January 27, 2021 5 min read

A History of the Dutch Oven

Contributed By Beatriz Garcia at Clan Kitchen

The traditional Dutch oven bears a storied, sometimes confusing, past that stretches back over three centuries. The manifold confusion surrounding the Dutch oven’s origin, as well as the successive cooking vessels called by the same name, can easily trip up a Michelin-starred chef. Suffice it to say that I, your humble narrator, harbored a few misconceptions about this particular piece of kitchenware, as well. When I first started digging into the history of the Dutch oven, I envisioned the woman from Johannes Vermeer’s painting, The Milkmaid. And, to my surprise, when I went back to view this masterpiece, I noticed that she does, indeed, appear to be pouring milk into a ceramic Dutch oven. Of course, the Dutch never called it that, and the term wouldn’t enter the English lexicon until 40 years later. However, the experts at Essential Vermeer have identified it as such. You see, what we know as the Dutch oven was invented by an English brassworks owner, Abraham Darby, in the early 1700s. And that’s where the story of the English Dutch oven begins.

The Dutch Dutch Oven

But first, let us talk a little bit more about the Dutch Dutch oven, or braadpan, also called a sudderpan. Based on many painted depictions by the Dutch masters, Holland’s citizens used heat-sealed earthenware long before Darby improved upon it. In the case of The Milkmaid (c. 1657-1661), art historian Harry Rand suggests that Vermeer has captured the maid in the act of making bread pudding. Dutch ovens were, and still are, amazing when it comes to baking bread. In truth, Hollanders probably used some form of Dutch oven for centuries. Abraham Darby only came around decades after the completion of Vermeer’s work, at a time when the English aristocracy desired brass kitchenware. Only later would the English and the Dutch enjoy the benefits of an enameled steel braadpan, which today serves the sole purpose of roasting meat or simmering an occasional stew.

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The English Dutch Oven

Abraham Darby had an urgent question on his mind. As co-owner of the Brass Works Company of Bristol, he needed to figure out how his competitors in Holland managed to create brass vessels cheaper than anywhere else in Europe. According to the late historian William Rosen, Darby set out to learn the secrets of Dutch brass. While in Holland, Darby noted the various ways in which the Dutch worked with brass. What grabbed his attention the most was a new process of casting brass in sand rather than the traditional materials, resulting in a much more polished end product. And, armed with his new knowledge, Darby returned home to create a new brassworks business. Alas, the cost of materials and labor for creating brass vessels proved too high and the profit margins too low. So, good ol’ industrious Abe Darby got to thinking about how to make kitchenware affordable enough to bring the poor into the market for home goods. His hypothesis resulted in several experiments using the Dutch casting process with iron instead of brass. Initially, these attempts failed. I don’t know why Abraham Darby thought he could use the same process for a different metal. But, according to John Percy, a contemporary of Darby, success was eventually achieved over time and with a little help from his friends. Thus, the first-ever so-called “Dutch oven” came into the world in cast-iron form. And, it would become the main all-purpose cookware for the next two centuries.

The American Dutch Oven

If you’re reading this, then you probably already know what British colonists in the New World did once they got their hands on a Dutch oven. They improved it. One could say that America’s obsession with building a better mousetrap started even before the revolution and the signing of the Constitution. As described in John G. Ragsdale’s Dutch Ovens Chronicled, the colonists in America improved the original Dutch oven in several ways. First, they added three legs so the oven wouldn’t have to hang above or sit directly on the coals. Then, they made the oven a tad more shallow. And finally, the lid of the Dutch oven became flatter and bore ridges so that users could place coals on top to speed up the cooking process without the coals falling all over the place. From there, the popularity of the Dutch oven exploded in America, and the modest cooking vessel would hold a central place in most kitchens until the early 1900s. Americans used the Dutch ovens for cooking everything. If something needed to be fried, roasted, boiled, or baked, the Dutch oven could do the job. You’ll hear tales about our Founding Fathers and their mothers using and improving upon the Dutch oven. Other stories include American pioneers traveling westward, but not without their trusty, utilitarian cookware. And, some of the brave American explorers who blazed trails towards the Pacific Ocean almost certainly gathered around a Dutch oven at the center of their camps. Even those who escaped the Dust Bowl during the Great Depression hung their ovens on the outside of their wagons. It wasn’t until the mid-1900s that Dutch ovens lost popularity, except among chefs and those who truly love to experiment with different cooking techniques.

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The Global Dutch Oven

As world trade brought countries closer together in the late 1900s, a picture began to emerge of the Dutch oven’s expansion into kitchens on all seven continents, even Antarctica. Some of these Dutch oven variants directly descended from Abraham Darby’s creation. Others were independently invented. But, they all served the same purpose as the Swiss Army knife of cooking. They also redefined what a Dutch oven is. Once such descendent of the original Dutch oven comes in the form of a South African potjie. During Holland’s Great Trek in the mid-1800s, scores of Dutch settlers brought the tradition of Dutch oven cooking with them. Over time, the Dutch braadpan evolved into the potjie. As Stan Englebrecht mentions in his work, African Salad: A Portrait of South Africans at Home, the potjie differs from traditional Dutch ovens. It has a round bottom unsuitable for stove cooking. It also includes a handle from which it can be hung over a campfire. Another Dutch oven variant can be found in Australia, where campers still use what they call Bedourie camp ovens or, more simply, camp ovens. Camp ovens look and function like traditional Dutch ovens. You can put hot coals on the lids and stack camp ovens to conserve some of the heat or hang them over a fire by using their bail handles. Either way, you’ll still see them used if you spend any time in the wilderness of the Outback.

The Future of the Dutch Oven

As you may have discerned by now, “Dutch oven” represents a rather loose term. Indeed, according to the authors at Researching Food History, many different cooking vessels bear the name but look nothing like the ceramic pot in Vermeer’s The Milkmaid or Abraham Darby’s crowning achievement. Examples include the tin kitchen, which served as a self-contained oven that utilized the reflective power of metal to redirect heat towards the food, and the brick Dutch oven, which featured a door that allowed cooks to insert bread for baking. Whether you consider yourself a Dutch oven purist or not, what is certain is that the rest of the Dutch oven’s history has yet to be written. Until then, keep your coals hot and your Dutch oven sealed.

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