Adding a Dutch oven to your camp cooking equipment opens up a world of possibilities. No longer are you limited to what you can boil in a pot or fry on a griddle on your propane stove. You are also no longer limited to two burners, which is the number of burners on the average camp stove. Just like in your home kitchen, you can have multiple dishes going in your camp kitchen.
Just about anything you bake in a regular oven—pies, breads, stews—can be baked in a Dutch oven, using hot charcoal in your campfire ring. Depending on the size of your Dutch oven, you could roast a chicken, turkey or standing rib roast. You can bake casseroles and pizza. Again, the possibilities are just about endless.
Whether your Dutch oven is new from the store (preseasoned or unseasoned) or a hand-me-down or a fantastic find, you need to make sure it is clean and seasoned before you use it. For more information on how to restore your cast iron or season your cast iron, please see my blog posts: “Restoring Cast Iron” and “Cast Iron Seasoning.”
Re-season your oven regularly and especially if it starts to rust, smells rancid, or food has a metallic taste—this is a sign your seasoning has been removed. You’ll want to maintain that black patina (like a satin black bowling ball) to maintain the non-stick qualities and protect your oven from rust.
Once your Dutch oven is seasoned it should never be scrubbed with soap. I find really hot water and a polycarbonate scraper works wonders. For easy cleanup, you can line the bottom and the sides of the Dutch oven with aluminum foil or you can purchase parchment liners.
When you dry your cast iron, be sure to dry it thoroughly. Remember that cast iron is porous and you’ll want to get any water out of all those pores. I like to set mine on or near the fire and let the heat of the fire dry any water I wasn’t able to get with a towel.
A Dutch oven seems indestructible, but it will shatter if dropped on hard cement (I know this from experience). Never pour cold water into a hot oven or you may crack it and cause permanent damage to the oven.
Store the oven in a warm, dry place with the lid cracked so air can circulate inside.
Now that you know how to care for your Dutch oven, let’s talk about how to actually cook with it. Start with good quality charcoal briquettes. Briquettes provide a long lasting, even heat source and are easier to use than wood coals, particularly if you are new to Dutch oven cooking. Briquettes will last for about an hour and will need to be replenished if longer cooking times are required. For more information on charcoal, please see my blog post: “I Want Coal in My Stocking.”
The number of briquettes you need will vary depending on the size of your Dutch oven and the temperature you need the oven to be. Please see the temperature chart below. The chart will show you the total number of coals you’ll need and how they should be distributed on the top and the bottom.
Different types of cooking will require different placement of the briquettes. For most recipes, place one-third of your briquettes underneath your Dutch oven and two-thirds of your briquettes on the lid. For baking, place one-fourth of your coals underneath and three-fourths of your coals on the lid. For boiling, frying, stewing, and simmering, all of the heat comes from the bottom; therefore, all coals are placed beneath the Dutch oven.
When placing your coals under the oven, place them in a circular pattern so they are at least 1/2″ inside the Dutch oven’s edge. Arrange briquettes on top of the Dutch oven in a checkerboard pattern. Do not bunch briquettes as they can cause hot spots. To prevent (minimize) hot spots during cooking, get in the habit to lift and rotate the entire oven a quarter turn and then rotate just the lid a quarter turn in the opposite direction. Rotate every 10-15 minutes. If you use wood coals, remember that the flame will be much hotter than the coals! Avoid direct flames on the pot or turn frequently. It is important to remember that these tips are only a guide to help you get started. You will need to adjust briquettes (or coals) according to the recipe and keep in mind that the weather, ambient temperature, and ground conditions can affect cooking temperature.
Check your foods occasionally to make sure they’re not burning, cooking too fast, or not cooking fast enough. But don’t lift the lid too often. Each time you lift the lid, heat escapes and lengthens your cooking time by as much as 20 minutes! Be careful in removing the lid so as not to flavor your dish with ashes!
To maintain heat over an hour, ignite 6 coals 15 minutes in and add 4 coals on top and 2 on the bottom at 30 minutes; repeat as necessary.
I’m sure by now you may be thinking this sounds really complicated, but it really isn’t.
Choose a recipe suitable for the size of your Dutch oven. Start with a simple recipe. It could be as simple as a can of refrigerator biscuits. Keep your cook time short. Finally, choose a day with mild weather conditions.
Assemble everything you need. Start your coals and load your ingredients into the Dutch oven. If your recipe is a Dutch oven recipe, use the recommended number of coals. If it’s not, use the temperature chart above to determine how many coals you need. Set your timer and remember to rotate the oven and the lid every 10-15 minutes. Enjoy what you made!
Now decide what you’re going to make next! We’d love it if you shared in the comments section what you make.