If you like to cook and you plan to cook more while remaining safer at home this fall and winter, you might want to invest in a sheet pan and an enameled cast iron Dutch oven. If you already have these, let me know in the comments what you like about them and how you use them!
The nice thing about these two kitchen tools is that they make eating healthfully easier and more delicious. Eating a healthful diet is one way to build your immunity to viruses that cause illnesses, including the flu and Covid-19.
Sheet pans for quick dinners and easy clean-ups
I first used a sheet pan when I had a Hello Fresh subscription. I learned that using a sheet pan at high heat (like 450 F) makes quick dinners a breeze and also simplifies cooking clean-up. And for me, the sheet pan makes vegetables (which I should eat more) more palatable. This is because roasting vegetables (450 oven, about 20 minutes) caramelizes them, making them tastier. Potato wedges cooked on a sheet pan, for example, are almost as tasty as French fries. And I will happily eat butternut squash cubes and brussel sprouts that have been roasted on a sheet pan.
A sheet pan is heavier than a cookie sheet and has a raised rim. Those qualities help evenly roast chicken breasts, mini meatloaves, and cod or salmon filets, while keeping juices in the pan.
If you buy one, pick up a couple of rolls of parchment paper. You’ll use the parchment paper to line your sheet pan. Food doesn’t stick to the parchment paper because you lightly coat or brush the food with oil before cooking. Parchment paper keeps food from burning and also keeps the pan clean.
Dutch ovens for slow-simmered comfort food
If you’ve seen expensive Creuset pots, then you know what an enameled, cast-iron Dutch oven looks like. Dutch ovens have been around since 1707. They were invented by an Englishman, who invented cast iron cookware as an economical alternative to brass. They are called Dutch ovens because he adapted the Dutch method of metal casting to his new process.
Dutch ovens come in a variety of sizes, the standard being about 5.5 quarts. I’ve wanted one but the barrier for me has been price. Creuset ones are $250 or more. Lodge ones are much less expensive but not in my budget this year.
So, I was very happy when I found this Tramontina 6.5 quart Dutch on sale for $40 (plus free shipping from Walmart). If you want a Dutch oven, I think that’s about as low as they go. And if you care for it well, reputedly a Dutch oven can last for decades.
(Note: because they do last for decades, if you find one in good condition for a good price at a thrift store or yard sale, snap it up! You can also bid for Le Creuset Dutch ovens at bargain prices on ShopGoodwill.com. Many will be stained (Dutch ovens are just prone to staining periodically) but that may be fixable with Bartender’s Friend or other gentle cleaning methods.
And why would you want an enameled, cast-iron Dutch oven, do you ask? Well, many food writers say they make food taste better. The cast iron cooks food evenly and the enamel finish makes the pot easy to clean. They are good for browning meats and even making popcorn.
But mostly, they are used to cook comfort food slowly to tender and flavorful goodness. Because you cook the food slowly in the pot, you can use less expensive ingredients. For example, you can cook a pot of dried black beans in a Dutch oven for a fraction of the cost of canned black beans. Meat-eaters can stretch their family meal budgets with less expensive cuts of meat for dishes like Sauerbraten, which has to be cooked a long time.
The pandemic is a good time to try cooking with a Dutch oven, since you may be at home, working or watching children, and so, you can be present for the extended time this type of cooking requires. But, once you are past the initial preparation (which I admit is more extensive than say, going to Wendy’s :), you don’t need to really tend the pot. So, you can hace 2 to 4 hours to get something else done while your one-pot meal cooks. For instance, classic beef daube Provencale simmers for up to four hours (tip: my French friend used to add a tiny bit of orange zest to her recipe). That kind of slow cooking, hands-off food preparation was the idea behind the Crock Pot but I don’t think the results are similar at all. I gave my Crock Pot away because I wasn’t happy with it.
Use a Dutch oven on the stove top to roast a whole chicken or make bone broth, vegetarian chili, beef stew, chicken soup, and saucy dishes like coq au vin, beef stroganoff, gumbo, chicken cacciatore, cassoulet, boeuf bourginon, braised beef short ribs and Moroccan chicken with lemons and olives. Hungry yet?
If you screw the top knob off (you can leave it on, if its metal), they are oven-safe to bake sourdough bread. You can also cook dried beans without soaking in a Dutch oven…inside your oven.
Dutch ovens need a little loving care. Although they are easy to clean, they are heavy. This one I mentioned above weighs 16 pounds. You may be tempted to drag it across a stove top, but don’t scratch the finish, pick it up instead.
This isn’t a tool for making boiled pasta. You should use a regular big pot to boil water for spaghetti as these ovens aren’t intended for high heat or dramatic temperature changes. Only use low or medium heat. You also need to add the oil or liquid to a cold pot, before turning on the heat. If you heat up the empty pot first, you can crack the enamel.
Don’t put the cold pot in a hot oven and unscrew the lid knob (unless it’s metal) before you put it in the oven. Conversely, don’t put a hot pot in cool water to clean it. Let it cool first and use a nylon scrubber, not a metal one.
Don’t use metal spoons either, which can scratch the enamel.
Although the pots are seasoned, you still have to hand wash and dry them carefully, and wipe a little vegetable oil on any cast iron parts (like the rim) that are not enameled.
Every so often, remove stains, so they don’t build up over time.
So, what do you think? Will you go with fast, easy sheet pan dinners? Or slow-cooked Dutch oven meals this fall?