The first secret to Dutch oven cooking is to remember that these cast iron kettles are the original slow cooker. There are many different ways you can use one, but here is the classic slow-cooker use for having a hot meal ready when you come back from a long hike or a day’s fishing:
- In the morning, dig a hole in the ground slightly taller and larger around than the Dutch oven you will be using. Build a fire in the hole using hardwood and let it burn down to coals.
- In the meantime, prepare your Dutch oven meal. (Camping and Hiking Ideas Hint: Just about any slow-cooker recipe will translate well into a Dutch oven using this method.)
- Place tinfoil over the mouth of the pot and put the lid on. Cover the lid with an old cloth or more tinfoil.
- When you are ready, rake the coals from the hole, place the Dutch oven inside the hole, and then put fresh coals from the campfire around and over the oven.
- Shovel a few inches of soil over the top and flatten surface with a shovel or press soil down with feet.
- That’s it! Go hiking, go fishing, do whatever. At the end of the day come back, dig up the oven and your meal will be hot and ready.
Dutch oven cooking is more than food preparation—it is an art that you practice in the wilderness. From the moment that you haul out that heavy black kettle from its place in the back of the trailer you have committed yourself to an effort that feeds, not only the camper, but the heart of history. You are embarking on a cooking journey that began well over three hundred years ago, to end up here, now, at the campsite with you and the watering mouths that wait for your creation. Out of respect for that journey, let’s review secrets 2-5 for perfect Dutch oven cooking:
2. Select the right pot.
For camping, never buy a Dutch oven without legs unless you have some alternate means of setting them above the coals. Flat bottoms are notoriously hard to cook in, because you cannot regulate the coals underneath properly. Make sure the lid fits securely, with no gaps. The center of the lid should have a handle so you can remove it with ease, and don’t forget to make sure the wire handle itself is strong and easy to move. Pick a medium sized pot, 12”. It holds enough stew for 6-10 people, and is large enough to do a little baking in. Larger pots are very heavy, smaller ones don’t hold enough.
3. Don’t forget to season your Dutch oven.
Do this at home if it doesn’t come pre-seasoned. Take out one oven rack from your home oven and preheat the oven to 200°F. Set your Dutch oven inside (be aware of the legs; make sure they don’t bang the heating element. If you can, lay the lid on the rack and the oven on top of the lid) and leave it there for a good ten minutes. Using oven mitts, remove the pot and wipe it inside and out with a small amount of shortening, inside and out. When completely coated, increase home oven temperature to 350°F, place pot back inside and “bake” for one hour. Turn off the smoke alarm for this, as there will be smoke. After an hour, turn off your home oven and let the whole thing cool on its own, preferably overnight. Your Dutch oven is now ready for use.
4. The secret to Dutch oven cooking temperatures.
A pretty accurate scale for baking in your dutch oven can be found here. You can use it to regulate your boiling and cooking, too–the number of briquettes over and under can be comparable to low, medium, medium-high and high. Reduce the number of briquettes if the day is hot, your cast iron pot was preheated, the food went in hot, etc. The nice thing about reducing temperature is that it is just a matter of removing a couple of briquettes over and under your pot.
5. If you are baking, invest in a pot lid lifter.
A lid lifter is always a good idea, but it is especially handy when you are doing any baking in your Dutch oven. Invest in one, I am not kidding you. The pot is going to be hot with those coals all over it, and even when you are wearing heavy-duty gloves it can be tricky getting that hot lid off to check inside without spilling ash into it. A lid lifter makes it much easier. On a side note, go to the store and spend a couple of dollars (literally) to get some round cooler racks. The two I found are a perfect fit for my 12″ Dutch ovens. They keep the bottom of any pans I put in for baking from coming in contact with the base of the Dutch oven. This eliminates any hot spots that might burn a pie or cake or loaf.
6. Bonus Secret–Make or Buy a Dutch Oven Table.
A metal table for your Dutch oven enables you to use it without bending or kneeling down. It also gets your oven off the ground. This is good, because a cold ground sucks the heat from your coals while you cook. The result is that this makes for more reliable temperatures. Rest your charcoal chimney on it while getting your coals started. And you can use it for other things. Place your propane stove on it if you aren’t using your Dutch oven. Start a small fire for marshmallows or other reasons. Use it as a large trivet for hot pots and pans you’ve had on your stove or the fire. If it’s not had hot stuff on it recently you can even use it to put the dish-washing basin on!
So there you have it, folks. Remember these five secrets and you will do more than make a meal—you’ll make yourself a Dutch oven master! For Dutch oven recipes, click here.