Cooking Over The Campfire: How To Use A Dutch Oven

Follow these simple steps to prepare, use, and maintain your Dutch oven for years of great meals.

A Dutch oven is a cooking pot with a lid, made from heavy cast iron or aluminum. Most Dutch ovens are made with three legs, but some are styled with a heavy, flat bottom to rest directly on the campfire coals. The Dutch oven lid is usually lipped to hold coals and surround your food with heat.

No one knows where the name "Dutch oven" came from, but pots of this kind have been used for centuries. George Washington used Dutch ovens to feed his troops, and Paul Revere developed the most popular style of lid.

Today, these ovens are a favorite with scouts and families. Dutch ovens cook more quickly than conventional stoves, and are a good health choice: Foods cooked in Dutch ovens retain most of their nutrients and vitamins.

START WITH SEASONING

Before using a Dutch oven, it's important to season it. This means coating the oven with oil and baking it to form a thin, blackened finish. This cured finish prevents rusting, keeps foods from sticking to the pot, and adds a rich flavor that is legendary among campers who enjoy fine food.

Most new Dutch ovens and cast iron cookware are coated with wax in the factory. This must be scrubbed off before seasoning it. But, washing a Dutch oven the first time can be tricky.

Start by preheating your conventional kitchen oven to the "warm" setting, or about 150 degrees. It's a good idea to line the floor of your conventional oven with foil, because the seasoning process can be messy.

To prepare your Dutch oven for seasoning, wash it with hot, soapy water to remove any dirt, labels or price tags, and the factory sealant. Do not use steel wool to scrub it; a nylon pad is better. It may take two or three applications of soap to get the wax off the outside and inside of the pot.

When the Dutch oven is clean, rinse it but do not dry it. Put it directly into the preheated kitchen oven. If you leave the pot on the counter, even for a few minutes, it will start to rust. (If this happens, scrub off the rust, rinse the pot again, and put it directly into the kitchen oven to dry. Any rust in the pot will spoil the flavor of food cooked in it.)

Watch the pot closely, and remove it from the kitchen oven as soon as it is fully dry. The drying should take about five to ten minutes.

Decide how often you are likely to use the Dutch oven. If you'll cook with it frequently, at least monthly, you'll season the pot with solid shortening such as lard or Crisco; never season with butter or margarine because they'll burn too quickly. If you expect to use the oven every few months, season it with canola oil or any clear cooking oil. (Solid shortening can turn rancid in just a couple of weeks; cooking oils last longer.)

While the metal is still warm, coat the inside and outside of the oven. Don't forget to season the lid, too. If you are using solid shortening, a thin coat is sufficient. Be sure not to miss any spots.

Place the Dutch oven and lid in a warm conventional oven about 325 degrees, Fahrenheit. Turn the pot part of the Dutch oven upside down, so any excess oil drains out. (This is why you lined the floor of your conventional oven with foil.) Your oven will smoke, so open your windows and temporarily turn off your smoke alarms.

After an hour and a half, turn the oven down to about 200 degrees. Cook the pot for another hour. Remove the pot from the oven and let it cool. The seasoning should have left a fine, smooth blackened surface on your Dutch oven.

If you're going to be cooking outdoors, you can repeat this seasoning process two or three times for a more long lasting finish. Don't wash the pot between seasonings, just re-oil it, bake the pot again, and repeat.

Store your Dutch oven with a dry sponge or folded paper towel tucked under the lid of the pot, so that air circulates freely inside the pot. If you seasoned the pot with oil, the outside may feel a bit sticky and attract dust and dirt. This is normal, and the dust and dirt will bake off during cooking without affecting the food.

COOKING WITH A DUTCH OVEN

Before cooking with a Dutch oven, oil the inside of the pot and lid with cooking oil. Canola oil is ideal.

Dutch ovens work best when you place an equal number of hot coals under them and on top of the lid. In general, Dutch ovens should not be used over a fire, just the hot coals.

When you first cook with a Dutch oven, it's smart to learn with barbecue briquettes. To get a sense of how the oven works, start with the same number of briquettes as the size of your Dutch oven. That is, if you're using a ten-inch Dutch oven, put ten briquettes underneath it and ten on top of the lid. If you're using a twelve-inch oven, increase the briquettes to twelve underneath and twelve on top. This will provide heat at about 350 degrees Fahrenheit, the temperature that you'll usually use for cooking.



In general, figure that an extra coal on the top and bottom will increase the heat by about 25 to 30 degrees. But, start with fewer coals than you expect to need. It's far easier and faster to increase the heat of a Dutch oven than to cool it down.

Never put an empty Dutch oven over coals or it may warp or even crack. Start with food inside it. You can add more ingredients as you cook, but never add cool liquids to a very hot pot; it will crack.

You can cook anything in a Dutch oven that you would bake in a conventional oven. However, Dutch ovens are at their best with casseroles and breads. You'll find many recipes in cookbooks, scouting manuals, and online. Most meals will require 45 minutes to one hour to cook fully. Most breads cook in about half an hour to 45 minutes.

CLEANING

A well seasoned Dutch oven can be cleaned easily. After cooking, wipe the Dutch oven clean to remove all food particles. Then, wash the oven well with hot water.

It is very important not to use any soap. Soap will get embedded in the metal and make food taste terrible. If you accidentally use soap while cleaning, you'll have to scour the pot to bare metal with sandpaper or a metal scouring pad. Then, re-season the oven.

If food has stuck, never use a metal scraper or steel wool; it will remove the seasoned coating. Instead, put a couple of inches of hot water into the pot, replace the lid, and return the pot to the coals. Allow the water to boil and steam loose the remaining food; this usually takes five or ten minutes.

Remove the oven from the coals, pour out about half the water, and let it cool slightly. Then, use a plastic mesh scrubber or bristle brush to remove remaining food. Repeat once if necessary.

If food still sticks, you may have to scour the pot and re-season it. But, before resorting to that, try scrubbing it very gently with salt and a paper towel or soft cloth. If the salt abrades the seasoning, or if you have to use a metal scouring pad, clean the Dutch oven down to bare metal and re-season it. But, if your oven was well-seasoned to start with, this shouldn't be necessary.

Dry the Dutch oven and then wipe the warm oven with oil, inside and out, before storing it. If the Dutch oven cooled completely during cleaning, reheat it slightly--so it's warm to the touch without burning you--before oiling it for storage.

TROUBLESHOOTING

The biggest problem that a new camper may have is forgetting about rust. Never leave water standing in or on your Dutch oven.

Even a very small amount of rust can make food taste sour or metallic. If you see rust forming, wipe it off and apply a coating of oil all over the Dutch oven and its lid.

If very much rust forms, you may have to scrub the oven down to bare metal and season it all over again.

If the oil inside your Dutch oven turns rancid and affects the flavor of food, clean the pot and boil water in it for five or ten minutes. If the rancid flavor remains, you will have to clean the oven completely and re-season it.

If you're going to store your Dutch oven for several months without using it, wipe it clean with a soft cloth or paper towel. Then, coat the seasoned surfaces with food grade mineral oil, available at most pharmacies and some camping supply shops. This will usually protect the seasoning.

If you treat your Dutch oven with mineral oil, be sure to wipe it clean before cooking. Recoat the surface with a thin coating of cooking oil, and you're ready to cook again.

When cooking with a Dutch oven, remember that it is made of very thick metal. If you try to heat or cool your oven too quickly, it will crack.

If you take care of your Dutch oven, you will never need to season it again. Through use, the layers of oil build up and cooks better each time you use it.

A well-maintained Dutch oven will last hundreds of years. Some families have--and use--Dutch ovens that belonged to their 18th century ancestors.

Practice cooking with your Dutch oven before taking it out on a camping trip. Once you become used to Dutch oven meals, you won't want to cook with anything else.

© High Speed Ventures 2011