What Is a Dutch Oven—and How Do You Use It?

Your bread, braises, and beyond will benefit once you master how to use this versatile vessel.

Za’atar Chicken and Lentils on pot with lemon wedges

Wondering “what is a Dutch oven used for?” Braising, baking, stewing, simmering, serving, and so much more. This Ina Garten staple and generations-old cooking and baking BFF is a staple piece of cooking equipment in many homes in America and across the globe. 

Admittedly, a Dutch oven can be a bit of an investment, depending on the features and the brand you buy. However, it can last a lifetime (when you follow our guidance for how to clean a Dutch oven and keep it in tip-top shape). Plus, along the way, a Dutch oven can conquer a remarkably wide variety of culinary tasks. 

Ahead, our Test Kitchen answers “what is a Dutch oven, exactly?” Brush up on the history of this multitasking culinary marvel, then learn more about how to care for a Dutch oven, what to cook in a Dutch oven, and what to use as an alternative for Dutch oven recipes if you don’t want to ante up.

What Is a Dutch Oven?

Legend has it that during a trip to the Netherlands, an Englishman noticed a round, shallow pot being crafted from molten iron molds made from sand. As a result, he deemed this “Dutch” as a nod to those who were making them at that time.

Essentially a shorter, heavier stockpot with the same double-handle style but cast-iron instead of stainless steel or another metal, a Dutch oven is designed to be an ace at retaining heat. The tightly-filling lid, thick base, and sturdy walls help keep the internal temperature fairly steady throughout the cooking process. This even heat can radiate through the pot to cook what’s inside evenly, whether you employ the Dutch oven on the stove or in the oven.

Modern day Dutch ovens come in a wide variety of sizes and styles, nearly all of which are attractive enough to be able to double as serving vessels. You may have heard of—or perhaps already own—a Dutch oven from one of the most popular Dutch oven brands, such as Le Creuset, Staub, Great Jones, Our Place, Caraway, Lodge, or Cuisinart.

Related: The 6 Best Dutch Ovens of 2023, According to Our Testers 

What Is a Dutch Oven Used For—And What are the Best Dutch Oven Recipe Ideas?

Now that you know the answer to “what is a Dutch oven?” it’s time to dive into how to put the multi-tasking pot to good use. As we mentioned, you can cook or bake in a Dutch oven on the stove or in the oven. Its thick walls, thermal lid, and hefty size make this an ideal tool to brown, braise, bake, simmer, roast, sauté, serve and so much more.

What is a Dutch oven used for specifically? Our favorite techniques include: 

How to Choose the Right Size of Dutch Oven For Your Needs

Dutch ovens are generally crafted using one of three materials.

  • Bare cast-iron: Just like a cast-iron skillet, cast-iron Dutch ovens require TLC and a special cleaning strategy to maintain its seasoning layer and non-stick-ability.
  • Enameled cast-iron: Perhaps you’ve heard about, seen, or cooked with a Le Creuset? That is an example of this family of Dutch ovens, which are coated in an enamel layer that makes them easier to maintain than bare cast-iron. These models are durable, versatile, and chic enough to act as serviceware. They are definitely more pricey than bare cast-iron, though—but almost always stand the test of time if cared for well. 
  • Ceramic: The lightest of them all, these offer the same easy-cleaning, durability benefits of enamel-coated Dutch ovens, but are more likely to crack when dropped or subject to extreme heat or cold.

As far as size and shape goes, there’s no one “right” Dutch oven answer for every kitchen. When you’re considering investing in a new Dutch oven, take into account how you plan to use your Dutch oven the most and where you’ll be storing it. Ask yourself:

  • How many people are you planning to serve from the Dutch oven?
  • Will you use this more for baking or cooking?
  • Do you have cabinet space to store your Dutch oven? If not, what shape, size, and color will look best displayed on your stovetop?

A 5 ½-quart size is “standard,” but Dutch ovens come in styles ranging from 1 quart (to serve a solo diner or a couple, max) to 13 ¼ quarts (which serves 9+).

Related: One Pot Pasta Recipes Make a Delicious Dinner with Minimal Cleanup 

How to Care for a Dutch Oven

If you opt for bare, follow our cast-iron care tips to protect your pot for the long haul. Even though most enamel and some ceramic Dutch ovens are dishwasher safe, hand-washing is recommended. Follow these tips for proper Dutch oven maintenance:

  • Don’t expose your hot Dutch oven to cold water or extremely low temps; it may crack.
  • Wash with hot, soapy water and a cloth or gentle sponge (rather than an abrasive metal scrubber).
  • Conquer stuck-on grime or oily residue by soaking 3 tablespoons of bleach per quart of water. After 2 hours or so, the stuck-on bits should wipe clean.
  • Still stuck? Try simmering 1 tablespoon baking soda in a Dutch oven nearly full of water for 10 minutes. Allow to cool, rinse well with soapy water, then clean water.
  • Run a dry cycle—or, in other words, only store your Dutch oven after you’ve dried the interior and exterior thoroughly with a soft, clean cloth.

Dutch Oven Alternatives

Not quite ready to ante up for a Dutch oven, or don’t have space for another piece of cooking equipment at the moment. A large saucepan or stock pot with a lid might be able to flex (although it likely won’t cook as evenly and gently) to work for Dutch oven recipes, too, depending on its heat resistance. A slow cooker and Instant Pot can also sear and cook ingredients gently, although the overall recipe cooking time will vary drastically.

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