When I think of Dutch Oven cooking I usually have visions of campfires and Scout Camp, of apple cobbler and savory stews. But as I further my preparations for TEOTWAWKI I realize that I want my Dutch ovens at my retreat.
Any heavy pot with lid can be used and called a Dutch oven. But when I say Dutch oven I am referring to the three legged cast iron (or aluminum) covered pot that is normally used outdoors.
Much of the information I give you is basic and you may wish to explore these topics in depth. One of the best sources of information would be your state’s Dutch Oven Society. There you can find classes, recipes and knowledgeable people.
My first introduction to the outdoor art of Dutch oven cooking was at a Boy Scout Leader Introduction to Outdoor Skills class.
The aromas coming from the cooking fires on that autumn morning are still in my memory.
I purchased my first Dutch oven soon after returning home from that training weekend. Years later my collection has grown to fourteen Dutch ovens and now I usually teach that class at the training once or twice a year.
Not only does food taste better cooked outdoors, it tastes better yet when cooked in a good quality Dutch oven.
Let me help you avoid some mistakes and perhaps some disappointments in buying and using a Dutch oven.
As I said earlier, I definitely want Dutch ovens at my retreat. You can bake bread, pies, cakes, and biscuits. You can make stews, casseroles, and other dishes. A Dutch oven can act as a type of pressure cooker to tenderize tougher meats.
Buying Your Dutch Oven
Like any tool, quality counts!
If I could have only one Dutch oven I would buy a quality, name brand, twelve inch cast iron, three legged oven with a rimmed lid. By rimmed lid I mean a mostly flat lid that has a raised rim around the edge. This rim helps to hold coals during the cooking process. FYI, some Dutch ovens have a domed lid, some with points on the inside which helps in self-basting. While these have their place and use, I would stick with the campfire style oven.
There are many brands of ovens on the market. The most common is probably Lodge. They are US made and excellent quality. My first oven was a Lodge.
Camp Chef also offers ovens in a variety of sizes and styles. I believe that they are now all Chinese made. I do have some and like them very much.
Cabela's offers Dutch ovens under their own name. Like everything from Cabela's, they are great. Also they have one of the best Customer Service Departments anywhere.
There are other brands out there, some custom made, and some junk. I have one of those junkers and use it fairly often. It just doesn’t cook evenly or retain its finish. It is however expendable and that matters when teaching Boy Scouts how to cook in one.
You should be able to purchase a good quality twelve inch Dutch oven for less than $80 USD. It would be frugal of you to pick it up at the store if you can versus having it shipped, as they are quite heavy.
Your New Dutch Oven
After you have unpacked your Dutch oven you will notice one of two things:
- Your oven has a nice black finish or
- Your oven looks like raw metal
If the former, all you need to do before using is to wash it, as it is already seasoned. More and more ovens are coming seasoned from the manufacturer. NEVER USE SOAP ON A SEASONED DUTCH OVEN! I suggest you use warm water and baking soda. Rinse with hot water, wipe out with a paper towel, and let air dry.
Once your oven is clean you may use it, or put away for later use. If it is going to be several days before you use it, or you live in a humid area, I suggest you oil it. You may use any good grade vegetable oil. I prefer olive oil spray like Pam. Lightly oil the oven and lid inside and out. Take a clean paper towel and make sure the entire oven is covered, removing excess oil.
Store your oven with the lid ajar or the oven setting on the lid in a dry area. Many manufacturers also make storage bags for their ovens.
If your oven looks like raw metal then it probably has not been seasoned. Many of the lower end ovens are raw. Also many people prefer to season their ovens themselves.
Seasoning a New Dutch Oven
Seasoning is basically taking oil and baking it onto the metal giving it a slick (almost Teflon-like) finish (patina).
Wash your Dutch oven with HOT soapy water. Okay I know I said to never use soap on your oven, but yours is not seasoned yet. Soap will remove the patina on your seasoned oven and will leave a soapy taste in food.
Scrub your oven thoroughly with a plastic scrubber. Wash it inside and out. You need to remove the oils used in manufacturing and those used in protecting from rust during transit.
Rinse well with copious amounts of hot water. I will fill my oven with water and place it on the stove bringing it to a slow boil. Drain your oven, towel dry with paper towels (I always use paper towels with my ovens to avoid previous odors including fabric softeners on dish towels). If the water was hot enough the remaining water will soon evaporate.
With the oven still warm lightly coat your oven with a quality pure vegetable shortening like Crisco. Make sure the oven and lid are thoroughly covered inside and out.
Place the Dutch oven upside down on a rack in the kitchen oven. Place the lid right side up on a rack. (Place foil under the oven to catch dripping oil). Bake your oven at 350 degrees F for at least an hour or until smoke quits coming off the Dutch oven. I usually try to do this when my wife is away from the house. I also try to open a window or two to help eliminate the aroma and smoke.
You can also do this outside on your gas fired grill, although I don’t personally think it does as good a job.
One of the secrets of Dutch oven cooking is to keep your oven very clean.
Some people will line their ovens with ready made foil liners, parchment liners or aluminum foil. I too sometimes use these items, but usually only when I am making a desert with a lot of sugar which tends to burn onto the bottom of the oven. Using liners does help in the cleanup, but it does change the taste of many foods.
After using your oven scrape out any remaining food. I always use wooden or plastic utensils to avoid digging into the patina. Using a plastic scrapper is very handy at this point. Remove as much food as possible.
Wipe the oven with a clean paper towel, adding a little warm water as necessary. Wash the oven with another paper towel and warm water. DO NOT USE SOAP AND DO NOT ALLOW ANYONE ELSE TO DO SO EITHER!!!
You can use a plastic scrubber if there is a spot or two that needs extra cleaning. Sometimes I will use table salt to scrub the oven. Make sure that you rinse it very well as the salt will corrode the oven.
Rinse well with hot water, wipe out with paper towels, and oil with a high quality vegetable oil (again I prefer spray olive oil).
Note on storing: If you use too much oil on your oven it will thicken as lighter materials evaporate leaving a gummy mess. The oil will also turn rancid (although that doesn’t really hurt anything). This is why I use the olive oil cooking spray. It leaves a thinner coating of oil.
When you heat your oven for use the rancid oil will cook off enhancing the patina.
Sometimes you may put your oven away with moisture inside and it will rust. If it is very minor just scour it with a plastic scouring pad or table salt and a paper towel. Rinse, dry well, oil and use or properly store.
A friend of mine once brought me a beautiful fourteen inch Dutch oven that he had been storing in an outbuilding. The roof must have leaked and filled the oven with water. The outside was perfect but the inside totally rusted.
There are several ways to treat this, but my method was to get a plastic pan large enough to put the oven in. Then I filled the oven with Classic Coca-Cola. In about two days it was totally clean. I washed it in hot water, dried it well and treated it as a new raw oven.
Storage is particularly important, especially in a humid environment. Always make sure the oven is clean, dry and oiled. Store with the lid askew or separate from the oven. Storage bags are helpful.
I take 3-4 pieces of electrical wire about four inches long. I bend them first in a “U” shape. Then I take one leg of the U and make a second bend about halfway down, at 90 degrees out. I place these over the rim of the oven with the straight part inside. Then I place the lid on, place in the bag and store. This keeps the lid from settling in and making a seal, trapping moisture.
I also will place a folded paper towel in the oven to absorb moisture and/or excess oil.
Aluminum Dutch Ovens
I have not mentioned anything up till now about aluminum Dutch Ovens. Some people do not care for them, but I feel that they have a place in Dutch oven cooking.
There are several manufacturers who make aluminum ovens, including GSI and Camp Chef.
Warning! Do not preheat an empty aluminum Dutch oven with the lid on. It can weld shut, destroying your oven.
Some advantages to aluminum ovens are the lesser weight, faster heat-up, and ease of cleaning.
Just wash your aluminum oven like any pan, in hot soapy water.
Also you do not need to season your aluminum oven although you may if you wish. If you do then treat it like cast iron and do not use soap in it.
I have taken one of my aluminum Dutch ovens backpacking…try that with a cast iron oven!
Using Your Dutch Oven
You can use your Dutch oven in a variety of ways.
It can be used for browning meats and for frying. This is a good time to mention that the lid is slightly curved. If you invert it and place in on some coals, top down, it becomes a shallow skillet. I usually place 3-4 small dry stones under to make it level. Do not use wet rocks, especially from a creek bed or lake as the water inside the rock may turn to steam while in the coals and explode.
The oven may be used like a kettle, even suspended by the handle over a fire, to heat water, cook soups or stews or any other use a kettle might have.
And finally it can be used to bake.
The main difference in cooking and baking is how you use the coals. For this point of instruction we will speak of charcoal briquettes.
A simple way to figure how many briquettes needed is to take the diameter of the oven, multiply by two, and then divide by three. To cook put two thirds of the coals beneath the oven and one third on top. To bake put two thirds on top and one third beneath.
Here is an example:
You have a twelve inch Dutch oven. You want to bake a cobbler. Twelve inches times two is twenty four briquettes. Divide the twenty four briquettes in thirds, or three piles of eight. You want to bake and so you want most of the heat on top. Take two of the three piles and place on top evenly, including around the rim. Evenly place the remaining pile of eight briquettes under the oven.
By following this formula the interior temperature of the oven should be close to 350 degrees F. Of course that can fluctuate because of ambient temperature, wind, and ground moisture and temperature.
You can adjust the temperature 25 degrees by adding or subtracting one coal top and bottom.
When baking, I usually rotate the lid 45 degrees clockwise and the kettle 45 degrees counter clockwise every fifteen minutes to ensure more consistent heating and to avoid hotspots. Try not to lift the lid when rotating to avoid letting steam escape. Otherwise your food may dry out. It is actually the steam that cooks the food.
In a TEOTWAWKI situation or just for economy you may use coals from a fire. I will get a campfire going well, add larger logs and allow them to burn down to coals. Then using a small shovel place the coals on and under the oven. Usually they will not burn as long as charcoal and so you will need to keep replenishing them.
If you are using two or more ovens at the same time you can save charcoal and space by stacking the ovens, one atop the other. Place the largest oven on the ground with the next larger and so on. Usually 3-4 ovens are as high as I go. You must have level, firm ground to do this.
You are using the top coals of the lowest oven as the bottom coals on the second oven and on and on…
There are many accessories that make using a Dutch oven easier or more convenient.
Probably the most important tool needed is a lid lifter. These are sometimes included with your oven. Basically they are a piece of heavy wire bent to a shape handy to slip under the handle of the oven’s lid. With it you can lift the lid off the oven with the coals still on top. That way you can add seasonings, stir, or just check on the food.
Usually the lifter can also be used to move the oven such as rotating on the coals, or moving to the table to serve.
Some people prefer tongs or pliers such as Channel locks to lift lids and move the oven.
Next most important tool in your Dutch oven toolbox would be a part of long tongs. I use them mainly to arrange the coals on top of the lid. They can also be used to turn meat while browning or to serve.
Another useful tool, if you are using charcoal is a charcoal chimney. This is a sheet metal tube used to “start” charcoal burning. This is done by placing charcoal in the top of the chimney, adding a sheet or two of crumpled newspaper in the bottom and setting the paper on fire. In about 15-20 minutes you will have nice red coals.
A lid rack or rest is nice when you are cooking outside and need to remove the lid for a moment. These are just a rack made of bended rod that keeps your lid (and coals) off the ground.
The final tool I wish to mention is a Dutch oven table. This is a steel table with removable legs and a windscreen. This allows you to cook at a level that requires less bending, and keeps the danger of fire at a minimum.
As I think of the prospect of life after TEOTWAWKI I can’t help but think that feeding ourselves could be a major event each day. With a Dutch oven or two and some experience before hand using it, I expect we will take a lot of the work and worry out of preparing meals. Furthermore, we will be more likely to enjoy baked breads and sweets.
Dutch oven cooking, now before hard and desperate times, can be fun and delicious. Don’t wait until disaster hits to enjoy a wonderful outdoor cooking skill.
As a bonus I am going to include my own favorite dessert recipe…Pineapple Upside-down cake.
One can drained Pineapple rings (save the liquid)
One can crushed Pineapple
About one cup Brown Sugar
One yellow Cake mix (or the dry ingredients for one)
One stick Butter
Maraschino Cherries (optional)
For ease of cleanup line your Dutch Oven with foil or Parchment liner
This recipe is sized for a 12” Dutch Oven
Place your lined Dutch Oven on 12 coals. Allow to heat for a few moments.
Place the stick of butter in the Dutch Oven to melt.
When the butter is melted arrange the drained Pineapple rings in the bottom the Dutch Oven.
If you are using the Cherries place them in the center of the Pineapple rings (color and flavor).
Sprinkle the brown sugar over the Pineapple rings and cherries.
Empty the cake mix into a bowl and add the crushed Pineapple.
Add enough of the saved juice from the rings to make a batter.
Pour the batter over the rings cherries and brown sugar.
If using foil fold the foil inside so that none sticks out of the oven.
Place 1/3 of your coals under and 2/3 of the coals on the lid of the Dutch Oven.
Bake for an hour, rotating the lid one way 45 degrees while rotating the oven the other way every 15 minutes.
Remove from heat and allow to stand a few minutes.
You can serve out of the Dutch Oven or remove it.
To remove the cake I take a piece of heavy cardboard and cover it with foil. I lift the cake out of the oven by the foil or Parchment and place it on another piece of cardboard. Take the foil covered cardboard and place it on the cake, foil side down.
With help (it may still be hot) we flip the cake over and place the foil covered cardboard on the table with the cake above it.
Carefully remove the foil or Parchment liner to keep the rings and cherries intact.
You should have a beautiful and delicious dessert.
(Aside: I usually put about ½ teaspoon of cinnamon into the batter, but then I really like cinnamon!)