Dutch Oven Camp Cooking - How To Use A Dutch Oven
The following article and photos are by Eileen Troemel of Janesville, Wisconsin (near Madison).
Camping usually means you eat hot dogs on a stick, cold sandwiches and not a lot of appetizing food. But what if it didn’t mean that? What if you could have Salisbury steak, mashed potatoes, steamed vegetables, and cherry cobbler? Or any other meal you would normally cook at home? Would campfire food be more appealing? Well it can be if you utilize a very old and versatile tool; something your grandmother probably had more than one of – a Dutch oven.
The Dutch oven is believed to date back to the early 1700s in Holland. How and when it came to the U.S. is unknown but supposedly Paul Revere created the flanged lid and the final design of the oven. Some reports indicate that George Washington used Dutch ovens to feed his troops during the Revolutionary war.
As Americans moved west and expanded into the new world, the Dutch oven became a valuable commodity being a popular trade item with mountain men and Native Americans. As the United States expanded, this tool was taken along. When pioneers, homesteaders, miners, and ranchers moved west, the Dutch oven was one of their most valuable items especially since entire meals could be cooked in them. Records show that Lewis and Clark cooked wild game as well as dog and horse during their trek to the west coast. Another common use was during cattle drives, drive cooks fed the famous beans and stew to the cowboys during the long cattle drives. The famous 49ers in California commonly used the Dutch oven to make sourdough bread. Likewise soldiers used it for cooking during the Civil War.
In 1896 Joseph Lodge built a cast iron foundry in Tennessee. The best known product from this foundry was the Dutch oven. Lodge still produces this well known product today and is currently the leading producer of the cast iron Dutch ovens.
Another place the Dutch oven appeared is in the work camps following World War I. However, the popularity of the product waned. A renewed interest began in the 70s and 80s with a cook off contest. In fact, the Dutch oven became popular enough that the International Dutch Oven Society formed in 1984 and Utah made the Dutch oven the cook pot of the state in 1997.
All very interesting but grandma doesn’t go camping anymore
and you have no idea how to work with Dutch ovens. A search on the web or
through the cooking aisle only offers a multitude of products and a lot of
confusion. So where do you start?
Standing in the aisle with Dutch ovens you are likely to be bombarded with choices. Do you get aluminum or cast iron? What is the difference between a kitchen or camp oven? Where do bean pots fit in? Should you get a pre-seasoned pot or not?
Aluminum Dutch Ovens - Most traditionalists will tell you that cast iron is the way to go but there are advantages to both aluminum and cast iron. Aluminum is a light weight alternative for those hiking in to their campsite or for cooks with physical limitations. For a 12-inch pan, aluminum pans weigh about 7 pounds rather than the 18 pounds for a cast iron pot. Aluminum is also easier to care for as it won’t rust and can just be washed as any other pan is washed in soap and water. It also doesn’t require seasoning like a cast iron pan. Some of the newer models even come with a non-stick surface. Aluminum will not discolor the food like cast iron does. It also heats faster; however, there are also two disadvantages to this. On windy days the pan will have more fluctuations than cast iron and if you get an aluminum pan too hot, it will melt. Two areas aluminum excels at are baking bread and making gravy.
Cast-Iron Dutch Oven - While some of the newer aluminum pans come close to cast iron, cast iron is still the preferred material for a Dutch oven. Good quality cast iron can be passed down through generations because the material is so long lasting. A cast iron pot distributes the heat evenly and less heat is needed to cook the food. It will also retain heat longer, often a pan can be removed from the heat before the food is done cooking and the heat retained in the pan will finish the cooking process. Since the cast iron will retain heat, there is less fuel needed for cooking. The heavy lid seals the pot and steams the food, which keeps it moist and tender. Unlike the aluminum pan, cast iron tolerates the higher temperatures better and is not likely to melt. It reacts more slowly to the heat changes so is less affected by windy weather. Food can sit in a closed cast iron oven for longer and retain the heat needed for serving. Since the cast iron Dutch oven cools slowly, if food has to be a certain temperature then remove it from the oven. There is the added benefit that cooking in a cast iron pan adds iron to the food cooked in it. Dutch ovens come with a variety of stove names. Camp, outdoor, kitchen, or bean pots are the most common names. As you’re standing in the aisle at the store, don’t let all the names confuse you. First camp or outdoor Dutch oven are the same type of oven. Likewise the bean pot or kitchen Dutch oven are the same. The name bean pot dates back to a colonial cooking technique described under Types of Cooking in this article.
New, the cast iron Dutch oven can be very costly. If you check junk shops, rummage sales, or thrift stores you might be able to save yourself a lot of money. However, make sure you are getting a good quality Dutch oven. If buying a used Dutch oven here are a few things to look for:
If you have purchased a ready to use Dutch oven follow these steps:
You’ve conquered the cooking aisle or the rummage sale and come home with the prized Dutch oven. So what’s next? Well whether you purchased an aluminum or cast iron oven most manufacturers put a protective coat on the item. Before you begin cooking, this coating needs to be removed. Also if you inherited or purchased a used Dutch oven it will need to be seasoned.
If your oven is aluminum you only have to do one simple step – wash the oven in soap and water. This should remove any coating. However, if you treat the aluminum pan like a cast iron and season it (see steps below) then the oven will have almost a non-stick surface.
Prior to seasoning, wash the Dutch oven with warm water. Some experts suggest that when an oven is new is the only time you should use soap. Most experts; however, suggest only using a good scrubbing with steel wool and some elbow grease. For a cast iron oven, you need to follow a seasoning process. Aside from removing the protective coating, there are many reasons to season your cast iron Dutch oven. Here are a few:
There are four methods to season a cast iron Dutch oven, one indoor and three
Note: if you have a fireplace in your home, you can use this to season your oven. Its best to have a hook in the fireplace. If the chimney flue has a good draw, it can minimize the grease smoke in the house.
Outdoor method C:
Note: this can be done with a charcoal grill as well but be careful not to overheat the Dutch oven
When seasoning an oven do not use butter, margarine, or salad oil. Additionally for the first few meals after seasoning avoid cooking high acid content dishes or high sugar content after seasoning. The acid and sugars can break down the seasoning before it has a chance to properly harden.
If you don’t want to go through the steps of seasoning your pot then you can usually buy one which is pre-seasoned. Bear in mind though, these are usually more expensive.
In addition to a cast iron Dutch oven, there are a variety of tools which can help when cooking with a Dutch oven. Here is a list of accessories you might consider having accessible:
Now you have a seasoned Dutch oven ready to go on your next camping trip. Hurray – no more hot dogs on a stick! But what exactly can you make in a Dutch oven? The Dutch oven can be used to create an entire meal from appetizers to desserts.
If you are cooking a full meal then you may want to have several Dutch ovens to cook with or in. You might even consider having racks and smaller pans to use inside the ovens. Almost any recipe you love at home can be done in a Dutch oven. You may need to adapt the amount of liquid since the closed lid creates a steaming affect on the food. Rather than trying to adapt your own recipe there are cookbooks available. If you are a novice and trying a recipe from a Dutch oven cookbook, you might want to follow the directions exactly for the best results. Only make adjustments after you have tried it at least once. Also make sure your Dutch oven matches the size in the recipe or you could have an unintended overflow.
There are several methods for cooking with a Dutch oven including Bean Hole and Crock Pot cooking (see directions below). In general, there are two broad techniques. You can cook with it or in it. When you cook with the Dutch oven, the food is placed directly into the oven. When you cook in the Dutch oven, food is placed in a secondary pan and then on a trivet in the oven, usually this is done to prevent burning on the bottom. This is one technique where the Dutch oven actually acts as an oven.
Dutch oven not properly seasoned
Food was left in the pot after cooking
Deep fat frying - all heat should come from bottom – place coals all underneath
Shallow frying - all heat should come from bottom – place coals all underneath
Roasting – heat source should come from top and bottom equally – place coals under and on top in a 1-1 ratio
Baking – usually done with more heat on top – under and on top ratio of 1 – 3
Boiling – all heat should come from bottom – place coals all underneath
Stewing – almost all heat from the bottom - under and on top ratio should be 4 - 1
Simmering– almost all heat from the bottom - under and on top ratio should be 4 - 1
Liquid dishes – (soups and stews) more heat on bottom (2/3 of coals) and less on top (1/3 of coals)
Meat, poultry, potatoes, veggies, cobblers – equal distribution
Cakes, breads, biscuits and cookies – 2/3 on top and 1/3 on bottom
Bread is a nice addition to any meal. This may seem impossible to do but actually is quite simple. Many stews, soups, and chili adapt well to biscuits or dumplings on top. When I did my cooking in the backyard, I made biscuits from a tube on the lid of the Dutch oven. Check out my recipe and photo tutorial on making Dutch Oven Biscuits.
Now you know what and how you can cook but there is one more key component to cooking with a Dutch oven. What will be your heat source? With a kitchen style Dutch oven you can use your stove or oven at home as well as a grill or propane burner. With a camp Dutch oven you can use a campfire of wood or charcoal.
Cooking with charcoal can be in a grill, at a campfire site, or even in a backyard fire pit. In my backyard I have a small metal fire pit, which my family often sits around with a wood fire going. So when I tried Dutch oven cooking, I used charcoal in my fire pit and had good success.
If you opt for charcoal remember to leave room for the bag in your gear. Here are a few advantages of using charcoal:
Charcoal can be arranged in a variety of patterns. You want to avoid bunching of the briquettes as this will cause hot spots in your cooking. Here are three possible patterns:
Obviously when working with any kind of fire there are hazards. Here are a few safety tips for working with charcoal:
Wind, food type, and outside temperature can affect the temperature when cooking. Cool air temperatures, high altitudes, shade and high humidity will decrease the amount of heat generated by briquettes. Hot air temperatures, low altitude, direct sunlight, and wind will increase the amount of heat generated by briquettes. Additionally the more metal, volume of food, and internal air space you have to heat up the more heat will be required to bring your oven to the desired temperature. If you are in a hurry or short on coals you can cover the Dutch oven with aluminum foil to help keep the heat focused.
Using wood as a heat source takes a bit more skill. When cooking on an open fire, you need to watch your food carefully since these can have hot spots. You can use a fire ring which can produce good coals. A keyhole design is another way to get coals from a wood fire. The fire is built in the round part and hot coals are pulled into the rectangular section for cooking. With all these formats you may need a cooking platform in order to provide a flat dry surface.
Material is very important when cooking on a wood fire. If the wood burns quickly to ash it is difficult to get coals for cooking with the Dutch oven. Soft woods tend to burn hot and fast. Using soft wood often results in burned food on the outside while the inside remains raw. As they don’t produce hot long lasting coals, some woods to avoid are:
Hardwoods, when burned, hold heat better. Some woods to use are:
One advantage of wood, depending on where you are camping, is that at most campsites it is readily available. Some woods, hickory and mesquite in particular, can add flavor to the meals. Here are some hints to make this style of cooking easier:
The meal is over and hopefully has been a great success. However, just like any other meal, clean up comes next. If you’ve purchased and used an aluminum Dutch oven then you can wash it as you would any other dish. If you have used a cast iron Dutch oven, follow these steps:
When cleaning your Dutch oven there are a few things you definitely do not want to do:
Some experts feel soap will break down the seasoning, get in the pores, and cause a bad taste in food. Additionally soap won’t necessarily help clean the Dutch oven. If you’ve cooked sticky, sugary food in the Dutch oven then place water in the Dutch oven and bring it to a boil to clean. When scrubbing you can use almost anything abrasive like oak leaves, scrub brush, sand, or salt. If the pan is still hot be careful not to burn yourself. One way to avoid an extremely dirty Dutch oven is to line the inside of the oven with foil. If despite your best efforts the Dutch oven still doesn’t come clean then place it in the fire and let the stubborn food burn away. Unfortunately this means you will need to re-season your Dutch oven.
Between uses keep the oven in a dry place to prevent rusting. Also try to prevent dust from accumulating. Do not store with the lid on tight. This prevents the interior from rusting and the oil from turning rancid. One technique is to use a few sheets of paper towel folded or a small roll of aluminum foil to keep the lid ajar. Another technique is to wrap a small piece of real charcoal, not the briquettes, in a paper towel. This absorbs odor and moisture from the Dutch oven.
If rust has damaged the Dutch oven, here are some techniques to get rid of it:
Campfire cooking or grilling out does not need to be hot dogs on a stick. With the right tools and a bit of practice you can create almost any meal you would have off your stove. The Dutch oven is a versatile tool to use in creating these outdoor meals.
Stone-Jackson, Alicia – my sister learned to cook in a Dutch oven through boy scouting. She was an invaluable experienced resource.
Ragsdale, John G., Dutch Oven Cooking, Gulf Publishing Company, 1973.
Fears, J Wayne, The Complete Book of Dutch Oven Cooking, Stoeger Publishing Co 2004.
Jackman, John A, Introduction to Dutch Oven Cooking, http://insects.tamu.edu/people/faculty/dutchoven.html, November 27, 2000
Beattie, Roger L, Seven Secrets of Dutch Oven Cooking, http://y2kchaos.entrewave.com/view/y2kchaos/s35p644.htm
Bills, Byron, Dutch Oven Cooking, http://papadutch.home.comcast.net/~papadutch/dutch-oven-intro.htm
Dutch Oven Cooking,
http://macscouter.com/Cooking/DutchOven.asp, July 1995