Noted food author Julia Child advised home cooks to "always start out with a larger pot than what you think you need." If you are a cook who values your pots over your knives, you probably own an assortment of pots and pans, and if you're lucky, a Dutch oven is among them. While Dutch ovens and other cooking pots have their pros and cons, they both serve a purpose in a well-stocked kitchen.
The first cooking pot, which was made of ceramic clay 20,000 years ago, was probably used for making fish soup. Beginning during the Iron Age at about 1000 B.C., metal pots became the norm. Pennsylvania Dutch settlers brought their cast iron pots with them when they arrived in the U.S. from Europe in the 1700s. The term "Dutch oven" was coined in America to refer to these pots. Manufacture of Dutch ovens in America began in the 1800s.
Dutch ovens are made from cast iron and have tight-fitting lids, while other cooking pots may be manufactured from copper, aluminum or stainless steel with lids that may or may not fit tightly. Additionally, some Dutch ovens have an enameled outer layer. Clad pots have aluminum inner layers to help with heat conductivity and heat retention and stainless steel outer layers to prevent a metallic reaction with acidic foods.
Pros and Cons
Dutch ovens are heavy, but they retain heat well. Unenameled Dutch ovens react with acidic foods, leaching harmless iron molecules and adding a metallic taste to food. Copper, the most expensive pots, conduct heat well, but they too are heavy. Aluminum pots are inexpensive and conduct heat well, but the soft metal dents, scratches and reacts with acidic foods. Stainless steel is a poor heat conductor, but it is durable. Clad cookware heats evenly, is easy to care for and attractive -- an all-around good choice.
Because Dutch ovens retain heat well, they are often used for foods that require long cooking methods, such as braising and stewing. Once you set the pot at a certain temperature, it stays at that temperature. Dutch ovens also work for baking and campfire cooking, since the lids fit so tightly and the pots are so sturdy. Regular cooking pots may or may not be ovenproof, and their lids are typically not heavy and tight-fitting; however, they work well for boiling, simmering and sauteing.