Cooking over a campfire in a camp Dutch oven. Photo by Getty Images/GMVozd.
The image of Dutch ovens that used to come to mind was my mother’s enormous crimson Le Creuset pot, which she always used on the stove to cook homemade chili or potato soup. But after spending time with the participants of the National Dutch Oven Gathering (NDOG) in Hutchinson, Kansas, I realized my mistake. A true Dutch oven actually looks much different.
Dennis Slane and Barry Trimmell — experienced Dutch oven cooks, members of the Ozark Dutch Oven Group, and teachers of NDOG’s “Dutch Oven 101” class — refer to the flat-bottomed Dutch ovens we use on kitchen stovetops as “bean pots.” To them and many others, a true (or “camp”) Dutch oven is a cast-iron or aluminum pot that sits on three short legs and has a flat, handled lid with a rim around the edge. These Dutch ovens are meant for outdoor cooking. The legs allow coals to be set beneath the pot, and the rim on the lid keeps coals from rolling off the top.
Slane and Trimmell are both collectors of Dutch ovens — everything from small 8-inch and popular 12-inch models of different depths to discontinued 6-inch and 16-inch Dutch ovens. Despite their love of unusual Dutch ovens, if you only have one pot to buy, they wholeheartedly recommend the 12-inch option. Slane says, “The 12 regular, which we call ‘shallow,’ is the equivalent surface area of a 9-by-13-inch baking dish. That’s why I recommend a 12-inch, or the 12-inch deep in case you want to make a little extra. You can always cook less, but you can’t always cook more.” And while they both agree that the best Dutch ovens are cast iron, they also have aluminum pots in their collections. Aluminum ovens weigh a third of their cast-iron counterparts, heat and cool faster (both an advantage and a disadvantage), and don’t require seasoning. While apt to get hot spots, they’re dishwasher safe. Because they provide less consistency and flavor, Trimmell mostly uses his for prep work.
Cooking in a cast-iron Dutch oven, with coals on top of lid. Photo by Getty Images/Angela Schmidt.
No matter which model you choose, there are some needed steps to prepare your pan, particularly if it’s cast iron. Before using a Dutch oven for the first time, Trimmell makes certain the pot and lid are a perfect match. To do so, he adds valve-grinding compound to the groove where the lid meets the pot, puts the lid on, and turns it 100 times to the right, then 100 times to the left. “It takes metal off the lid, and takes metal off the pot,” he says. When he’s finished, that lid and pot are a perfect fit for life.
The next step before cooking is seasoning. Slane and Trimmell recommend seasoning a clean, dry pot and lid with simple vegetable oil. They also suggest using blue Scott paper towels, which can be found in the automotive section of stores and are completely lint-free. Just fold the paper towel into fourths, put it over the opening of the bottle of oil, and tip the bottle so one light “dump” of oil gets on the towel. Rub the paper towel around the outside and inside of the Dutch oven, being sure to catch all the curves and ridges — and don’t forget the lid. Next, get a clean paper towel, and wipe away as much of the oil as you possibly can. Set the Dutch oven and its lid upside-down in a home oven that has excellent ventilation, or a gas or charcoal grill outside, because the heated vegetable oil will smoke. Set the oven at 500 degrees Fahrenheit, and let the Dutch oven sit inside for about an hour. Then turn off the heat and let the pot cool.
Many home cooks re-season their cast-iron cookware periodically, but neither Slane nor Trimmell has found it necessary for camp Dutch ovens. If you’re storing seasoned cast-iron cookware for any period of time, make sure there’s good airflow around it to prevent rust. Store it with something between the lid and the pot, such as foil. Just fold some strips of foil into thick rectangles, fold them over the opening of the Dutch oven, and set the lid on top.
Because camp Dutch ovens are used over a bed of hot coals, you’ll need to protect your hands and heat-proof your work surfaces. Try these invaluable pieces of equipment:
Welding gloves are a great investment for cooking with Dutch ovens. Photo by Getty Images/Stas_V.
- Welding gloves are the “best investment you’ll ever make,” according to Slane. One pair of gloves should last about five years if you use them a lot, and longer if they’re used less often. “You’ll know when it’s time to change them,” Trimmell says.
- Long tongs to keep your fingers and knuckles clear of hot coals.
- Lid lifters are rods with curved claws on the end that hook around a lid’s handle so you don’t have to touch hot metal.
- A lid stand will keep a hot, charcoal-filled lid off the ground. As an added bonus, it can even double in purpose if you turn the lid top-side down over the lid stand, creating a griddle to fry on.
- A Charcoal chimney is a metal cylinder with a grate that allows for airflow, along with a handle for carrying convenience. You’ll need hot coals for any camp Dutch oven concoction, and while you wait 10 to 20 minutes for your coals to char in the charcoal chimney, you can complete the rest of your prep work.
Long tongs will keep your fingers and knuckles clear of hot coals when cooking over fire. Photo by Getty Images/BookyBuggy.
You’ll need to clean your cookware when you’re finished cooking. According to Trimmell and Slane, there are as many ways to clean a Dutch oven as there are people in the world. Unlike some cast-iron advocates, they have no problem using soap (as long as it’s not lye-based) on a seasoned pot, alongside hot water and their favorite rubber scrapers for removing food residue. What matters most is that no soap is left behind, and that the cookware is dried thoroughly (not left to air-dry). You can dry cast iron with a lint-free paper towel or by heating it slowly over low heat.
Skills and Versatility
While the specifics and dedication required to learn to cook proficiently in a camp Dutch oven seemed daunting at first, the skill with which the NDOG chefs cooked, along with the food they produced, quickly won me over. Time and time again, they proved the truth of their favorite phrase: “Anything you can cook on a stove, we can cook in a Dutch oven.”
The recipes that follow could easily be adapted for the stovetop and a “kitchen” Dutch oven, but there’s something special about the meticulousness of camp Dutch ovens, the flavor produced by seasoned cast iron, and food cooked in the fresh air.
Being an editor at Grit gives Haley Casey a chance to gather endless new ideas for gardening and delicious recipes, as well as read, write, and put her English degree to good use.
When cooking over coals with a camp Dutch oven, you’ll need to achieve different temperatures for different cooking methods — from baking and roasting to frying and simmering. This is achieved based on the way you arrange coals beneath and on top of the Dutch oven. Some recipes specify the number of coals to use and their arrangement. If this information isn’t available, you can download the Dutch Oven Charcoal Calculator (for Android users) or the Dutch Oven Helper Lite (for Apple users) app. The apps allow you to select Dutch oven size, cooking method, and temperature, and then recommend the number of coals to place below and on top of your pot.
Gritty cooking in a Dutch oven over a campfire. Illustration by Brad Anderson.
Avoid creating hot spots while you cook. To guarantee even heating, place the coals in a circle below the Dutch oven and on top of its lid. Then, rotate the pot every 10 minutes. Handy tip: Place the lid of the Dutch oven with the label facing you. When it’s time to rotate it, turn the pot 120 degrees clockwise, and then turn the lid so it’s positioned facing you once again.