One of my essential pieces of equipment that I use during my camping trips is the Dutch Oven. I’ve used it extensively during my trips and I can tell you that nothing compares to Dutch Oven cooking. Once you master its secrets, there is no limit to what you can cook in a Dutch Oven.
This cooking tool was extensively used by the settlers and pioneers on the American frontier. It was also the favorite cooking accessory of many trappers. Dutch Oven cooking is considered a lost art by many and this cast iron cookware is quite underrated nowadays.
A Dutch Oven normally measures from 8 to 16 inches around and weighs up to 30 pounds empty. This is all due to the heavy cast iron from which it is build. The best part about Dutch Oven cooking is that you need less fuel compared to the other outdoor cooking methods. This cast iron cookware is able to heat the food evenly and if you position the lid properly, it helps the oven cook like a pressure cooker. In the wilderness, hot coals from a wood fire are all you need for Dutch Oven cooking.
Just like any other cast iron cookware, a good Dutch Oven will last a lifetime and can be passed on from one generation to another. I’ve noticed that the 12-inch size is the most popular for most campers and they use it for boiling, frying or baking.
Dutch Oven Cooking – Seasoning a brand new oven
When you purchase a new Dutch Oven, you must first season it to prepare for the journey ahead. Seasoning has a double role: it protects it from rust and creates a non-stick cooking surface.
To do so, first build a good hot fire that will provide you with lots of coals. Place the oven in the coals and heat it until it no longer smokes. You have to keep it in the coals until it changes color. This step is mandatory as it removes the protective anti-rust oils that manufacturers put on it.
Take the oven off the fire and let it cool for at least 20 minutes. Never try to fast cool it with water because your Dutch Oven may crack under extreme temperature changes. When the oven is cool, grease the entire surface inside and out with a thin coat of vegetable oil. Place it in your regular kitchen oven at 300 to 350 degrees for up to 60 minutes. Remove from the oven while warm and pour out any excess grease and carefully wipe it with a paper towel. You are now done with the seasoning process and the oven is ready to be used.
Dutch Oven Cooking – Using it the first times
When you use your Dutch Oven for the first few times, start by cooking low moisture foods like chicken and potatoes. Avoid stews or cobblers at first since the pores of the cast iron are not properly sealed. There is a need for a few heat cycles and coatings of vegetable oil to seal the pores. Old timers know that cast iron cookware improves with age and use. Do not cook acidic foods like tomatoes unless you combine them with other foods. This will prevent rust and metallic tasting food.
Related reading: How To Restore Cast Iron Cookware
As a general rule, never clean your Dutch Oven with soap. If you do so, the soap will strip away the oil trapped in the cast iron’s pores and it will shorten its lifetime. Clean it using water and some nylon mesh netting. For really messy jobs, use a spatula to scrape food debris.
Afterwards, apply a light coat of vegetable oil inside and out. Store the oven with the lid off in a box or sew a canvas bag for it. This would make it ideal to transport your Dutch Oven in your truck.
Dutch Oven Cooking – Using the right tools
Nowadays, you can find all sorts of cooking utensils that will help you with your Dutch Oven cooking experiments. Long-handled barbecue utensils will help you keep your distance from the fire. A pair of tongs will help you move hot coals around, but also to pick up food. I usually carry two pairs of tongs because my wife doesn’t want “dirty food”.
You will also need a lid lifter to help you handle the hot, heavy lid. You need to get a good one, because there’s nothing worse than dumping hot coals and ashes into your food. There are all sorts of fancy designed lid lifters with squeeze handle mechanisms to provide slip-free handling.
You will also need a shovel for live-coal transferring and handling. This will help you transfer coals when you are cooking on the lid. I often use the lid for frying eggs and bacon and I do so by turning it upside down with the handle facing the ground. When cooking over a campfire, I never place it over the coals, on the ground and I use two stones as a support. I shovel hot coals underneath and that’s pretty much it. Having a multi-purpose shovel in your vehicle is recommended for long camping trips.
You can also consider getting a campfire tripod for suspending the Dutch Oven over the fire, or learn to make it yourself from scrap metal. You can also improvise one on the field by using available green branches.
Consider getting a whisk broom to clean the ashes from the lid and any other assorted cookware you might need. Some people say that you can never have enough ladles, spatulas, forks, spoons, etc.
Dutch Oven Cooking – Temperature control
This is one of the trickiest parts of Dutch Oven cooking and it all depends on what you need to cook. When baking, it is important to use a minimum of coals on the bottom. If you use too many coals, you will cause sticking and burning. After multiple tries, I’ve learned that the safest way is to use one-third coals for the bottom and two-thirds on the lid. Place coals evenly spaced in a 12 inch circle under the oven, just at the edge of the pot. The coals on the lid go against the outside edge first. IF more are needed, they are placed further in towards the middle. This will allow for the oven to heat evenly and you can also rotate the oven every five minutes to avoid hot or cold spots.
Testing the temperature of your oven requires practice and here is the method I’m using. Sprinkle two tablespoons of flour into an aluminum pie tin. Place ten hot coals in a 12-inche diameter circle and place the oven over the coals. With the lid securely on the oven, put 20 coals on the lid. Wait five minutes and then put the pan of flour in the oven and cover. Bake the flour for five minutes and then remove it from the oven. If the flower is dark brown, the oven temperature is 400+ degrees. It the flower is golden brown, the temperature is 350+. However, if the color is only light tan, the temperature is 300 degrees.
Another important thing to remember is that every time you lift the lid to check your food, the cooking time will increase. For beginners, it’s better to check the food and add heat afterwards rather than sleeping on an empty stomach.
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Dutch ovens are great survivalist tools and it makes sense owning one. You don’t have to be an avid camper to own a Dutch Oven and many people use it to remember the ways of the past. Dutch ovens require about half the number of coal or briquettes that a normal barbecue grill does. Even if it may take longer than modern cooking methods, nothing beats Dutch Oven cooking. Everyone agrees that food cooked in a Dutch Oven tastes better. You can enjoy roasts, steaks, stews, soups and casseroles in the great outdoors, but also in your own backyard. Look for cast iron cookware at yard sales and flea markets and I guarantee you will not regret purchasing a Dutch Oven.
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