A Dutch oven is a heavy cooking pot usually made of cast iron and equipped with a pair of handles and a tight-fitting lid. Its heavy-duty construction and versatility make it one of the most useful pieces of cooking equipment, and one that every home cook should have in their cabinet.
Cast iron is a poor conductor of heat, which means that once it gets hot, the pot stays hot for a long time.
Compare this with copper or aluminum, which conduct heat very efficiently, making those metals good for saute pans, where the objective is to heat a piece of food very quickly at a high temperature for a short time. But when the goal is to cook slowly using a lower temperature, cast iron fits the bill perfectly.
Soups, Stews, and Braises
Soups, stews, and braises use long cooking times and low temperatures, both because it allows the flavors of the various ingredients to meld, and also because it tenderizes tough cuts of meat, yielding the classic "fall off the bone" tenderness that can't be obtained using other cuts of meat or cooking methods. Some of the best meats for braising include beef chuck, pork shoulder, and anything with a lot of fat and cartilage-like short ribs, spare ribs, lamb shanks, and oxtails.
It's also the way to soften root vegetables like carrots, parsnips, and turnips, as well as hardy greens like collards and kale. Slow cooking also mellows the pungent flavors in onions and garlic, helping to bring out their sweetness.
Sear It First: Right in the Pot!
So far, everything we've talked about can be done with a crock pot. But one of the wonderful things about a Dutch oven is that because it's cast iron, you can get it smoking hot on the stovetop and brown your meat directly in it, then add your liquid (after draining off any excess fat) and other ingredients, cover it, lower the heat and continue braising at a low temperature. It's a true one-pot wonder.
With a crock pot, you have to sear the meat in a separate skillet and then add it to the crock. What that undoubtedly means for some folks using crock pots is that they end up skipping the browning step altogether. And they're missing out because browning meat develops all kinds of wonderful flavors and textures. And yes, it's an extra step with a Dutch oven, too, but since you're cooking the meat in that pot anyway, it's not much extra work at all.
Stovetop and Oven Cooking
Another huge benefit of cooking in a Dutch oven is that the whole pot can go directly from the stovetop to the oven. This is convenient for when you've finished browning your meat on the stovetop over high heat and are ready for the second, low-temperature phase of cooking. Why the oven rather than simply lowering the heat on the stove?
You could do that, certainly, but cooking in the oven means the heat is enveloping the pot from all directions, instead of only from below. This helps the ingredients cook evenly, and prevents items on the bottom of the pot from burning and sticking, which is particularly liable to happen with stovetop braises since pot has to sit over the heat for such a long time.
Caring for a Dutch Oven
A good, cast iron Dutch oven is virtually indestructible, which means you'll only need to buy one once in your life. That being the case, it makes sense to get a good one. Which means first of all, stay away from aluminum ones, which do exist, mainly for camping because they're a lot lighter than cast iron. But recall what we said earlier about aluminum conducting heat. An aluminum Dutch oven is really just a pot with a lid. So stick with cast iron.
An enameled cast-iron Dutch oven made by Lodge or Le Crueset will last for the rest of your life and beyond. The enamel coating makes it easier to clean, although it will become discolored over time. This is unfortunate in a sense, but what it really means is that you've gotten years of use out of your Dutch oven. Think of it as the patina of age. The enamel can chip, especially around the rim, so try not to bang the lid down onto it.
But if you do get unenameled, go with preseasoned cast iron. Life is too short to spend time seasoning your cast iron cookware. The factory will do a better job anyway.