To get a true appreciation of the role that metal casting played in the development of what we know today as the cast iron Dutch oven, an early timeline:
- 3200 B.C. A copper frog, the oldest known casting in existence, is cast in Mesopotamia.
- 2000 B.C. Iron is discovered.
- 800-700 B.C. First Chinese production of cast iron.
- 645 B.C. Earliest known sand molding (Chinese).
- 233 B.C. Cast iron plowshares are poured in China.
- 500 A.D. Cast crucible steel is first produced in India, but the process is lost until 1750 when Benjamin Huntsman reinvents it in England.
John Ragsdale, in his book “Dutch Ovens Chronicled, Their Use in the United States”, indicates that cast metal pots have been in use since the seventh century. The Dutch Oven of today has evolved over the years as various manufacturers made refinements and improvements over previous version of cast metal pots.
Abraham Darby (1678-1717) transformed England’s iron industry and helped launch the industrial revolution. After studying casting methods in the Netherlands, Quaker Abraham Darby perfected the dry sand-casting of hollow iron cooking vessels. Darby was issued a Royal Patent in 1707 by Queen Anne, who authorized the exclusive right to manufacture sand-casted iron cooking pots for a period of 14 years. Darby opened the Bristol Iron Company in Coalbrookdale, England, where he also invented a process that used coke (made from coal) to produce iron, instead of charcoal, which was deforesting the English countryside.
While colonists brought their cast iron cooking pots with them to North America, using them for cooking and for trade, iron works were established and cast iron cooking pots were also made using local resources. The first iron pot cast in Colonial America was at the Saugus Iron Works in Massachusetts, which began operation in 1645. Cast iron cooking pots became prized possessions that were passed down through generations. For example, Martha Washington bequeathed her iron pots individually in her will.
Dutch ovens as we know them today were developed in the early eighteenth century. They became standard cooking and baking vessels for early cooks on home hearths and fire sites. The size, sturdy cast-iron construction, and dependable heating made them a basic necessity which could be carried to cabins, campfires, wagon trains, and camping trails.
The famous patriot Paul Revere is credited with designing the flanged lid on a Dutch Oven to retain the coals and prevent ashes from falling into the pot while the lid is lifted.
In their Corps of Discovery from 1804-1806, the Lewis and Clark Expedition used cast iron Dutch Ovens. Their Dutch Ovens were one of the few pieces of equipment that made the entire voyage and returned with them. Because of their durability and ease of use over outdoor fires, cast iron Dutch Ovens became an integral part of the settlement of the American West.
The origins of the name “Dutch Oven” is subject to debate. Is it because of Abraham Darby, who patented the method of casting pots based on techniques he learned in Holland? It has been suggested that the name “Dutch Oven” may have derived from the original Dutch process for casting metal pots brought back to England by Darby. Others have suggested that early Dutch traders or salesmen peddling cast iron pots may have given rise to the name “Dutch oven”. Still others believe that the name came from German-speaking “Pennsylvania Dutch” (Deutsch) settlers who used similar cast iron pots or kettles.
For the purpose of describing the pot we use outdoors, Dutch Oven (or camp oven) refers to a cast iron pot or kettle with a flat bottom having three legs to hold the oven above the coals, flat sides and a flat, lid with a lip around the outer edge for holding coals in such a way as to not let them slide off the lid. These ovens have a steel bail handle attached to “ears” on each side of the oven near the top for carrying.
Other ovens may also be called a “Dutch Oven” such as cast aluminum Dutch Ovens and cast iron pots or kettles with rounded lids, flat bottoms and no legs like those that would be typically be used in a conventional kitchen. Dutch Ovens with legs an be used indoors in an oven. It works just fine.
In his 1776 book, “The Wealth of Nations”, Adam Smith, proposed that the actual wealth of the nation was not its gold but in its manufacture of pots and pans. Cast iron cookware was highly valued in the 18th century.
While there have been many manufacturers of Dutch Ovens in the U.S., Lodge remains the only U.S. manufacturer of camp-style Dutch Ovens today. Some manufactures that have become the target of collectors are Griswold and Warner. There are others whose names that have been lost and or nearly lost without some research.
No matter what you call it or what shape it is cast to or how old a black pot, a well prepared meal from a Dutch Oven has a delicious flavor unmatched by most other cookware.
“Dutch Ovens Chronicled, Their Use in the United States” by John G. Ragsdale, published by the University of Arkansas Press.
“History of Metal Casting, a Brief Timeline” by Metal Technologies, available online at http://www.metal-technologies.com/docs/default-source/education/historyofmetalcasting.pdf?sfvrsn=8