat ones that overhung the dish. This meant hot charcoal could be placed on the lid, ensuring the heat source was both under and on top of the food being cooked — just like a roasting dish in the oven. Of course because the dish was sealed with a lid, all the moisture would be retained and the resulting stew would be quite juicy.
I can just imagine knocking up a bison casserole with wild Jerusalem artichokes (both native to North America) and letting the whole thing cook to tenderness while out herding the cattle. I’d probably need to be riding a palomino and wearing a cowboy hat to complete the fantasy!
Today we’re less likely to be cooking over an open flame or charcoal except when camping, the “ovens” have lost their legs, and the lids have less overhang. This means they can be cooked on a gas flame or induction hob (most are still made with enough iron in them for induction to work) or they can be put in the oven.
So, yes you are correct — why put an oven in oven? I’d suggest it’s just that times have changed. I can remember my folks cooking in a heavy cast iron pan, which we did call a dutch oven, on camping holidays. It definitely had legs and we cooked above burning logs. Legs of lamb, meat stews and the like were cooked this way, and the occasional whiff of smoke that would go into the dish when the lid was taken off was welcome.
Dutch friends have said that these days they tend to use braadpans made from enamelled steel as they’re lighter than cast iron and more easily cleaned and kept.
If you’ve ever been to a South African barbecue (or braai) you’ll have seen a distant relative of the dutch oven, called a potjie. This travelled to Africa with the Dutch. However, it’s more like a cauldron: the bottom is rounded, not flat, and generally they have three legs (easier to keep level than four) and are sat atop a flame or charcoal. They usually have a concave lid for piling on the coals.
In our Ask Peter series, executive chef Peter Gordon answers your curly culinary questions. If you're stumped over something food-related, send your question to firstname.lastname@example.org and keep checking in for answers. You can read more on Peter on his website, have a read of his Ask Peter articles or check out his recipes here.