Posted by Darren Bush on 10/10/2013
The Lost Art of Dutch Oven Cooking
As camping evolved into more and more lightweight pursuits, the cast iron Dutch oven of yesteryear fell into disrepute, banned as an “old school” tool that was for chuck wagons and RV campers. Even then, cast iron requires care and people didn’t want to deal with it.
As canoe camping became more popular, I noticed people were starting to carry a little more in terms of “comfort” gear, becoming less austere and dedicated to absolute light weight. This is good. I grew up out west, where Dutch oven cooking was more accepted. I thought it might be a good fit if I could find an oven that wasn’t the size of a small bathtub, as they often are.
The turning point came when I was out west visiting eight years ago or so. I was wandering through an old Army Surplus store, minding my own business, when I saw it—an 8-inch Dutch oven, with the proper shape and configuration. Lip around the lid to hold coals…tripod legs that are long enough…a nice thick wall to conduct heat evenly. I bought it and took it home to season it.
I used that oven on many a trip, usually making the standard upside-down cake and cinnamon rolls, with biscuits and cobblers occasionally making their way into the menu. Then the second shoe dropped. Innocently driving through Tennessee on vacation, we saw a small sign that said “Lodge Factory Outlet” with an arrow indicating the exit. The logo looked familiar, and I recognized it just in time as the manufacturer of my little 8-inch oven. I asked if I could stop “just to look.” My wife gave me the “yeah right” look and we pulled into Pittsford, Tennesee. The largest building in town was the foundry for Lodge, a family-owned company for four generations. The outlet building was not that big, but it was packed with iron from floor to ceiling. I was in heaven! I found a 10-inch 8-quart oven, a 12-inch, a couple of griddles and some decorative stuff, and convinced the family that our suspension could take it.
Many years later, we’ve found that we eat much better on our canoe trips with the Dutch oven along. We’ve discovered a few tricks that you might find useful, and thought we’d pass them along.
First, Seasoning is All-Important
When you get your oven new, you’ll want to season it. Follow the directions that come with it. If you don’t have directions, the basic idea is this—wash your Dutch oven well with soap and hot water (the last time it should see any soap) to remove the oil used to fight rust during storage. Coat your Dutch oven with a light coating of vegetable oil and put in a slow oven (200 to 225 degrees) for an hour or more. Remove, wipe it off, let it cool, and repeat. This gives your oven a natural non-stick coating.
Second, Soap is Evil. Shun it in all its forms
Soap or detergents are enemies to cast iron when properly seasoned–they strip the oil that fills the pores in the iron that make it non-stick. Once properly seasoned, you shouldn’t have to use soap. The pan we use the most that has the best non-stick properties hasn’t been washed with soap, but scoured out with sand after use and rinsed and wiped dry. If we’re going to store our ovens for a season, we’ll heat them up in the oven in the house to 200 degrees or so, and rub them with a light vegetable oil. We let them cool off slowly by turning off the oven and leaving them there for a few hours. Then they’re ready to store for the winter.
Third, Temperature Control is Key
The purpose of having a Dutch oven is so that you can have an oven in the outdoors, not a crematorium. Controlling the temperature of the Dutch oven is critical to your success. The best way to learn how to control the temperature is to use charcoal briquettes in your initial cooking ventures.
Here’s a quick way to start. Take the diameter of your Dutch oven and double it. That gives you the number of briquettes you’ll need to achieve a temperature of about 350 to 375 degrees. The trick is distribution—you’ll want to take two briquettes from the bottom and put them on the top. For example, for a 12 inch Dutch oven, we’ll take 24 briquettes, and we’ll have 14 on the top and 10 on the bottom. [I tend to use even more on top (4:1), especially when I'm baking something somewhat farther away from the lid, like thin-crust pizza.—Jim P. ] For items with longer cooking times, you’ll want to replace briquettes as you cook, so have a small fire on the side for extra coals.
What if you don’t carry briquettes with you? I know, it isn’t like you’re going to carry briquettes with you in a wilderness area with plenty of wood. What you need to do is benchmark the heat off your briquettes by holding your hand 4 or 5 inches off the top of the oven and count…one-thousand-one, one-thousand two, one thousand-three, one-thousand-four OUCH!. Whatever your OUCH point is, that’s your benchmark for your oven, so when you’re in the woods and you’re using smaller coals from your fire, you can easily adjust the amount of heat by using the OUCH method. [ Another useful trick: remember to turn the lid and the oven base about 90 degrees every 5 to 10 minutes to reduce hot spots and burning—Jim P. ]
If you’re going to start cooking with a Dutch oven, you might as well get used to having lots of moochers hanging around the camp, begging for table scraps. One way to get around this problem is to have the appropriate-sized oven.
You’re probably going to want an 8-inch, two-quart oven for solo trips or for small groups (like a family of four, just for dessert). It’s the first one I ever had, and I love it. For larger families or for cooking things like chicken and other full-pot meals, a 10-inch is the way to go, especially the 10-inch extra-deep (special order only) oven. A 12-inch provides a large volume for groups of eight to ten or more. Bigger than that and you’ll have to call in the National Guard to carry it.
Tools of the Trade
Obviously, the oven alone isn’t going to work unless you have the tools to make it work. Here are the tools we feel are essential for your cooking ease. First, you need something sturdy to grab the lid so you can lift it. Dutch oven lid lifters are available, and we often use vise grips or other such tools to lift the lid. Either way, you’ll want something to grab the lid without burning your fingers. Second, you need a place to set down the lid. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen people lift the lid, find it’s too hot to hold for more than a few seconds, and have to set it down on the sand, giving the cinnamon rolls a curious texture when the lid is replaced. A cooling rack or something similar from the kitchen is a good item to have along. Failing that, get a few clean rocks and make a platform before starting your cooking so you’ll know where the lid is going. Third, a tool for arranging coals is very nice to have. I use a pair of pincer tongs with a spring-loaded handle, which is great for briquettes, and the little scoop on the end is good enough for coals from a fire. A small trowel is also nice, but don’t confuse it with your bathroom trowel, and it has to be metal (duh). Fourth, and this is for sandy areas only, I like to have something that allows the oven to sit high on the sand. My ovens are three-legged, so I carry three tuna can lids or some other similar lid inside the oven, so I can set the oven down in sand without it crushing the coals underneath or snuffing them out.
Surely, there’s a lot more to know than this basic tutorial. Numerous books are available for the fledgling Dutch oven chef, and that’s fine, but I’ve done okay just experimenting with recipes I already had. Just try it. You’ll be hooked for life the first time a camping companion says “You made that? Out here?? Cool!