Cooking with a Dutch Oven
By J. Wayne Fears | May 25, 2018
The Ultimate Guide to Self-Reliant Living(Skyhorse Publishing, 2013) edited by Jay Cassell, is a filled with ideas about how to buy a property and start a homestead. Learn the basics that you need to become self-reliant and how to use your own energy and grow your own food. Plus, discover if you have the survivor skills and supplies you would need in case of a disaster. Find this excerpt in “Cooking Baking, and Storing Foods.”
If you saw a TV commercial that advertised one cooking pot that would bake bread, steam vegetables, boil shrimp, fry eggs, stew wild game, and broil meats, chances are you might be interested. But what if the commercial went on to say that this non-stick pot could be used to cook a meal on your home stove, in your den fireplace, on the patio, in a campfire at a state park, or on family camping trips, plus it was guaranteed to last several generations of use? Your interest would probably peak and you would want to know a lot more about this magic pot.
This Magic Pot Is the Dutch Oven
“The magic cook pot that can do it all is the Dutch oven.”
There are a lot of different designs of cooking pots that are called “Dutch ovens.” Some are modern aluminum pots designed to be used with modern stoves. Others are cast iron pots with legs that have been made famous by cooks on African safaris. (The real name for these pots is potjie and it dates back to the 1500s.) Yet others are cast iron pots with rounded bottoms that are designed to be used hanging over an open fire. And there are flat-bottomed cast iron pots designed to sit on a stove. These are often called kitchen Dutch ovens. I have used them all with satisfaction, while debating against their being called Dutch ovens.
Most outdoor cooks are in agreement that the real Dutch oven is made from heavy cast iron, or aluminum, with a flat bottom sitting on three short legs protruding about two inches. It has a strong wire bail. The lid is made of the same heavy cast iron and has a small loop handle in the center. The rim of the lid is flanged so that hot coals will stay on the lid while cooking. Many people call these ovens “camp Dutch ovens” to distinguish them from other so-called Dutch ovens. For the purpose of this book this is the Dutch oven we will be talking about.
The Dutch oven has been piquing cooks’ interest for many centuries. It has been used in this country since the first settlers began exploring the Atlantic seaboard. Today, 21st-century cooks are finding the “old-fashioned” Dutch oven just as much fun and valuable as did the colonial cooks who depended upon the pots to cook all their meals. While we don’t have to stoop over a fireplace full of hot coals to cook a meal, cooks around the world are discovering the joy and good taste that come with cooking in a Dutch oven. Whether they are used for cooking for a party on the patio, cooking on a camping trip, or cooking in an emergency when the utilities are not working, the Dutch oven produces great-tasting food with a small amount of effort, and its use is a fun family activity.
J. Wayne Fears has counted on the Dutch oven to produce good meals throughout his outdoor career. It has never let him down.
My Life with Dutch Ovens
My earliest recollection of the Dutch oven was as a small child growing up in the mountains of Alabama. My dad was a trapper and, occasionally, would take me on his trapping expeditions. He had the simplest of camping gear but his camps were comfortable and the meals always good and plentiful. His cook kit was an old 10-inch cast iron Dutch oven. The night before we would leave to run his traps, I would lie awake in my bed too excited to sleep. I would visualize the old Dutch oven steaming on the campfire, full of stew. I could smell the hoe-cake he would be cooking on the inverted oven lid sitting on a small bed of coals. Morning would not come quick enough. He was a master at cooking in the black pot and today, more than 50 years later,
I use the same Dutch oven to cook for friends and family on my patio. Every time I cook in the pot I think about those long-ago adventures with my dad, and the many meals we shared that were prepared in his Dutch oven.
At the age of eleven I joined the Boy Scouts and was surprised that Dutch cooking was a part of the skill training required if you were to be an active member of Troop 70. By the time I earned the rank of Eagle, I could cook up a pretty fair meal for a patrol-size group of scouts using a couple of Dutch ovens. It was during this period I was introduced to aluminum Dutch ovens and learned how to use them in conjunction with the cast iron ovens.
As I reached adulthood, I found the Dutch oven continuously part of my life. The cooking skills I learned in Troop 70 would come in handy countless times in the future. A career that combined wildlife management with outdoor writing found me working in remote camps throughout the world. From the frozen Arctic to southern Argentina I would work out of camps that depended on the Dutch oven to provide hungry outdoorsmen with good-tasting, wholesome meals. For several years I worked as an outfitter and guide with backcountry operations in Alaska, British Columbia, Colorado, Georgia, and Alabama. To feed my guests, I depended upon various sizes of cast iron Dutch ovens and was a constant student of Dutch oven cooking.
A lot of pots, as shown, are called Dutch ovens, but most Dutch oven cooks only consider the one on the left area, Dutch oven.
Dutch Ovens at Home
During the off-seasons I would bring my Dutch ovens home and store them by the fireplace in the family room of my home. Here they became the center of attention as visitors would ask about the “antiques” and whether I really used them. This gave me the idea to use the ovens to cook meals for dinner parties. Sometimes I would cook in the fireplace, as did our forefathers; on other occasions I would use charcoal briquets and cook out on the patio. These cooking sessions were always the highlight of the party and led to many of my friends becoming Dutch oven chefs. Also, it led to many Dutch ovens being sold for interior decoration rather than cooking purposes.
Today, Dutch oven cooking has become a favorite pastime for thousands of people from all walks of life. The Internet offers lots of Dutch oven cooking advice and recipes, some good, some bad. Dutch oven cook-offs have become popular gatherings for Dutch oven fans and tourists alike. Dutch oven enthusiasts have formed their own organization, the International Dutch Oven Society, to be a clearinghouse for Dutch oven information and to foster interest in Dutch oven cooking. For many people, Dutch oven cooking has become part of their recreational pursuit, for others—guides, cowboys, outfitters, back-to-the-landers, and people living in remote places—it is simply the way they cook hearty, wholesome meals daily.
Cow-camp cooks, hunting guides, and many others use a Dutch oven as a part of their daily routine.
Dutch Ovens in Print
Numerous writers have sung the praises of the Dutch oven. In 1906 famed outdoor writer Horace Kephart wrote in his best-selling book, Book of Camping and Woodcraft, “If it were not for its weight, [the Dutch oven] would be the best oven for outdoor use since it not only bakes but cooks the meat and pone in its own steam.” The late and great camping writer John Jobson, wrote in Sports Afield magazine, “The Dutch oven is undoubtedly the most amazing, versatile, useful instrument ever conceived for tasty camp cooking.” New Orleans chef and cooking writer George Prechter has written, “If I were to have to choose only one vessel in which to cook, indoors or out, it would be the Dutch oven.” Ted Trueblood, one of America’s best-known outdoor writers in the 1960s and 70s wrote in Field & Stream magazine, “The Dutch oven is the greatest piece of outdoor cooking equipment I have ever used.” Well-known cooking author Sylvia Bashline once wrote, “The Dutch oven is the most versatile cooking utensil ever invented.”
Don’t Be Intimidated by the Learning Process
As you read this book Dutch oven cooking may, at times, sound like a lot of work and take a lot of time to master. That is not the case, and I would never want anyone not to give it a try because of this. Yes, it does take a little experience to learn to care for and successfully cook with Dutch ovens, but once you get it down, it can be one of the
most fun cooking experiences you can have. In fact, it is the taking care of and the ever-expanding learning process that most Dutch oven cooks find most interesting. Spend time around a group of seasoned Dutch oven cooks and you will hear a lot of conversation about seasoning techniques, the best coals to use, cooking in the wind, and always, great new recipes. So don’t let the learning process scare you away from what may be a lifetime of fun and exciting eating. For many it is a hobby, and for a few it almost becomes a lifestyle.
Aluminum Versus Cast Iron
I can’t believe what I am seeing,” Barry exclaimed as he desperately tried to pull the aluminum Dutch oven from the fire.
We were on the first day of a five-day canoe trip down the Suwannee River. For cooking, we had packed two cast iron Dutch ovens and an aluminum Dutch oven in which to bake bread. In our haste to set up our first camp, my friend Barry had put the ingredients for a quick stew in a standard aluminum Dutch oven. To speed things up, he had placed the oven in the hot coals of our campfire. Then he placed a shovelful of hot coals on the lid.
As he helped with camp chores, a brisk wind blew through the campsite. The campfire coals glowed brightly. When he finally got around to checking on the stew he found the aluminum Dutch oven changing shape and the lid depositing hot pieces of molten aluminum into the stew. Needless to say, a lesson was learned that night, and we had peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for dinner.
When most outdoor cooks think of Dutch ovens they think of the heavy cast iron Dutch ovens. However there are quality cast aluminum Dutch ovens, such as those made by GSI Outdoors, that have their place in outdoor cooking, provided you know their advantages and limitations. As I write this, GSI is introducing a line of new hard-anodized aluminum Dutch ovens that hold a lot of promise as they heat more evenly than standard aluminum Dutch ovens and they have a non-stick surface.
The aluminum Dutch oven vs. the cast iron Dutch oven: you be the judge.
Advantages of the Aluminum Dutch Oven
There are several advantages that aluminum Dutch ovens have over their cast iron counterparts. But remember the old axiom: you must give up something to get something. Here are the advantages:
First and foremost, they are lightweight.
An empty 12-inch aluminum oven will weigh about 7 pounds; the same size cast iron oven will weigh about 18 pounds. Quickly that tells you the aluminum model is more desirable when lightweight packing is a must. Also its light weight is an advantage when you pick up an oven full of food. Aluminum is a good choice for cooks with physical limitations.
When light weight is a must, the aluminium oven can be counted on to produce good meals.
The new GSI hard-anodized ovens hold a lot of promise for those who want a heat-holding lightweight Dutch oven.
The aluminum oven doesn’t rust, thus you do not have to be as concerned about leaving it damp or storing it for long periods. I have seen poorly seasoned cast iron Dutch ovens rust overnight when left out in the dew.
Seasoning not Required
Since aluminum does not rust, you do not have to pre-season the oven as you do a cast iron oven. However, food will tend to stick to an unseasoned aluminum oven and some cooks pre-season their aluminum ovens for that reason. Breaking in an aluminum oven is simply a process of giving it a good washing to remove the protective oil coating put on by the manufacturer. The new hard cast aluminum ovens have a non-stick surface.
Easier to Clean
Unseasoned aluminum ovens can be cleaned by washing with soap and hot water. It makes for a quick and easy cleanup.
Does Not Discolor Food
Cast iron Dutch ovens, especially those not properly seasoned, can turn foods such as beans a dark color. Aluminum will not do this.
Aluminum ovens heat quicker than cast iron ovens, requiring less preheating time.
One of the real masters of Dutch oven cooking is George Prechter III. You will find me quoting George many times in this book. He is a well-known New Orleans chef and cooking writer who has studied Dutch oven cooking for many years. George states, “The aluminum Dutch oven is a valuable cooking vessel where lightweight is a must and the cook is well trained in the proper use of an aluminum oven. I like them for baking bread and making gravies.”
One of the merits of the aluminum oven is that it’s rustproof. The cast-iron oven has stood the test of time, over two centuries of testing, and is still the favorite among Dutch oven chefs.
Advantages of Cast Iron Dutch Ovens
Cast-iron Dutch ovens are steeped in history and tradition, and a large number of Dutch oven cooks prefer the advantages of cast-iron over aluminum. Here are the advantages most often given:
Cast-iron ovens are famous for lasting generations and becoming family heirlooms. Many around today are well over one hundred years old. During the pioneering days of early America the family cast-iron Dutch oven was valuable enough to be included in wills. John Rutledge, writing in his excellent book, Dutch Ovens Chronicled, tells of Mary Washington, mother of General George Washington, wanting to be certain her cast-iron vessels were cared for. In her will, dated May 20, 1788, she provided that half of her “iron kitchen furniture’’ would go to a grandson, Fielding Lewis, and the other half would go to a granddaughter, Betty Carter. Rutledge states, “Surely there were several Dutch ovens among her iron kitchen furniture.” Most Dutch oven cooks will be quick to tell you that the older a cast iron oven gets, the better it cooks.
Distributes Heat Evenly
While cast-iron ovens take a little longer than aluminum to heat up, the heat is distributed evenly, resulting in fewer “hot spots” producing and giving ideal cooking conditions. If your food burns, you got the oven too hot. Less heat is needed with cast iron.
Cast-iron ovens, once heated to a desired temperature, are easier than aluminum to keep at that temperature. Cast-iron ovens require less fuel and time refueling.
Heavy Lid Seals in Steam
The heavy, tight-fitting lid of a cast-iron Dutch oven helps hold steam in, so the oven acts as a pressure cooker and helps keep food tender and moist.
Cooking in cast-iron Dutch ovens is healthful, as cast iron cookware imparts a significant amount of dietary iron to your food, which is absorbed by the body.
Tolerates Higher Heat
No Dutch oven should be subjected to high temperatures, but on occasion it does happen, as I wrote at the beginning of this chapter. When it does, the cast-iron oven stands a better chance of surviving the event, as aluminum will melt at around 1175° Fahrenheit. Cast-iron melts at around 2200° Fahrenheit. Wind-blown coals and campfires can generate temperatures in those ranges. Also, cast-iron heats more slowly without sudden temperature flare-ups so that the food is protected from burning longer.
So which type Dutch oven is best? Most experienced Dutch oven cooks will agree that, with the exception of weight, the cast iron oven is the top choice. That is not to say you can’t prepare good meals with an aluminum Dutch oven; you can, and the new hard-anodized aluminum ovens may have additional qualities similar to cast iron, but for total satisfaction you can’t beat cast-iron. Most Dutch oven cooks have to agree with George Prechter when he answered an interviewer asking about his choice in Dutch ovens: “If given a choice and weight is not a factor, I will choose a cast-iron Dutch oven almost every time.”
Two of the most common problems new Dutch oven cooks have with their cast-iron pots are:
- Seasoning them correctly the first time and
- Re-seasoning them after hard use.
Reasons to Season
Cast iron is very porous, and there are several reasons to season a cast-iron Dutch oven. The seasoning process creates a patina that keeps food from sticking to the sides, bottom, and lid of the vessel. Thanks to this sheen it is quicker and easier to clean. It also protects the vessel from rusting. An unseasoned (also called “natural finish”) cast-iron oven can rust overnight just from the moisture in the air. The third reason to season an oven, and by far not the least important, is that it adds a flavor to the foods cooked in the oven that is unmatched in other types of cookware.
The theory behind seasoning cast iron is that oil will fill the tiny holes in the oven. The oil, when heated, will form a carbon non-stick coating on the Dutch oven. The oven will darken with each use and the patina will improve with each use to turn your oven into the ultimate non-stick vessel. A well-seasoned Dutch oven will be black.
A gas grill is one of the best tools to use in seasoning a Dutch oven.
Pre-seasoned Ovens May Now Be Purchased
Today, Lodge Dutch ovens may be purchased pre-seasoned. It is a process they call Lodge Logic. Lodge Logic is a process whereby Dutch ovens are electrostatically coated with a proprietary vegetable oil and cured at high temperatures to allow the oil to deeply penetrate the surface of the cast iron. It’s ready to use when you purchase the Dutch oven.
As I was writing this book I also received word that Camp Chef would be shipping all its Advantage cast iron Dutch ovens pre-seasoned.
Even if you purchase these pre-seasoned ovens, chances are good you will need to re-season them sometime in the future. Be sure to follow the manufacturer’s instructions when you first clean the new oven so as not to destroy the seasoning.
Compare the color of the unseasoned oven on the left to the seasoned oven on the right.
Clean a New Dutch Oven First
New unseasoned Dutch ovens are usually
coated during the manufacturing process with a wax coating to protect them during travel to the retailer’s shelves. When you get a new oven home remove all stickers and wash it with mild dishwashing liquid to remove the wax coating. Rinse and dry it thoroughly.
Season it immediately or the oven will rust at an amazing speed. Never cook in a Dutch oven without first seasoning it.
Seasoning a Dutch Oven
While some Dutch oven cooks look at the seasoning process as work, I look at it as a ritual where I get to know the new oven, and I feel that I play a small role in the success of many future meals. Here are several ways you can season or re-season your Dutch ovens.
To season a new cast iron Dutch oven, and I know many cooks who season their aluminum ovens as well, start by preheating your home oven to 350°. Open some windows and turn off the smoke detector as some smoke may be created by this process. Place the pot and lid in the oven and heat until they are almost too hot to handle. This opens the pores of the cast iron. Remove the pot and lid and, using a paper towel, rub a thin layer of liquid olive or vegetable oil or solid vegetable shortening
I use solid Crisco on the inside and outside of the pot and lid. (Camp Chef has a product called Cast Iron Conditioner that also serves this purpose.) Do not use margarine or butter. Cover all surfaces, including the legs. Be sure not to coat the surface too thickly. Keep the coats very thin. I know of one Dutch oven cook that set his oven on fire because he used thick layers of lard to season his Dutch ovens.
Place the Dutch oven and lid on the top rack of your preheated kitchen oven. Be sure to put aluminum foil or better yet a cookie sheet on the lower rack of the oven to catch any excess oil. Not only does this help keep the oven clean, it protects the oven from drippings that could cause an oven fire.
Some people like to use spray oil to season their ovens, but I find it can leave a sticky coating. I have also tried lard and found it turns rancid during long periods of storage.
Bake the oven and lid for one hour. Turn the kitchen oven off and let the Dutch oven cool down to handling temperature. Repeat the process. Remove the pot and lid from the oven and wipe it out with a clean, dry cloth. Your Dutch oven is seasoned and ready for use.
If you don’t want to run the risk of smoking up your home kitchen, there are several outdoor methods of seasoning your Dutch oven.
The first, and perhaps the easiest, is to simply have a fish fry and use your Dutch oven as a deep fryer. Frying several batches of fish, hush puppies, and French fried potatoes will fill the pores of the cast iron with vegetable oil. Once the cooking is over, pour out the oil and wipe the pot and lid clean with a paper towel.
I have a friend who lives in the bush of British Columbia and uses Dutch ovens almost daily. He seasons a new Dutch oven by frying thick-sliced, unsalted bacon in the pot and on the lid for several months. It works. His Dutch ovens have a beautiful black patina.
An outdoor method I like that doesn’t smoke up your kitchen is to use a propane gas cooking grill, which has a cover. Turn the grill on low and place the Dutch oven in the grill to pre heat. When it becomes warm, remove the Dutch oven and wipe on a thin layer of vegetable oil, Camp Chef Cast Iron Conditioner, or shortening. Place the lid and oven in the grill and turn the grill to low. Lower the grill lid. Cook for one hour. Repeat the process. Remove the oven and lid and wipe it out with a clean, dry cloth. I have friends who use the same method using a charcoal grill. Be careful not to overheat the Dutch oven.
Re-seasoning an Oven
One of the major reasons cast iron Dutch ovens need to be re-seasoned is that they are often improperly cleaned. Harsh detergents and scrubbings with metal scrapers can do damage to an oven’s seasoning. Be sure to read the chapter in this book about cleaning the oven the correct way.
Other reasons Dutch ovens need to be re-seasoned are if they become rusted or are improperly stored and the oil turns rancid. Regardless of the reason, the way to re-season a cast iron Dutch oven is identical to the method for a new one, starting with a very clean pot and lid, and repeating one of the above procedures.
Once your Dutch oven is seasoned, never use strong soap, harsh detergent, metal scouring pads, metal scrapers, or the dishwasher for cleaning. This destroys the seasoning, requiring you to go through the seasoning process again.
The author prefers to season his ovens with Crisco.
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