The Dutch Oven
A Must-Have For Base Camp Cooking
There are good reasons why the Dutch oven was one of the must-haves when early European settlers first started making their way across the North American continent.
The Dutch oven was nearly indestructible. This wide, somewhat shallow, heavy pot with a tight lid would bake, boil, fry, sear, simmer, and roast nearly anything you needed to cook. And it was cleaned up with just plain hot water. If you can handle the weight of a Dutch oven in your gear, it’s a must-have for basecamp, too.
The simple Dutch oven is my hunting-camp cooking vessel of choice. It’s where braising magically transforms the toughest, sinewy, unchewable chunks of muscle into unctuous mahogany-colored, center-of-the-plate celebrations. It’s where a scoop of scarlet coals below and on top bake imperfect rounds of sourdough bread. The Dutch oven competently delivers Antelope Osso Buco, Black Bear Bourguignon, and stir-fried pickerel cheeks. It is one of the most versatile and nearly indestructible pieces of equipment, and that’s why it should be part of every hunter’s gear. Whether you are exploring rock faces or chasing autumn elk, the Dutch oven will help feed your crew efficiently.
Here are a few quick tips on selecting the right size and style for you, a review of what optional equipment adds the most flexibility to the oven, and some quick tips to use it to start cooking great grub over live fire.
Dutch Oven Defined
A Dutch oven is basically a cast iron pot that is wider than it is deep, with a bale handle and a tight-fitting lid. Dutch ovens come in two basic categories: three-legged for cooking with (over and under) live coals or briquettes, and the flat-bottomed variety meant to be used on a flat top stove or burner.
The cast iron lids are designed to go with the Dutch ovens. The three-legged ovens come with a rimmed lid to hold live coals or briquettes on top of the oven. These lids can be inverted and used as a dome-shaped griddle to sear bacon or fry eggs.
The flat-bottomed Dutch oven comes with a plain, dome-shaped lid. Either oven can be slung over live fire on a tripod.
How to Choose an Oven
Once you choose the style of oven that suits you best, the next choice is whether to pick a shallow or a deep oven.
The shallow ovens hold the heat from the lid closer to what’s being baked, so if you want to bake biscuits or bread, the shallow oven would be your first choice. If you are more likely to make stew, roast meats, or casserole-type dishes for your crew, you are likely to want the deeper versions.
Then, it’s on to choosing the oven size. There are a variety of sizes suited to feeding just a pair of diners all the way up to a whole rugby team. I like the 12-inch variety, which is perfect for four to six diners.
It’s worth pointing out that it’s also fine to own more than one oven. I have five, including a couple of enameled ones that I use at home for baking sourdough and braising osso buco. You can find excellent cast iron Dutch ovens by long-time manufacturers like Lodge Manufacturing and CampChef. Keep your eye out at garage sales, too. There are some fine decades-old ovens that come up from time to time. I bought a Wagner cast iron one when I was 16 years old, and it is still in weekly use.
Calibrate with Briquettes
A formula in the Lodge cast iron Dutch oven manual tells you how to “set” your oven. It goes like this:
The number of briquettes required to cook is the diameter of the Dutch oven times two, plus two, to yield a bake temperature of 350˚F.
This plan seems random and arbitrary, but two decades of cooking on cast iron confirms that this formula works. However, you can conduct your own research, make notes, and adjust your process as required.
The math works like this:
- 12-inch diameter oven x 2 = Add 2 = 26 total.
- Light these up in a briquette fire starter chimney, putting one-third of the briquettes (8) below and
two-thirds (18) on top, and the resulting temperature will be very close to 350˚F. For every ten degrees of desired temperature increase, add one briquette.
Let’s say you want to cook biscuits at 400˚F in your 12-inch oven. Here’s how that math works:
- 12-inch diameter oven x 2 + 2 + 2 + (50˚ F / 10 = 5) for a new total of 31
- Put 11 briquettes underneath and the rest on
- Presto: 400˚F oven.
Obviously, these directions are for briquettes, which are standard and give off a standard heat. You can certainly scoop coals from the campfire below and on top of your lipped Dutch Oven. The heat intensity of different woods varies greatly. My strong recommendation is to experiment. I live in the West, where the most common wood we cut from the boreal forest is either poplar or spruce. Neither is particularly heat intense, but the food is always good.
What Can You Make?
Dutch ovens are versatile. You can use the oven as a skillet with no lid. You can brown burgers, cook sausages, and heat spaghetti sauce. You can bake biscuits, buns, and make fried chicken. The more you use the Dutch oven, the more you will become comfortable predicting how the oven works with a variety of meals and products. Our family Dutch oven is the center cook piece every trip out.
Accessories and Tools
Some tools give Dutch oven users the right solutions for specific cooking issues and help keep everyone safe at the same time.
Lid lifter: This is a wrought iron tool that looks a little bit like a poker, but it is perfectly designed to pick up a lid full of hot coals.
Camp Dutch Oven Tote Bags: These bags are oven size-specific and keep your oven protected. What I find is these bags protect where your oven is stored. Dutch ovens can be sooty after hours on a fire, and these bags keep ovens separated well from the stored spaces.
4-in-1 Dutch Oven Tool: I call this a spyder, and it is the perfect folding base to support a flat-bottom oven so you can put coals underneath it, use an inverted domed lid as a griddle, or as a place to rest a smoking hot lid or pot during service.
Wooden spoon: I have a strong preference for wooden spoons, and my camping gear contains the various sizes and shapes I have come to enjoy best over the years. Conduct your own research and act accordingly.
Chainmail Scrubbing Pad: Lodge makes this somewhat pricey piece of kit that is irreplaceable for cleaning up. In its absence, you can use a stainless-steel scrubber.
Stainless steel tongs: Being a commercial food guy, my preference is for 12-inch and 18-inch heavy commercial food service-type tongs. No wimpy stuff in our camp.
Tripod: Lodge and other companies make a wrought-iron tripod that comes with an adjustable chain to hang the Dutch oven over the fire or coals. This is a great addition to a camp and gives another level of cooking flexibility.
Conditioner or oil: The last step in caring for your cast iron is wiping it down with conditioner or oil to protect it from rust. Various manufacturers have proprietary blends which all work well. Coconut oil well rubbed into the iron works well too.
A big part of enjoying the outdoors is preparing meals out-of-doors, too. The Dutch oven helps accomplish this in spades. So, enjoy the process of getting to know the capability of your new Dutch oven. And cook something to share with friends and family.