Dutch Oven Campsite Cooking
Dutch ovens can transform campsite cooking into a culinary spectacle. What comes out of the pot when the meal is done will tantalize your taste buds and bring smiles to your campsite crew. But many folks don’t know just how easy it is to use Dutch ovens. Here are some tips on choosing and using a Dutch oven and getting started on your way to better camp cuisine.
The first step in choosing your Dutch oven will be to choose your metal. Dutch ovens are made from two types of material: aluminum and cast iron. Most are formed from cast iron. Cast iron conducts heat evenly across the surface of the pot, which results in an ideal cooking environment and it can withstand higher temperatures than aluminum.
Aluminum is lighter than cast iron, transfers heat quickly, requires no metal seasoning, but has a tendency to retain the flavor of the foods cooked in it. It also has such a rapid heat transfer that you need to check the food often to keep it from burning. We prefer cast iron.
Dutch ovens come in many sizes, shapes and price points. What’s the difference? Which is right for you? First, decide if you want to cook inside or out. If you’re cooking indoors you will want an oven without legs on the bottom. The “kitchen” Dutch oven is normally flat bottomed with a high-domed lid. If you’re cooking outdoors, choose an oven with stubby legs and a flanged lid. The legs create a space for coals under the oven and the lip on the lid keeps the coals from rolling off the top.
Determine the size of oven you want to buy according to how many people you will be cooking for. As a rule of thumb, get an 8-inch-diameter oven for one to two persons, 10-inch oven for four to seven persons, 12-inch oven for 12 to 14, and a 14-inch oven to feed 16 to 20 persons.
Most Dutch ovens are little more than your average pot. However, the Ultimate Dutch Oven from Dutro/Camp Chef is set apart from the crowd by a cast iron convection cone that rises from the middle of the pot. The cone helps radiate heat into the center of the pot. It also comes with two racks inside the oven so you can layer meat, vegetables and biscuits. Kent Mayberry, president of the International Dutch Oven Society (IDOS) recommends adding one-half to one cup of water under the lower rack to enable roasts and meats to steam, which results in faster cooking. If you are deep-dish baking remove both racks.
According to Gerry and Chauna Duffin, authors of The Dutch Oven Resource, a Dutch oven can be an investment for a lifetime. If you choose correctly and take care of your oven, it will be in your camping cookware collection for decades. The Duffins reiterate that age-old axiom: You get what you pay for. Don’t let a low price be the deciding factor. Buy the best you can afford.
Check to see that the lid sits precisely on the pot, making a good seal with no gaps. A pot with consistent color throughout typifies good casting. Check the rim for differences in thickness around the lip of the oven and lid. A handle that moves back and forth freely is important, too. Janet Froh, a Dutch oven cooking expert and 1998 Dutch Oven World Champion recommends Camp Chef and Logan as two top-quality oven manufacturers.
This doesn’t refer to how much salt and pepper you use. The purpose of seasoning your cast iron is to create a slick non-stick surface that will allow for quick cleanup, resist rust and create an ideal cooking surface. The glaze you are trying for is a shiny glaze called a patina. Guy Perkins of Dutro/Camp Chef suggests doing all seasoning outside to keep your house free from the black smoke that burns off during the process.
To prepare the pot the first time it is seasoned, place the lid and the pot upside down on separate burners (or barbecue) for about 10 to 15 minutes or until they no longer smoke. By this time the protective coating should be burned off and they are ready to accept seasoning. Let the Dutch oven cool before applying oil or conditioner to avoid accidental burns. Use some white shortening, oil, or a product such as Camp Chef conditioner, and rub a thin layer on the inside and outside of the pot and lid. Return the pot (upside down) and lid to the heat (375-425 degrees) until the pot stops smoking again. After these steps, your oven is seasoned and ready for your first fling as a Dutch oven chef. Reapply oil or conditioner periodically to retain the patina.
Perkins adds, “The mistake people make when they season their Dutch ovens is that they usually use too much oil and not enough heat. Most manufacturers tell you to heat it to 325 degrees Fahrenheit. It really needs to be around 400 degrees.” Froh recommends using a conditioner, such as the one offered by Camp Chef. “It doesn’t go rancid like oil, fills the pores better and builds a patina faster than shortening or oils.”
After seasoning your oven it’s ready for cooking. There are a number of different types of heat sources you can use when cooking with a Dutch oven. The most popular are charcoal fires and propane stoves. But, according to Bob Kellermann of Lodge Manufacturing, “Heat control is the key to cooking success.” Open fire cooking is harder to control because different woods burn at different temperatures, but if you use a fire always use the coals not the open flame. Check your food and make adjustments to the heat source as needed.
When cooking with charcoal, control the cooking temperature by the number of briquettes you place under and on top of your oven. Start your charcoal burning 15 to 20 minutes before you need to start cooking. While the coals are heating, prepare your food. When the briquettes are half-white, half-black, they are ready to begin cooking.
After your food has been placed inside the Dutch oven and you have the heat source in place, remember that you will need to rotate your oven one-third of a turn every 10 to 15 minutes. Rotate the lid to the same degree in the opposite direction. If you are baking items such as bread or cake, remove the bottom heat after two-thirds of the cooking time and it will cook from the top down as well as keep the bottom from burning.
A clean Dutch oven is essential for great food. In the Dutch Oven Resource, the Duffins suggest cleaning your Dutch oven as soon as possible after use. They note that there are many opinions on how to clean a Dutch oven, but they recommend the following: First, use a whiskbroom to remove any ash from the outside. Second, use a hard plastic scraper to scrape out any excess food. Metal scrapers will damage the patina. Third, when the food is scraped out, use hot water and a plastic scrubber to finish the cleaning. If this is not enough to clean it or there is still grease in the oven use a couple of drops of dish soap that does not contain perfumes. Wash it out with a dishrag and rinse several times. Dry your Dutch oven immediately with a paper towel or lint-free cloth.
Lodge recently introduced its Lodge Logic series of Dutch ovens. If you would prefer not to worry about seasoning, Lodge is your answer. This year they have introduced a whole line of preseasoned cast iron cookware that’s ready to use right out of the box. Froh says one of her favorite Lodge pieces is the cast iron pizza griddle.
Camp Chef has introduced its new Lewis and Clark commemorative edition Dutch oven. A lid lifter is included inside every oven. Another Camp Chef product recommended by Froh is the APS (All Purpose Stove), a collapsible charcoal grill. The APS can serve as a grill or a Dutch oven stove. The charcoal is contained inside the stove and makes less mess. Its advantages are protection from the wind, which makes for more even cooking and the charcoal is not consumed as quickly when it’s out of the wind.
Now that doesn’t seem too complicated, does it? Dutch oven cooking is all about having fun. “Put some food in the pot and a heat source under it. If it’s not fun,” says Froh, “you’re missing the point.” So choose your metal, style and brand, and get started.
DUTCH OVEN RESOURCES