If you’re looking to really step up your sourdough bread baking results then a Dutch oven is probably the best investment you can make. I hesitated for a long time before I bought mine as it’s not the cheapest of items. But once I purchased and used one, it made the BIGGEST difference to my bread results than any of the other tweaks I had previously made.
The best Dutch oven for Sourdough bread will have the following features:
- Heavy base and lid
- Solid cast iron, ideally including the handles so it can handle the highest heat
- Fit the shape and size of your loaf
- Well crafted seal between the lid and base so as not to let any heat and/or steam escape
The Dutch oven that I first bought was the Lodge 5 qt (here’s a link to the one I bought from Amazon). At the time, I bought it because it was such good value for money for a Dutch oven, and it DEFINITELY DELIVERED in terms of bread results! But it’s not the only Dutch oven out there, and it’s not always the right one for everyone. Here’s a guide to buying the right Dutch oven, depending on what kind of sourdough you like to bake, along with my top picks.
UPDATE: I have since purchased and fallen in love with the challenger bread pan instead of a regular Dutch oven. You can check out my article about it here. However, keep reading if you’re interested in a regular Dutch oven.
Why Use a Dutch Oven for Sourdough Bread?
Sourdough bread uses natural wildly caught yeasts to give it rise. Because these yeasts are not nearly as strong as commercial yeast, sourdough bread needs all the help it can get to give it the rise it needs. Baking sourdough bread in a Dutch oven will give your sourdough:
- The best oven spring (rise in the oven)
- The best crust (thin and crispy)
- The best crumb (open holes and airy texture)
that it can possibly achieve in a home oven. In short, baking sourdough bread inside a good quality Dutch oven will give you similar results to one that has been cooked in a professional bakers oven. It provides the IDEAL baking environment:
“An enclosed, sealed, consistently hot environment, where the bread can rise for longer and produce a crust that is thin and crispy, with an interior that is open and aerated”
There are a few important factors to bear in mind when choosing which Dutch oven will perform best for your sourdough bread. Here’s a break down of what to consider before making your decision.
If you’d like to learn how to master sourdough bread, check out my online course.
Choosing the Size and Shape of Dutch Oven
Probably one of the FIRST things you need to think about, is the size and shape of Dutch oven you need. Ask yourself the following questions…
- What kind of loaf size do you usually make? (in volume)
- What are the rim dimensions of your proofing basket/banneton?
The Size of your Loaf
If you’ve never baked sourdough bread in a Dutch oven before, be prepared for how much larger it grows when baked! Your Dutch oven of choice has to be big enough for the extra increase in size of your loaf. Generally speaking, if you are making a white sourdough loaf, buy a Dutch oven that is at least 4 times its volume.
For example, if you are making a 1kg loaf (flour + water + sourdough starter = 1kg in total), you will need a Dutch oven that is at least 4qt (or 4 litres) in volume. Go for a larger size if your loaves are bigger than this. But beware, you want a tall Dutch oven, NOT a shallow one, as you need your bread to rise upwards, not outwards. (recommendations below)
The Shape of the Dutch Oven should match the Shape of your Loaf
Your proofing basket/banneton should fit inside the base of the Dutch oven, with a little room to expand outwards (ideally around 1 inch of extra space). Be sure to purchase an oval Dutch oven if you make batards, or a round Dutch oven if you make boules. Alternatively, buy the Dutch oven first, and then look for a proofing basket to fit the size that you bought!
So, should you just go for the tallest and largest Dutch oven you can find?
If you bake a tiny loaf in a huge Dutch oven, you will probably hinder its growth a little. The steam will not stay close enough to the bread as there is too much empty space. However, go too small and you risk restricting its growth. If you’re not sure what size to go with, it is always better to go for a larger size than a smaller one, as using a large one will still give you good results for a small loaf, but getting one that’s too small will give you disastrous results!
As mentioned earlier, the ideal size and shape of Dutch oven would be about an inch or so bigger than your proofing basket when you put it into the base. This way, there is enough room for natural growth outwards, but then it is forced to grow upwards, enhancing the shape and structure of your loaf. The height should be taller rather than shorter, so as not to obstruct the bread’s height.
TIP: If you make different sized loaves, don’t bother buying seperate Dutch ovens for each. It is better to just go for a larger sized one that will fit all of your loaf sizes. That way you are less restricted to the kind of bread you make.
Enamel Coated vs Bare Cast Iron Dutch ovens
There are two types of Dutch oven on the market:
- enamel coated
- bare/classic cast iron
Enamel Coated Dutch Ovens
These are made of solid cast iron, but in addition, have an enamel coating bonded onto its surface. This enamel provides a non-stick surface, which means there is no need to season it.
Suitable for indoor use only, enamel offers a low maintenance Dutch oven, but the disadvantage is that some enamel coatings have a maximum heat of lower than what is ideal bread baking temperature. Or they tend to have handles that are NOT made of cast iron, which are not suitable for higher temperatures. Do remember to check the maximum heat of an enamel coated Dutch oven before you buy, because sourdough bread should be baked in the hottest temperature that your oven can take.
Another drawback, is that you cannot preheat this type of Dutch oven while it is empty, as it can cause the enamel to crack. This is something that many bakers like to do before putting their loaf in, so if you use the preheating method, then a bare cast iron Dutch oven may be a better choice for you.
Classic Cast Iron Dutch Ovens
These are made of nothing but bare, solid cast iron. Needless to say, they are extremely hard wearing and robust. They will last beyond a lifetime if looked after properly. These need to be seasoned regularly for optimal performance, so they are not quite as low maintenance as the enamel ones. But the upside is that they can take an extremely high amount of heat without any side effects, and can be used indoors or outdoors on open fires.
Which one is Best for Sourdough Bread?
Here is a summary of the pros and cons of each type of Dutch oven:
|Enamel Coated||Classic Cast Iron|
|Low maintenance non stick||Requires regular seasoning|
|Has a temperature limit||Can take maximum temperatures|
|Enamel may wear down eventually||Very long lasting|
|Indoor use only||Indoor and outdoor use|
|Not suitable for preheating dry||Can be preheated|
The most important question to ask yourself is, do you want to preheat your Dutch oven before you place your bread in it? (I don’t preheat mine and results are still excellent). If you preheat, then it is better to go for a bare cast iron Dutch oven, because an enamel one is not suited to be preheated dry. If you don’t preheat, then the enamel Dutch ovens are a better choice due to their low maintenance.
The Importance of Good Craftmanship When using a Dutch oven for Sourdough Bread
It’s really important to buy a Dutch oven that is well crafted, especially when using it for bread. A well crafted Dutch oven will mean the seal is perfect when you put the lid on the base. I can say from experience, that cheaper brands will not perfectly fit around the lid, and there will be gaps where steam can escape, giving you less than perfect results.
The inexpensive brands will also have enamel that wears out all too quickly, which can mean that rust develops in between the cracks of the enamel. If you always use baking parchment for your bread however, (and don’t use your Dutch oven for anything except bread), this won’t really pose a problem, as very little wear and tear is placed on the enamel when using baking parchment.
The other problem with cheaper Dutch ovens, is that the handles don’t withstand high heat! When it comes to bread, high heat is paramount, so be aware of the temperature recommendations of your Dutch oven. It may be a good idea to remove the handles and place aluminium foil into the holes, so that you can increase the temperature of your oven to a higher setting for your bread.
Here are the brands that I have found to make well executed Dutch ovens for bread in my experience.
- Le Creuset
Of course there are other brands out there, but these are the ones I have had experience with.
The drawbacks of enamel coated Dutch ovens are somewhat reduced by buying from top brands like Le Creuset. They have lifetime quality enamel, and their premium range have handles that can withstand the highest heat your oven can take. So all in all, if you want an enamel coated one, Le Creuset is your best bet. (recommendations below)
Other brands of enamel based Dutch ovens tend to have handles that can only be heated to around 450F(230C). Most domestic ovens will go higher than that, and bread needs as high a heat as possible for a great result.
Lodge tend to have solid quality classic cast iron products at a very reasonable price, which function really well for sourdough bread baking.
My List of Recommended Dutch Ovens for Sourdough Bread:
Here’s my list of top picks in different categories. They all have perfect seals, and are large enough and tall enough to take a variety of loaf sizes whilst still giving good height to your bread (contains affiliate links).
Best Enamel Coated Dutch oven for Batards
This is an 8 qt enamel coated Le Creuset Dutch oven (click here to check it out at Amazon.com). A top quality Dutch oven suitable for batard shaped breads of up to 2kg weight, with good height for your bread to rise well (also available in different sizes).This particular one can withstand heats of up to 500F (260C), including the handles! This is more than the maximum temperature of most home ovens, so it’s an excellent choice for someone who doesn’t want the hassle of seasoning and is after a low maintenance Dutch oven that is dishwasher safe, and has a lifetime guarantee.
Best Enamel Coated Dutch Oven for Boules
This is a 7 1/4 qt round shaped Dutch oven (also available in a range of sizes), ideal for boules up to 2kg in weight (check it out here at Amazon). Similar to the previous one, this Dutch oven can also take temperatures of up to 500F (260C), so is very well suited for making sourdough bread. An excellent choice for low maintenance bread baking, it comes with a lifetime guarantee and is dishwasher safe.
Best Classic Cast Iron Dutch Oven for Batards
This Dutch oven is an excellent choice for sourdough batards, and can even be useful for making baguettes! Click here to check it out on Amazon. Its shape helps your batard to grow upwards rather than outwards, so will give it a really good rise and structure. A good choice for bakers who like to preheat their Dutch oven for that extra boost in oven spring. This Dutch comes preseasoned and is suitable for batards of up to 2kg in weight.
Best Classic Cast Iron Dutch Oven for Boules
This classic Dutch oven is large enough to fit 2kg boules, and comes preseasoned. Click here to check it out on Amazon. A solid Dutch oven that is guaranteed to last generations! Suitable for both indoor and outdoor use, and a good versatile choice for bakers who like to preheat their Dutch ovens.
Best Budget Buy Dutch Oven
The Lodge 5qt is an an excellent option for anybody looking for good results on a tighter budget. It’s relatively inexpensive on Amazon (click here to see the latest price), and has a really good solid seal when you put the lid on. I have baked many loaves in this Dutch oven myself and it has given me excellent results every time. And because it is bare cast iron, you don’t have to worry about the flaws that come with budget enamel based Dutch ovens. This particular one will bake a boule of up to 1kg dough weight quite comfortably.
Tips on Taking Care of Your Dutch Oven
If you take care of your Dutch oven, it should last you a lifetime. Here are a few tips to help you get the most out of your Dutch oven and make sure it stays in peak condition, giving you excellent bread results every time.
Tips for Enamel Coated Dutch Ovens:
Tip #1: Never Preheat Dry
This is the number 1 reason why the enamel develops cracks in it over time. The rapid heat fluctuations that occur when it’s preheated with nothing in it, causes the enamel to crack. This then allows liquid to seep into the cast iron surface, which causes rust, and compromises the non stick surface. Even Le Creuset branded Dutch ovens that come with lifetime guarantees don’t cover for cracks in enamel which are caused by dry preheating.
QUICK TIP: For sourdough bread, you don’t have to preheat the Dutch oven to get an excellent result. Try adding your loaf into a cold Dutch oven and then placing it into a hot oven. You might be pleasantly surprised!
Tip #2: Stick to the Maximum Temperature Guide
The actual cast iron part can withstand extremely high temperatures. The reason for the maximum temperature on an enamel coated Dutch oven is two fold:
- The enamel can only take so much heat
- The handle can only take so much heat
The maximum heat depends on the quality of the enamel coating. This is the reason why I recommended top brands like Le Creuset, because their enamel coatings as super robust and suitable for higher heats than the average. It’s important to adhere to the temperature guides on the care instructions of your Dutch oven, so as not to ruin the enamel coating.
The maximum heat for the handle is dependent upon what the handle is made out of. If it’s made from plastic, its best to remove the handle before baking with a high heat.
Tip #3: Hand Wash Only
Even though technically, enamel coated Dutch ovens are dishwasher safe, over time, the enamel will become dull and discolored with regular dishwasher use. I recommend hand washing for a longer lasting enamel that stays in peak condition.
Tip #4: Use Parchment Paper
I always line my Dutch oven with parchment paper when baking bread. It stops the bread from sticking to the base, and also protects your enamel from being worn down from extra cleaning force.
Tips for Classic Dutch Ovens:
Tip #1: Season Regularly
Bare cast iron needs to be seasoned regularly for it to stay in peak condition. You’ll know when it needs seasoning, because the non- stick surface will become less effective. Here’s a useful video of the correct way to season cast iron:
It’s a good idea to season your Dutch oven when it’s brand new, even it comes pre-seasoned, as this will give it a really strong coating, and prevent you having to season it too often.
Tip #2: Always keep Completely Dry when Not in Use
This one is really important. Keeping your cast iron bone dry is a must. Even a few drops of water left on cast iron will start to cause surface rust. In fact, it’s a good habit to lightly coat your Dutch oven with oil before storing it. This prevents moisture from getting onto it’s surface and will prevent any rusting.
Tip #3: Use Parchment Paper to Protect the Seasoning
Placing your bread on baking paper every time you place it in your Dutch oven will protect the delicate seasoning of the cast iron, which means you will have to season it a lot less often!
If you’d like to know more about what kind of equipment to buy for sourdough bread baking, check out my Baking Tools section. I have a seperate section listing out all the Essentials to help new bakers decide what’s useful and what’s not.