Some cooks love kitchen equipment and enjoy the many different options and features. Others prefer simplicity, using multiple pots and pans for different purposes. Stockpots and Dutch ovens can be used interchangeably for many recipes, and if your storage space is limited, you can choose a single option that serves the primary purpose of both pots. However, if you’re a food aficionado interested in the art of cooking as well as in collecting fine kitchenware, there are plenty of good reasons to own both.
A stockpot is a tall pot, like a soup pot, designed for making stock. A Dutch oven is a heavy braising pan that can be used either on the stovetop or in the oven.
What Is a Stockpot?
- Materials: Stockpots are made from stainless steel, copper, aluminum and other materials. Stainless steel heats evenly, and it has a reasonable price point; copper is expensive but holds heat beautifully; and aluminum is inexpensive, but it reacts with some ingredients. A stockpot can be light or heavy, made from thick or thin material. Thicker materials distribute and hold heat evenly. However, this function isn’t critical ‒ stockpots are usually used to cook thin liquids, which are unlikely to burn unless you boil all the liquid out of the pot.
- Size and shape: Stockpots are usually deep, so liquid has room to boil and circulate. The tall sides of the pot limit surface area, and limited surface area keeps the stock from boiling away. Stockpot sizes depend on how much stock you plan to cook at once. An 8-quart pot gives you plenty of room to cook an entire chicken.
- Purpose: Stockpots are designed for boiling stock, which usually contains large pieces of meat, bone and vegetables in a thin liquid. You can also use a stockpot as a soup pot or even a stew pot, but you’ll need to pay close attention to the heat level to prevent burning when working with thicker liquids.
- Lids: The lid of a stockpot can be made from glass or metal. Glass offers the advantage of being able to see inside without lifting the lid. This allows you to glimpse whether your liquid is boiling, so you can adjust the heat accordingly. A vented lid is an advantage because it allows some steam to gracefully escape rather than oozing out the side.
What Is a Dutch Oven?
- Materials: Dutch ovens are usually made from cast iron or cast iron with an enamel coating. These vessels tend to be quite heavy because they’re meant to hold heat for long, slow cooking. A Dutch oven is thick and substantial, which makes it satisfying to use but difficult to transport. Because Dutch ovens are sometimes placed in the oven, their handles are heatproof.
- Size and shape: A Dutch oven is a short, wide vessel, and, unlike a stockpot, in which you cook liquids at heat high enough to move and circulate the ingredients, a Dutch oven is designed to slowly cook stews on low heat, so a larger part of the contents stays in contact with the pan’s surface area. Your Dutch oven shouldn’t be much larger than the stews you plan to typically cook; the extra space in the pot can make your stew evaporate prematurely. Some Dutch ovens are oblong rather than round. This shape works well for oven cooking, but it doesn’t fit gracefully on a burner.
- Purpose: Dutch ovens are made for thick stews that cook for hours on low heat. You can braise a stew in a Dutch oven on the stovetop, or you can put it in the oven after you sear your meats and bring your stew to a boiling point on the stovetop. If you don’t have a stockpot, you can cook a soup or stock in a large Dutch oven. Because they’re designed to go in the oven, you can even use them for baking. They work especially well for cornbread; their ability to hold heat yields a wonderfully crispy exterior.
- Lids: Like its handles, the lid of a Dutch oven should be heatproof enough to survive oven temperatures. Like the pot itself, the lid should be heavy. Unlike the lid of a stockpot, however, it doesn’t need a hole for venting; you’ll want to keep in as much steam as possible, so your stew won’t boil out, losing precious liquid and burning the pot.
You can make chicken stock with either a raw or roasted chicken: Raw chicken is considerably less work, but roasted chicken provides better depth of flavor. To make stock with raw chicken, start with enough water to fully immerse the chicken. Add salt, pepper, onion and, if desired, hearty herbs such as parsley, rosemary and thyme. Boil the mixture until the chicken is cooked through, about 1 to 2 hours. Remove the chicken and take the meat off the bones, and use the meat either in your soup or in another recipe.
To make chicken stock using a roasted chicken, first season the skin of the chicken with salt or work a mixture of garlic and salt and a fat, such as butter, under the skin. Roast the chicken at 400 degrees Fahrenheit for about an hour until the meat is fully cooked. Remove the meat from the bones and then boil the bones in enough water to cover them, along with salt, pepper and herbs and hearty root vegetables, if desired. Strain and use in soup or as a flavor base in other recipes.
To make a vegetarian stock, boil an assortment of flavorful root vegetables such as onions, leeks, carrots, potatoes, celery root and parsnips. Season with salt and pepper, as well as hearty herbs such as parsley, thyme and bay leaf. Bring the mixture to a boil and cook on medium-low heat for about an hour; then strain it and use it in soup or other recipes.
Dutch Oven Recipes
Dutch oven recipes rely on long, slow cooking to maximize flavor and stew the ingredients until they are extremely tender. Beef stew and pot roast are classic Dutch oven recipes, with variations from many cultures and cuisines around the globe. Beef stew is a time-tested way to make an exemplary dish from a tough, inexpensive cut of meat such as chuck roast. Start by searing the meat to seal in the juices by browning it on high heat using a heat-tolerant oil such as peanut, safflower or even butter.
Add salt, savory herbs and slow-cooking root vegetables such as carrots and potatoes. Also add some stock or water as well as wine or tomato to provide depth of flavor. Bring the mixture to a boil; then lower the heat to a simmer and cook, covered, either on the stovetop or in the oven until the meat is soft enough to break apart with a fork, which may take 3 or 4 hours.
To make a vegetarian stew in a Dutch oven, saute onion and garlic, and then add vegetables such as potatoes, carrots and parsnips, which hold up to long, slow cooking. Season with herbs and spices that complement the rest of your meal, and then add flavorful liquid such as crushed tomato, stock, wine or a combination of these ingredients. Add fully cooked beans as well, and simmer, covered, on the stovetop or in the oven until the vegetables are tender and the liquid is flavorful.
Deciding Which to Buy
If you have a limited amount of both cash and space, you may have to choose between a stockpot and a Dutch oven. Your decision depends on the type of cooking you’re most likely to do and on your budget. A high-quality Dutch oven is usually more expensive than a high-quality stockpot, unless it’s a copper stockpot. Also, you can buy a cast-iron Dutch oven relatively inexpensively and, treated well, it will last virtually forever.
You can use the two vessels interchangeably, but you’ll sacrifice some utility and ease in cooking if you use them for recipes for which they weren’t specifically intended. For example, you can cook soup in a Dutch oven, but since the pot holds less, more of the broth will boil away because of the extra surface area relative to volume. You can also cook stew in a stockpot, but you’ll have to regulate the heat carefully to prevent burning; you won’t have the option of putting it in the oven because the pot is too tall. Also, its height relative to its surface area makes it challenging to build up the amount of heat that’s ideal for a long, slow braise.
You can clean a stockpot easily with a basic sponge, and you’ll rarely need to actually scrub it because stocks are thin liquids that don’t cake or burn on pot surfaces. If your stock is rich in fat, you may need plenty of soap to clean your pot, but you won’t need much elbow grease. Copper stockpots take some special handling, though. A combination of salt and vinegar easily cleans away food without oxidizing the surface or eating away at the coating.
To clean a cast-iron Dutch oven, first remove as much buildup as you can using paper towels or a plastic spatula or scrubby without running water on the surface of the pan. Next, run water to rinse the surface. Dry the surface thoroughly using a paper towel or dishcloth. Finally, season the pan by heating it gently and rubbing a bit of oil into its surface.
To clean a Dutch oven with an enamel surface, scrub carefully using a gentle abrasive, such as baking soda or scouring powder. Avoid using any kind of metal scrubber or utensil because they are likely to scratch the enamel surface. Also be careful that other pots or utensils in the sink don’t chip the enamel surface.
Stockpots work well to cook thin soups such as chicken soup. You can also use them for thicker soups such as lentil or tomato, although you’ll need to pay close attention to the heat. Stockpots also work well for cooking dried beans because beans need plenty of liquid to cook properly. In addition, you can use a stockpot to parboil potatoes before roasting them or to boil long-cooking vegetables such as beets.
You can use a Dutch oven for a stir-fry because its thick surface lends itself well to cooking at high heat. Dutch ovens are also excellent vessels for deep frying, especially if they’re made from cast iron. The thickness of the material and its ability to hold heat keeps oil at a reasonably consistent temperature, and you won’t lose temperature easily as you add the ingredients you’re frying.
Devra Gartenstein is a self-taught professional cook who has authored two cookbooks: "The Accidental Vegan", and "Local Bounty: Seasonal Vegan Recipes". She founded Patty Pan Cooperative, Seattle's oldest farmers market concession, and teaches regular cooking classes.