Outdoor magazines always make camp cuisine look so appealing. Steam rises from pots of savory venison stew. Golden brown biscuits peek from under the lids of Dutch ovens, and children crowd around mouth-watering desserts.
So why is it that real outdoor dishes usually are burned, raw or seasoned with ashes?
The blame doesn’t belong with equipment makers. It is not really the cook’s fault, either. The problem is lack of experience. Most of us cook in kitchens the majority of the year. It should come as no surprise that we have trouble using a whole new set of equipment. We simply don’t use Dutch ovens and other camp cookware often enough to get really good with them.
Enter the guys in white hats — the International Dutch Oven Society. This group has solutions, in the form of educational programs that make camp cooking all but foolproof. I know, because several years ago I took an intensive two-day Dutch oven instructor training course taught by IDOS instructors. I went in hardly knowing the difference between a Dutch oven and a Crock-Pot. At the end, I was roasting chickens, whipping up casseroles and turning out flawless pineapple upside-down cakes.
You can, too. Here’s how.
The first thing you need is faith. You must believe you can cook anything in a Dutch oven that you can cook on your gas or electric range and oven at home. This belief is supported by history.
Pioneers who ventured into the wilderness did without lots of things, but great food was not one of those things. They took with them cast-iron pots with tight-fitting lids. Records from pioneer times — like Lewis and Clark’s journals — describe sumptuous meals of roast buffalo hump, boudin blanc, sourdough bread and cakes, pies and bread pudding larded with wild fruits and nuts.
Their Dutch ovens were not the flat-bottomed variety that city folks placed on iron grates in fireplaces. Pioneer ovens had legs to hold them above glowing coals pulled out of the campfire. With ovens like the pioneers had, you too, can cook fantastic meals. You could even do it with coals from a wood fire, but there is an easier way that makes successful Dutch oven cooking possible, even for greenhorns.
Most problems with Dutch oven cooking arise because they don’t come with thermostats. Imagine what would happen if you lost all the dials on an electric kitchen range. Guessing at the settings would make cooking anything a hit-or-miss proposition at best.
Generally when we speak of an outdoor Dutch oven, we mean a heavy, rough surface cast iron pot with three feet. The pot should have a long heavy-gauge wire handle attached to the sides that is called a bail. The lid of the pot should fit tightly and have a lip that will hold coals without them falling into your food and a handle on top that can be picked up with a lid lifter.
Your first outdoor Dutch oven probably should be one of standard depth — about 4 or 5 inches. It is tempting to buy deeper ovens, because they hold more. Deep ovens are great for large quantities of stew or big roasts. However, the lid-to-bottom distance of deep ovens makes baking breads, cakes or biscuits almost impossible.
A standard 10-inch diameter oven makes enough casserole to serve three or four people. A 12-incher will feed a large family. A 16-inch oven requires a large family just to lift it when full.
A few high-quality accessories are absolutely critical to Dutch oven cooking success. Don’t skimp on these items!
The key to successful outdoor Dutch oven cooking is knowing the temperature of your oven. The secret to this knowledge is charcoal.
Rule No. 1 Charcoal briquettes produce more uniform heat than campfire coals. They last longer, too. Brand-name briquettes have more consistent quality than bargain brands. More important, they are consistent in size— about 2 inches square — which is important for predictable heat.
Rule No. 2 Once you know this, everything else falls into place. Take your oven’s diameter in inches and double it. This is the number of high-quality, standard-size charcoal briquettes you will need to heat your oven to 325 degrees every time.
It’s that simple.
Individual Dutch ovens vary slightly in cooking temperature with the same amount of charcoal, depending on their shape and thickness. These guidelines get you close enough so that, with practice, you can discover exactly what works for your oven.
Rule No. 3 Because heat rises, briquettes heat the bottom of a Dutch oven more than the top. Consequently, you will need to divide your briquettes between the top and bottom for even heating. How many more briquettes will you need on top? About twice as many — two-thirds up, one-third down.
Rule No. 4 Briquettes should be spaced evenly below the bottom of the oven. On top, place one briquette on each side of the center handle and space the rest evenly around the perimeter.
No matter how evenly you space briquettes on the bottom of the oven, there will be hot spots. To compensate for this, lift the oven and turn it 90 degrees every 15 minutes. Turn the lid 90 degrees every 15 minutes when baking cakes and breads.
Rule No. 5 Some recipes call for temperatures higher or lower than 325 degrees. To change oven temperature by 25 degrees, add or subtract two briquettes.
If you want to bake biscuits at 375 degrees, add four briquettes to the number used for a 325-degree oven.
To slow-cook venison chili at 250 degrees, remove six briquettes.
Add or remove two-thirds of the briquettes from the top and the remainder from the bottom to maintain even heat.
Rule No. 6 Charcoal briquettes last about 30 minutes. When recipes call for longer cooking, start replacement charcoal early to avoid temperature drops.
Rule No. 7 Baked goods tend to cook faster on the bottom than on top. To avoid overcooking the bottom or undercooking the top, remove the oven from the bottom charcoal after two-thirds of the baking time has elapsed. The bottom of the oven retains enough heat to finish the job while the top browns.
Try these the next time you're out camping.
Size oven: 12 inches Briquettes needed: 24; 16 on top, 8 on bottom
1/4 cup butter
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 can sliced pineapples
1 full-sized yellow cake mix
Melt butter and sugar in oven. Arrange pineapple slices on top of sugar and butter. Arrange pecan halves around pineapple and put a cherry in the center of each ring. In a separate container, prepare cake mix according to package instructions. Pour batter over pineapple slices and bake according to cake mix directions. When cake is done, remove oven from heat, remove lid and let cool for 10 minutes. Put a cutting board or a circle of cardboard covered with aluminum foil over the top of the oven. Say a little prayer, and flip it. This job is best done by two people.
Size oven: 10 inches Briquettes needed: 22; 14 on top, 8 on bottom
3 cups grated zucchini
1 egg, beaten
11/4 cups uncooked oatmeal
1 teaspoon dried basil
1 cup grated mozzarella cheese
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon dried, minced onion
1–3 teaspoons dried, minced garlic
1/2 cup tomato sauce
Mix all ingredients except tomato sauce in order listed and pour into Dutch oven. Top with tomato sauce. Bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes.
Size oven: 12 inches Briquettes needed: 24; 16 on top, 8 on bottom
2 tablespoons butter 2 tablespoons olive oil 2 cups diced yellow onions 6 garlic cloves, minced 31/2 cups diced celery 4 cups sliced carrots 2 bay leaves 2 sprigs fresh thyme 3–4 pound roasting chicken 1 cup chicken stock or bullion 1/2 cup dry white wine 3 cups stewed tomatoes salt and pepper to taste 2 tablespoons fresh parsley
Put butter, oil, onions, garlic and celery in Dutch oven and sauté over medium heat until softened. Add carrots, bay leaves and thyme and cook another five minutes. Add chicken (if you don’t have a deep oven, cut the chicken into quarters so they lay flat), chicken stock, wine, tomatoes, salt and pepper. Place the lid on the oven and bake at 300 degrees for 11/2 hours or until legs are loose and meat is falling off the bone. Replenish coals every 30 minutes and turn oven and lid every 15 minutes.
You can get a wealth of information from the International Dutch Oven Society, 41 E. 400 North, No. 210, Logan, Utah 84321.
Editor In Chief - Ara Clark
Managing Editor - Nichole LeClair
Art Director - Cliff White
Writer/Editor - Tom Cwynar
Staff Writer - Bonnie Chasteen
Staff Writer - Jim Low
Photographer - Noppadol Paothong
Photographer - David Stonner
Designer - Stephanie Thurber
Artist - Dave Besenger
Artist - Mark Raithel
Circulation - Laura Scheuler