The Dutch oven. Yes, I do mean that versatile and useful cast iron cooking vessel which many of us have in our kitchens, even today. People have been cooking in Dutch ovens for more than three centuries. The Dutch oven had been in use for a hundred years by the beginning of the English Regency. However, there is rather more to cooking with a Dutch oven than many people in modern times realize. But it was common knowledge to those who lived during the Regency.
Some descriptive details of the durable and dependable Dutch oven …
There are some sources which claim the Pilgrims brought the Dutch oven to America on the Mayflower. Though this pious religious sect did come to the Plymouth Colony by way of Holland, they came in 1620, well over fifty years before the development of the Dutch oven. But the Dutch oven does have its origins in the Netherlands. The Dutch were very skillful in the production of cast iron cooking pots, making their molds from dry sand. This process resulted in finished pots which were quite strong, but thinner and had significantly smoother surfaces than the pots available elsewhere in Europe. By the later part of the seventeenth century, many of these pots were imported into England. In the early eighteenth century, Abraham Darby, a Quaker iron founder from Bristol, imported some Dutch workmen to Bristol, and a few years later went to Holland himself to see how the Dutch made their superior cast iron cookware. Soon he was manufacturing a covered cooking vessel using a casting process which he had patented, based on what he had learned from the Dutch. These cast iron cooking pots were known as "Dutch" ovens. Records indicate they were first made in 1710, making this year the tricentennial of the Dutch oven.
The classic cast iron Dutch oven came in a variety of sizes. But they all shared certain common characteristics. In addition to being made of cast iron, they had three iron feet which were two to three inches long and which were cast as part of the body. A wire semi-circular or bail handle was attached to the upper rim of the body of the vessel. This handle was attached by loops so that it could be dropped to one side so as not to interfere with the removal or replacement of the lid. Dutch ovens had a fairly tight fitting lid which was often slightly domed. The lid had a raised outer edge which was typically about a half to three-quarters of an inch high, with a small open iron handle.
There were many ways to cook with a Dutch oven. The pot could be suspended over a fire by the bail handle to be used for boiling or stewing meat or vegetables. But more commonly, it would be used as we use an oven today, for roasting and baking. If the Dutch oven was used in this way, the cooking would be done on the open hearth, away from the main fire. Typically, the hearth in kitchen fireplaces of the past extended well beyond the mouth of the opening for the fire. This hearth was most commonly constructed of brick, though some were made of stone. But most certainly, they were not made of wood or any other flammable material, as a great deal of cooking was done on this hearth surface area. What many people do not know today is that our fore-mothers then covered this hearth area with a fine clean sand. This sand would protect the hearth brick or stone from direct contact with the coals which would be laid upon it for open hearth cooking, thus keeping the hearth brick or stone from cracking under the intense localized heat. The sand would also absorb any meat drippings or other cooking spills as meals were prepared. Most housewives would sweep out the old sand about once a week, replacing it with a fresh layer of clean sand, ready for another week’s cooking.
When used for roasting or baking, the Dutch oven would have to be pre-heated, though not quite in the same way that we pre-heat our modern ovens. To prepare a Dutch oven for baking, coals would be scooped up from the fire and placed on the fine sand which covered the hearth. The Dutch oven would be placed on these coals, its legs keeping the bottom of the oven from direct contact with them. It was very important that the hot coals not come into direct contact with the bottom of the Dutch oven, or the contents would be more likely to burn than to bake. A good cook was very careful to be sure the bottom of the Dutch oven was well above the coals. Then the lid would be placed on the Dutch oven and more coals would be placed on the lid. The raised edge around the circumference of the lid would prevent the coals from falling off. The slightly domed lid of most Dutch ovens would prevent these upper coals from coming too close to the contents inside the oven. Thus, this cast iron oven would be sandwiched between two layers of coals and would be left to heat. While the oven was heating, the bread, biscuits, cake or pie which was to be baked would be prepared. When the oven was sufficiently heated, a pair of tongs, or even a poker, would be used to grasp the small open handle on the lid to carefully raise it, along with the hot coals it carried and set it aside. The item to be baked would be placed in the oven and the lid with its covering of coals replaced. A similar pre-heating procedure would be followed if the Dutch oven was to be used for roasting meats or vegetables, though it might not be left to "pre-heat" quite so long as it would be for baking, since the temperature at which the food to be roasted should be added did not need to be so precise as for baking. Experienced cooks would know when their Dutch oven was sufficiently pre-heated for their purpose.
Dutch ovens were also used rather like we use our slow cookers today. In that case, the coals would be spread on the hearth and the Dutch oven would be set over them. But rather than waiting for it to pre-heat, the prepared soup or stew ingredients would all be added immediately, the lid would be set on and covered with coals. This was typically done early in the day, and as the coals burned down, they would be replenished until it came time to serve the slow-cooked contents of the Dutch oven. Once the soup or stew was finished cooking, just a few coals might be left beneath and on the lid of the Dutch oven to keep the contents hot for late-comers.
Many kitchens in the past were equipped with more than one Dutch oven, and these multiple ovens might all be used in the preparation of a single meal. These various Dutch ovens might be all the same size, or in several different sizes. Surprisingly, rather than spread across the hearth, these multiple Dutch ovens would be stacked one on top of the other to cook the meal. For example, if the menu for the evening meal was venison stew, biscuits and an apple pie, all could be prepared in the Dutch ovens. First, the stew would be set to cooking in the morning, in the largest Dutch oven. Later in the day, a second Dutch oven, either the same size or slightly smaller, would be set on top of the Dutch oven in which the stew was cooking. The feet on this second Dutch oven would stand in the coals on the lid of the first Dutch oven. More coals would be placed on its lid so that it could pre-heat while the cook prepared the apple pie. The apple pie would go into this second Dutch oven to bake. Still later in the day, the cook would stack a third Dutch oven on the second one. Coals would be placed on the lid of this third Dutch oven to pre-heat it before the biscuits for the meal were placed inside it to bake. There are indications in historical documents that Dutch ovens might be stacked four or even five high in the course of cooking a large meal. Stacking of Dutch ovens while cooking had to be done carefully and was never really a safe practice, but our ancestors were nowhere near as safety-conscious as we are today. I feel strongly obliged to issue a warning to anyone reading this: Please do NOT to do this at home!
By the beginning of the Regency, Dutch oven cooking would not have been a common practice in the homes of the aristocracy or the wealthy gentry, particularly those in London and other large cities. In most cases, these homes would have been equipped with more modern cooking equipment and Dutch ovens would have been considered rather old-fashioned. Dutch ovens were more likely to be used in country homes, even those of the nobility, where they had been used for many generations, and some traditional cooks would have been unwilling to give them up in favor of those "new-fangled" cooking appliances. Dutch ovens would most often have been used by those who lived in rural areas, or who were less affluent, as they would likely have had no other means of baking or roasting their food. Dutch ovens were widely used in the former American colonies at this time, and were also used by country folk across the Continent. They would have been an important and versatile cooking vessel for both Wellington’s and Napoleon’s troops as they campaigned throughout Europe. There are records that some of Wellington’s troops occasionally used Dutch ovens to melt and re-make their bullets when munitions supplies were short, though the cook certainly rang a peal over them if they were caught. And rightly so, as their bullets were made of lead.
The next time you pull out your Dutch oven to prepare a meal, remember that it has a long and storied history which stretches across three centuries, that it was already a hundred years old when the Regency opened. Though it may not have been widely used by the wealthy and aristocratic during the Regency, it was still regularly used in country kitchens across England, as well as by the less affluent in both rural and city settings. As you set your meal to cook in your modern Dutch oven or slow-cooker, remember that you are connected to that tradition of cooking, though you may also give thanks that your cookware is significantly easier and safer to use than its Regency counterpart.