If you’re asking “What is the difference between a Dutch oven and cast iron?” you probably really mean: “What is the difference between cast iron and enameled cast iron?” And that’s a good question! Let’s break everything down.
What Is a Dutch Oven?
The Dutch oven is essentially a large pot or kettle, usually made of cast iron, with a tight-fitting lid so steam can’t escape. Dutch ovens are used for moist-cooking methods such as braising and stewing (though with the lid off, they’re also great for frying or even baking bread). Traditionally, you make your braised beef, chili, soups, and stews in one of these bad boys. This cooking tool and method came from the Pennsylvania Dutch in the 1700s.
Naked cast iron Dutch ovens evoke campfires and Boy Scout jamborees (and Colonial America, perhaps); though not always, these more rustic-looking pots often have feet and a bail-type handle—but what we often think of as a Dutch oven these days is a large, flat-bottomed, cast-iron pot with handles, all covered in bright, glossy enamel. Le Creuset is one of the most high-end brands and comes in a delightful rainbow of colors.
Before we get into enamelware, though, let’s look at what’s often underneath that bright outer shell.
There are two basic kinds of cast iron: regular and enameled. Regular cast iron dates back to the 5th century B.C. and absorbs, conducts, and retains heat efficiently. Although some say cast iron takes longer to heat up than other cookware, it does stay hot for longer, which is why fajitas are often served on cast iron skillets.
So while a Dutch oven is always a large pot with a tight-fitting lid, “cast iron” by itself is just about material, and it can take many other forms, most commonly, the aforementioned skillet.
Cast iron requires seasoning, which gives it a natural nonstick finish, and creates a surface that doesn’t react with or absorb the flavor of foods. When you have an unseasoned cast iron pan, it will react to your acidic foods—tomatoes, lemon juice, vinegar—creating a metallic taste and discoloration. This is not the heavy metal we’re going for. And you probably shouldn’t simmer or braise a tomato sauce in a cast iron pot for many, many hours.
“Cast iron, when properly seasoned, is the original nonstick pan,” according to thekitchenprofessor.com. “Many veteran chefs and beginners alike agree that it is the best type of cookware for searing and blackening.”
It’s a great pan to put on the grill or under the broiler. You can sear your meat and then cover it and put it in the oven to cook inside. To keep it seasoned, you clean it with a paper towel or soft cloth and, if necessary, gently scrub it with a nylon pad. Do not use soap. Lodge is a popular, affordable American-made brand of cast iron cookware, which comes in both naked cast iron and enameled cast iron in various colors. If you have a plain cast iron Dutch oven, care for it the same way you would your skillet.
Enamelware can be either cast iron or steel cookware that has been coated with thin layers of brightly colored porcelain enamel. Enameled cast iron (like a Le Creuset Dutch oven or casserole dish) is a good heat conductor. Enameled steel is not. Enamelware of either kind is fairly easy to clean and doesn’t interact with acidic ingredients, but extreme heat can cause the surface to crack—that said, under normal cooking conditions, enameled cast iron goes with ease from stovetop to oven. You do need to use only plastic or wooden utensils with enamelware to avoid scratching it (and no harsh scrubbers at clean-up time). While it is dishwasher-safe, it’s best to hand-wash it to prolong its life.
Almost any recipe that calls for a large, heavy, thick-bottomed pot can be made in a Dutch oven, whether plain cast iron or enamel-coated, but these are some of our favorites, from slow cooking classics to deep fried desserts:
1. Braised Lamb Shanks with Mint-Parsley Pesto
This is a showcase dish for the reasons we love Dutch ovens. You get to first brown the meat in it, then soften the onions, celery, and carrots in it, and finally, pop the whole thing in the oven to braise. Get our Braised Lamb Shanks with Mint-Parsley Pesto recipe.
2. Cochinita Pibil
If you like carnitas, you’ll love cochinita pibil, a sort of Mayan pulled pork. Traditionally roasted over an underground oven of hot stones, it also comes out beautifully when made in a Dutch oven—wrapping the meat in banana leaves within the pot imparts extra moisture and flavor, and you should be able to find them at most Hispanic grocery stores, so don’t be discouraged by what may seem like an exotic ingredient. Get our Cochinita Pibil recipe.
3. Campfire Cherry Cobbler
This recipe can be made indoors in your fancy enameled Dutch oven, but if you’re camping (which is when this easy dessert tastes best), bring your plain cast iron Dutch oven that you don’t mind setting directly in the embers of your campfire. Get our Campfire Cherry Cobbler recipe.
4. Chili con Carne
Any kind of Dutch oven is perfect for a big, hearty batch of chili, whether it’s all meat, vegetarian, or turkey chili. Get our Chili con Carne recipe.
5. Chicken Basquaise
This is a simple dish that’s packed with flavor, and the chicken browns beautifully in a Dutch oven—then braises away with the melting peppers, onions, and garlic for a saucy, satisfying meal. Get our Chicken Basquaise recipe.
6. Eggplant and Mushroom Polenta Bake
We made this in a cast iron skillet, but it would do just as well in a Dutch oven, enameled or not. It’s basically a hearty vegetarian shepherd’s pie with a cheesy polenta crust instead of mashed potatoes. Get our Eggplant and Mushroom Polenta Bake.
7. Apple Cider Doughnuts with Salted Caramel
Since Dutch ovens are so deep, they’re also great for frying, but be sure to have a candy thermometer on hand to monitor the oil temperature, and don’t overfill your pot. You can fry chicken, egg rolls, or whatever else you like, but we have to recommend our apple cider sufganiyot with salted caramel filling for obvious reasons (just look at them). Get our Salted Caramel Apple Cider Doughnut recipe.
8. Beef Stew
Whether you go with the classic or give your stew an international spin, the Dutch oven is the ideal way to cook it. Get our Beef Stew recipe.
9. No-Knead Bread
Yes, the Dutch oven is great for baking too. This easy, no-knead bread recipe will banish supermarket loaves from your life forever. It can also be baked in a cast-iron skillet. Get the No-Knead Bread recipe.