Camp Cooking with a Dutch Oven
Some years back I had gotten a part time job for the holiday season at a retail store specializing in high end kitchen products. I had never been one for cooking and did not own any pots or pans that did not come from a thrift store. The job came with a 40% discount on store items and I figured it was not a bad idea to get a few new things. The items were high quality and would last awhile. And I love a deal. I noticed the Dutch ovens, having no real idea what to do with them, but attracted to their design. I purchased not one, but two of the ovens and brought them home. It was the kind of purchase I shook my head about later, and thought, “wow, that was a waste”, as I never did anything with the ovens.
Fast forward a few years and I went camping with a friend. As she and her husband were preparing dinner, the pulled out what looked an awful lot like the two Dutch ovens I had at home. My curiosity was piqued. My friend told me that this was their favorite way to cook when camping. Suddenly, it appeared that my purchase might not have been a waste of money after all.
What Is a Dutch Oven?
A Dutch oven is a heavy pot for cooking that has a tight fitting lid and can be used either on the stove top or in the oven. It is made either of heavy metal or ceramic material, which ensures that food cooked inside is provided with constant and even heat. In existence for hundreds of years, the Dutch oven was originally developed with feet in order for it to be able to sit above hot ashes in a wood or coal burning fireplace; when seeking a Dutch oven for cooking when camping, it is best to find one with feet to allow for the circulation of air on the coals. The Dutch oven can be used either as a pot or as a baking dish and can be used to make soups or stews, for roasting or frying,
to bake bread and to make casseroles. With a Dutch oven you can cook just about anything. There are bare cast iron Dutch ovens as well as enameled Dutch ovens, both with thick walls and lids that fit tightly. A Dutch oven is usually heavy; cooking with a Dutch oven is not something you should plan on when backpacking.
Preparing Your Dutch Oven
If your Dutch oven is new, depending on the material and whether it is pre-seasoned, you may have to season it. Should it not be pre-seasoned, the seasoning process will remove the protective coating that is put on your oven, prevent rust and corrosion, and create a non-stick cooking surface. You can season your Dutch oven using your grill or oven, starting by heating either to 400 degrees. You will wash your Dutch oven with soap; note that this is the only time that you will use soap on your oven. Scrub any coatings to the metal and use hot and soapy water. Dry your oven and place it in the grill or the oven for a few minutes to dry and start heating it. Take the oven out of the grill or oven (using gloves or oven mitt) and let it cool so that you can touch it. You can the coat the oven with vegetable shortening, either plain Crisco, canola or flax oil (both the inside and outside of the oven as well as the lid). Use a towel to rub the shortening all around the surfaces of the oven. You will then wipe all of the oil off using a towel; you will keep wiping until it appears you have gotten all of the oil off. Then you will put the oven in the grill or oven upside down, along with the lid and close the grill lid or oven door. You will then bake your Dutch oven for 45-60 minutes. If you are using your oven, open your windows as it may get smoky. Once you are done baking, you will turn the heat off and leave the Dutch oven to cool for 30 minutes. Once it has cooled, you will use gloves or an oven mitt to remove your oven. Let it continue to cool until you can pick it up. It is important to note that you may have to do this multiple times until you are happy with the color and sheen of the oven.
How Can I Cook with a Dutch Oven When Camping?
First, it is important to bring with you other items that you will need for cooking with the Dutch oven. These include:
- Thick gloves
- Charcoal briquettes
- A fire starter
- A charcoal chimney
- Thick foil
To heat up your coals using the charcoal chimney, you will fill the chimney with charcoal briquettes. Then put a wad of newspaper at the bottom under the grate and light the newspaper. The newspaper will burn and light the charcoal.
Should you choose, instead of using charcoal and the fire starter, you can cook with a campfire that has hot embers (you will need 2-3 quarts worth of hot embers).
While you work on getting your heat source going, you will want to find a clear area that will not catch on fire, like a fire ring for cooking with your Dutch oven. Depending on where you are camping, you may also use bricks, sand or concrete if available, topped with two layers of thick foil. This space should be at least as large as your Dutch oven.
How Hot Do I Heat the Dutch Oven and How Much Charcoal Do I Need?
How hot you want to heat the oven to and how much charcoal you need will depend upon what you are cooking. Depending on the recipe, you can start with the “Rule of Three”. With the “Rule of Three” you start with the diameter of your Dutch oven. For example, let’s say your oven is 12 inches in diameter. You will start with 12 and subtract three for the number of coals to put below the oven (12-3=9). For how many coals to place on top of the oven, you will add three (12+3=15). So you will place 15 coals on top and nine below the oven. This will lead to a temperature of around 325 degrees. For each increase of 25 degrees you are seeking to achieve, add one more coal to the top and one more to the bottom. Of course weather will impact the heat and cook time.
When arranging the coals that you will place your Dutch oven on, make a ring around the same size as the diameter of the bottom of your oven, with one coal placed in the center. You can then place your oven on top of the coals. Then put the coal on top of the lid, spread evenly. Some prefer to put coals in the center and one on each side of the handle. It is best to experiment and learn what you prefer. Use the tongs to arrange the coals; remember that they are very hot.
What Types of Cooking Can I Do?
One of the great things about cooking with a Dutch oven is you can cook a variety of things with just the one oven. Let’s say, for example, that you want to saute or cook some meat; you will only need to heat the bottom of the oven. You can spread use your tongs and spread the coals to an even layer and place your pot on them. You will have enough heat to cook your meal. One of my favorite things to make when camping is a chili and for that and for stews, you will want to heat the oven from the top at the bottom. To do this, using your tongs, arrange some coals in a circle slightly smaller than the bottom of your oven. Place the oven on top of the coals. Then you will set the rest of the coals around the lid. You can use your Dutch oven for baking as well, which will require both top and bottom heat. You will set your coals up in a similar manner to how you do when making a chili or a stew, however be sure that the bottom coals are spread evenly and place one ring of coals on top of the lid near its lip, along with a few more across the lid.
Things to Remember When Cooking With a Dutch Oven
There are some key things to remember when cooking with a Dutch oven. For one, the coals and the oven will get very hot. Use your tools! It is best to use tongs for handling the coals and for lifting the lid of the oven. Your gloves will also be helpful for this. When cooking with your oven, keep in mind that your first batch of coals will likely heat for 30-45 minutes. Should you want to cook for longer, keep coals warming in the charcoal chimney so that you have replacements. You can also put new briquettes next to ones that are already hot, so that the new ones will light and continue to provide heat.
I encourage you to give cooking with a Dutch oven a try. Please share your experiences using the oven, along with your favorite meals.