SELECTING A DUTCH OVEN
Dutch ovens come in a variety of sizes. The chart below will help you decide the correct size for based your use. I have found a good starting size is the 12" (6 quart) oven.
TYPES OF FOOD
Recipes for 2 people, vegetables, desserts
Anything for 2-6 people, beans, rolls, cobblers, good size for testing recipes.
Main dishes to serve 12-14 people, or side dishes of rolls, desserts.
Main dishes to serve 16-20 people, or side dishes of rolls, vegetables, potatoes, desserts
Any food for large groups
There are virtually hundreds of option and size combinations available, so it would be impractical for me to tell you which oven is the one for you. Each type of oven is designed for a different type of cooking situation. I will go over the various options and you will have to decide which oven or ovens fit your needs.
There are two materials used in the forming of a Dutch oven. The majority are cast iron. There are, however, ovens made from aluminum. These ovens are light weight alternatives that do not rust. The aluminum will reflect heat so you will need to use more coals than with the cast iron to produce the same amount of heat. Almost everyone I have talked to prefer to use cast iron. It is said that you can get a more even heat with cast iron and that once your cast iron oven is well seasoned, it will add to the overall flavor of meals that are cooked.
In shopping for an oven, you should look for one that is obviously well made. Look at the bail handle. It should be of heavy gauge wire and securely attached to molded tangs on the side of the oven. Ovens that have riveted tabs should be avoided. Most oven handles will lay down against the side of the oven in both directions. If you look hard enough, you will find some that allow the handle to stand up at a 45 degree angle on one side. This allows for easier access to the handle when positioning or removing the oven from the fire.
Another area that bears close examination is the handle on the lid. It should be a loop attached to the lid on both ends and hollow in the center allowing it to be easily hooked. Stay away from the ones that have a molded solid tab on the lid for a handle. These are very difficult to grasp and manage with a load of coals. The loop style offers much better control.
While examining the lid, check that it has a lip or ridge around the outer edge. The lip keeps the coals from sliding off the lid and helps prevent ashes from falling into the food while removing the lid. Don’t get me wrong, the ridgeless ones can be used but it is difficult to keep coals on the lid and if you are not meticulous in cleaning the ash from the lid each and every time you open the oven, you will end up with ash in your food. The lip virtually eliminates the problem and the lid can be lifted, even fully loaded, with ash and coals with little difficulty.
Another feature to look at is the legs. The most common variety is one with three legs, although flat-bottomed ones and four legged ones can also be found. For outdoor cooking, legs are a necessity as they maintain the height of the oven above ground allowing air for the coals underneath. The flat bottomed ones can be set up on rocks (which are scarce as hen’s teeth in Florida) or up on steel tent pegs. If you figure in Murphy’s Law, the flat-bottom ovens are best left in the store or on the kitchen stove where their use was intended. I highly recommend three legs over four simply for the stability factor. It is much more stable with three legs sitting on rough ground than with four.
The last option to look at is a second handle attached to the lid or upper rim on the oven base. Some ovens are offered with a skillet type handle attached to the lid. This, in theory, is a good idea, but in reality they seem to be more in the way than an assistance. The handle does assist in using the lid up-side-down as a skillet or griddle. When using it as a lid, they get in the way of the bail handle and also misbalance the lid when lifting by the center hoop. They also tend to be in the way during storage and packing situations. Fixed handles on the oven base, with one exception, should be absolutely avoided. I believe the theory behind these handles was to make the oven easier to position in a deep fire pit. If you insist on considering the handle, take a couple of red bricks with you to the store and place them in the oven. Then give the oven a lift by the handle and you will see the uselessness in the handle. A loaded 12" oven can weigh 20 to 25 pounds, a real wrist breaker.
The one exception is a small tab sometimes offered which is about 1 to 1˝" deep and 2-3" wide on the upper lip of the oven. This tab makes pouring liquids from the oven very easy and its small size has never caused storage or packing problems for me.
Other valuable features to look for are:
1. A looped handle on the lid. This can be used to lift the lid during cooking.
2. Avoid a long handle that sticks out from the side. A better choice would be a Dutch oven with a heavy wire handle that is attached on either side of the oven. This handle will allow you to rotate the oven during cooking and aid in carrying. This handle can fold out of the way when not needed or be positioned during cooking for easy lift.