I'll admit I'm biased, but I think there is nothing quite like a Dutch oven meal when you are camping or just out of doors. It smells great cooking, and the food is easy to prepare and really good when it's done. Our family loves Dutch oven cooking. It is not uncommon for us to set up Dutch ovens on a metal table on our deck just to cook a big dinner or breakfast.
I have not always been a Dutch oven fanatic, but while I was scoutmaster in our local troop, I learned Dutch oven cooking techniques from an expert father of one of my scouts. Granted, Dutch oven cooking is not for the faint of heart. It takes a lot of time, some work setting up and cleaning up, and a little money to get the gear to get started. But once you get hooked, you'll feel like you've been doing it your whole life. There seems to be a real culture among Dutch oven cooks, and if you really get into it, you can find cooking contests many weekends of the year almost anywhere in the world.
What do you need to know to become a great Dutch oven cook?
Buying a Dutch Oven
A Dutch oven is so named because it originated in the Netherlands among the Dutch people. A Dutch oven is usually made of cast iron, although some are made of aluminum. They are used to cook food at a nearly ubiquitous 350 degrees Fahrenheit, and if built correctly, they can cook anything from mountain man breakfast to meats and potatoes, cobbler, biscuits, cakes and bread and more.
Based on my experience, you should buy a cast iron Dutch oven unless you are going to backpack and take it along. If you do that, get an aluminum Dutch oven. But otherwise, the heavy cast iron will cook a lot more evenly and will clean up easier.
Some Dutch ovens come pre-seasoned. I used to refuse to buy pre-seasoned oven, preferring to season them myself. But I received a pre-seasoned Lodge brand Dutch oven and it has been perfectly fine.
Dutch ovens also come in various sizes. They are measured in inches of opening. The most popular Dutch oven is the 12" variety, which holds about 6 quarts and will serve, if full, 12 to 14 people. The 8" version is just right for two people and a 10" Dutch oven will serve 2-6 people. I have a 10”, a 12" and a 14" Dutch oven, so we can cook a large meal and a dessert at the same time.
Also, make sure that the lid seals well around the edges. Some bargain Dutch ovens do not have well fitting lids, and that makes baking in the oven a lot less predictable.
Seasoning Your Dutch Oven
If you buy an oven that is not pre-seasoned, you will need to season your oven so that it will last a long time, cook well and clean up easy. First, you will need to wash the new oven right out of the box with warm soapy water to remove the wax preservative. This is the only time you will ever use soap on your Dutch oven. Rinse and dry thoroughly, then coat all surfaces, inside and out, with good quality vegetable oil using a cotton cloth. Then pour just enough vegetable oil in to coat the bottom of the Dutch oven and put it in a 350 degree oven for about 30 minutes. It does tend to smoke some, so I usually do mine in a gas barbecue grill outside. After 30 minutes, take the Dutch oven out and swab the oil inside the Dutch oven around on all surfaces. Be careful—the oil will be hot!
Turn the oven down to 200 degrees and put the Dutch oven back in for an hour. At the end of the hour, turn off the oven and leave the Dutch oven there overnight. In the morning, swab up any remaining oil in the bottom of the Dutch oven over the surfaces of the Dutch oven and you are done.
The baked-in oil will turn the Dutch oven a very dark brown, almost black color. As long as you don't use metal utensils, and don't wash it with soap again, the Dutch oven will last for years to come and will not rust. If the patina is ever ruined, repeat the seasoning process.
The secret to great Dutch oven cooking is temperature control. While you can use a Dutch oven to cook over an open fire, most Dutch oven cooks I know use charcoal. It has a tendency to cook more evenly and maintain a more consistent temperature.
You will want to choose a good quality briquette, that is easy to light and will last a long time. Most Dutch oven chefs I know use Kingsford charcoal.
The best way to prepare charcoal for a Dutch oven experience is to put it in a charcoal chimney. Crumple some newspaper, put the chimney on top of it and light the newspaper on fire. This will start the briquettes and after about 20 minutes or so they will be hot and ready to use.
Placing the briquettes on top of and under the Dutch oven is the best way of maintaining an even temperature. The best rule of thumb is to take the size of your Dutch oven (like 10" or 12"), and multiply that number by two. Then place one-third of the coals underneath the oven and two-thirds on top. So, for a 12" Dutch oven, you would use 24 briquettes, with 8 on the bottom and 16 on the top. Evenly space them both beneath and on the lid.
You will also want to make sure that you protect the hot coals from wind, which will cool them off too fast. We put our Dutch ovens on a heavy duty metal cooking table with a wind screen, which is the best way to protect it from the breeze.
Cleaning Your Dutch Oven
There are a few important tips for cleaning the Dutch oven after use.
First, never use soap. It will damage the patina of the Dutch oven and make it stick to food and run the risk of rust.
When cleaning, fill the Dutch oven with hot water, or heat the water in the Dutch oven over a fire. Leave the hot water sitting for about 10 minutes, then drain off the hot water and use a plastic or wood scraper to remove any remaining food. Make sure you do the same with the lid. Then rinse it out again with very hot water and thoroughly dry it with a paper towel and then let it air dry. (The oven will still be warm so the drying process only takes a few minutes). Then coat the entire interior surface of the oven and lid with a light coat of vegetable oil. When you put the lid back on the oven for storage, put a paper towel between the lid and the oven to make sure you can open it again.
Cooking with a Dutch oven is a a lot of fun, whether you are cooking on a camping trip or in your own backyard. If you treat your oven well, it will last for many years.