The Dutch Oven has been a part of Americana for hundreds of years. You can't beat the great flavor from one of these. Learn how to select, season, clean and maintain a Dutch Oven. There are also a bunch of great recipes to try out.
DUTCH OVEN COOKING
Dutch ovens have been around for hundreds of years. They were commonly found in every home whether you lived in the big city, were crossing America in a covered wagon, or living on your homestead. The Dutch oven is extremely durable, and if maintained properly will last generations. Today’s pots and pans can’t hold a candle to the durability of cast iron cooking and the non-stick applications from a properly seasoned cast iron Dutch oven. So why are they not commonly used anymore? Weight. They are heavy and most people in today’s society don’t like lifting heavy items anymore. Sad to think this is what we have come to, but that is the reality. Most people would rather purchase cheap pots and pans that are lightweight and replace them every four or five years.
I was first introduced to cast iron cooking by my grandmother. She had everything cast iron from pots, pans, skillets and, of course, the mainstay was the Dutch oven. The meals that wonderful woman would cook still cause my mouth to water just thinking about them.
You can do many things with a Dutch oven such as roasting, steaming, baking, simmering, stewing, boiling, and frying. The possibilities are endless. If you can make it with a pot, pan, or inside an oven….then you can make the same dish utilizing a Dutch oven. In the wilderness, the ability to duplicate home recipes on the campfire using the Dutch oven is a fairly simple process.
All recipes use one of two Dutch oven techniques: cooking with your Dutch oven as you would any other pot; or cooking in it using the Dutch oven as an oven. The first is when the food is placed directly in the bottom of the Dutch oven, with the lid on or off. The second method is when food is placed in a second dish and this dish is then placed onto a trivet in the bottom of the Dutch oven. The reason for the trivet is to elevate the dish above the bottom of the oven to prevent burning. In this manner, The Dutch oven is acting as an oven with even heat being applied all around the internal dish that is sitting on the trivet.
Information about the Dutch Oven
Before we get started, we should review some of the things you will need to know before purchasing your first Dutch oven. There are literally hundreds of options and size combinations available so it would be impractical for me to tell you which oven is the one for you. Because each type of oven is designed for a different type of cooking situation, I will go over the various options and you will have the ability to decide which ones you can look for. Some can be purchased fairly inexpensively, but remember, you normally get what you pay for when it comes to quality.
In shopping for an oven, you should look for one that is obviously well made. Look at the handle closely because it should be of heavy gauge wire and securely attached to molded tangs on the side of the oven. Ovens that have riveted tabs should be avoided. Most oven handles will lay down against the side of the oven in both directions. But if you look hard enough, you will find some that allow the handle to stand up at a 45 degree angle on one side. This will allow you easier access to it when positioning or removing the oven from the fire. This isn’t a huge factor, just a nice touch to make things easier. Another area that bears close examination is the handle on the lid. It should be a loop attached to the lid on both ends and hollow in the center allowing it to be easily hooked. Stay away from the ones that have a molded solid tab on the lid for a handle. These are very difficult to grasp and manage when it has a load of coals. The loop style offers much better control. While examining the lid, check that it has a lip or ridge around the outer edge. The lip keeps the coals from sliding off of the lid and the ashes from falling into your food as you remove it. Don't get me wrong, the ones without ridges can be used but it is difficult to keep coals on the lid and if you are not meticulous in cleaning the ash from the lid each and every time you open the oven, you will end up with ash and/or sand in your food. The lip virtually eliminates the problem and the lid can be lifted even fully loaded with ash and coals with little difficulty
Another feature to look at is the legs. They can come with a flat bottom, three-legged, or four-legged. The flat bottom Dutch ovens are more commonly found in household use. For outdoor cooking, legs are an absolute necessity because they maintain the height of the oven above ground allowing air for the coals underneath. The flat bottomed ones can be set up on rocks (which are hard to find) or up on steel tent pegs. One only has to imagine the problems that can go wrong with doing it this way. Leave the flat bottom ovens on the kitchen stove where they work best. In my humble opinion, I highly recommend three legs over four simply for the stability factor. If you have ever tried to balance a four legged chair on uneven ground, you know that it invariably wobbles. A three legged chair does not have that problem. Save yourself some headache and buy the three-legged version. The last option to look at is a second handle attached to the lid or upper rim on the oven base. Some ovens are offered with a skillet type handle attached to the lid. This, in theory, is a good idea but in reality they seem to be more in the way than of assistance. The handle does assist in using the lid upside down as a skillet or griddle but when using it as a lid, they get in the way of the bail handle and also misbalance the lid when lifting by the center hoop. They also tend to be in the way during storage and packing situations. Fixed handles on the oven base, with one exception, should be absolutely avoided. I believe the theory behind these handles was to make the oven easier to position in a deep fire pit. If you insist on considering the handle, take a couple of red bricks with you to the store and place them in the oven. Then lift by the handle and you will see the uselessness in the handle. A loaded 12" oven can weigh 20 to 25 pounds, a real wrist breaker. The one exception is a small tab sometimes offered which is about 1 to 1 1/2” deep and 2-3" wide on the upper lip of the oven. This tab makes pouring liquids from the oven very easy and its small size has never caused storage or packing problems for me. When someone mentions "Dutch Oven" most people immediately think "Cast Iron", but Dutch ovens are supplied in aluminum also. An aluminum oven weighs only 6-1/2 to 7 pounds opposed to around 18 pounds for the cast iron oven. There are advantages and disadvantages to each. The most obvious aluminum advantage is weight, 11 pounds lighter. Additionally, because aluminum doesn't rust, care is restricted to simple washing with soap and water. Aluminum tends to heat faster requiring less preheating time but they don't retain the heat very long after the coals are removed. Also, because aluminum reflects more heat than cast iron, more coals will be required to reach and maintain a set temperature. Also on windy days, you will see a greater variation in temperature than one of cast iron. Where weight is very critical, most of the disadvantages can be overcome. For canoeing, backpacking or trips where weight is a problem, aluminum ovens are the answer. Be careful with aluminum, it will melt! The melting point of aluminum is (cast alloy 43 is 1065 to 1170 degrees). Other alloys are higher melting point up to 1200 degrees. The melting point of cast iron is 2100 degrees to 2200 degrees. It is possible to generate that kind of temperature if the oven is in direct contact with the coals below it or if there are too many coals below the oven
Personal Note on Aluminum:
With charcoal on and under when a strong wind came up, a blast furnace effect caused the bottom to sag and the lid was dripping molten aluminum into the cake! The top held its shape, but there are little metal balls stuck all over the inside of the lid. I always thought they were indestructible until then.
Aluminum is OK if properly used. Keep coals from contact with the bottom of the Dutch oven. Only use the number of coals needed to prepare the meal. Spread the coals below the oven out to evenly distribute the heat. When weight is not a problem, the cast iron oven has the upper hand. Cast iron reacts slowly to temperature changes so it doesn’t burn food as easily if the fire flares up and they retain heat for quite a while after the coals have been removed, keeping food warmer longer. Because they retain heat well, they fair better on windy days with smaller variations in temperature. Cast iron absorbs a great deal of heat, consequently, they require fewer coals to reach and maintain a set temperature. Weight is its obvious disadvantage, but there are others. Clean up is not as simple, but if done regularly and correctly, it is not much of a chore. Rust is the other; bare cast iron will literally rust overnight if not protected. This protection naturally must be done each time it is used but is part of the cleanup procedure and fairly simple. The last thing you must consider is the size of the oven. They range from the tiny 4" to the giant 24" monsters. Generally, most 10"-12" will serve rather adequately for almost all circumstances.
Now that you have decided the type, style and options, where do you find one? Many good sporting goods or camping supply stores will carry them. Please, SHOP AROUND! I have seen the same 10" oven by the same manufacturer range in price from $25 up to $60, so be careful! Demand quality; a poorly made oven with lots of options is not worth the time to carry it to the car.
Other Things You Will Need
A good pair of leather gloves can save time and prove invaluable around a hot fire. A pair of Work Style gloves will do, but I recommend you look at any BBQ accessory section in most stores. They normally have very thick gloves that are specifically meant to be around fire and are tested to ensure there are no opening in stitching that could cause an accidental burn. Although these typically cost more, they offer thicker leather and an inner insulating lining. You could literally place your hand into the coals for a brief moment, but I would never recommend doing so. (I can see somebody doing this just to test it out. Please don’t be that guy!) The extra protection you receive by purchasing a good set of gloves will be money well spent. Something else you will need is a shovel for stirring the coals and lifting them out of the fire pit to the oven. You can tailor the type of shovel to your needs. I personally liked the old folding camp shovels you can find in most department stores. They are light, compact, and easy to use.
Another item you will need to purchase is a set of hot pot pliers. They are inexpensive, well built, and light weight. The handle has a hook that is used to grab the bail handle when it is too hot to hold by hand or when it is hanging down in the coals.
Preparation of Your Oven
For aluminum, your pre-treatment is simply washing well with soap and water. Some aluminum ovens are shipped with a protective coating and a simple washing will remove it. Since aluminum doesn't rust, no further protection is required, however, I have found that if you treat the aluminum like the cast iron oven, food will not stick near as often as the untreated oven. This pre-treatment is at the user's discretion, so if you just want to wash it and be done with it, you can.
Cast iron ovens, if properly seasoned and cared for, will last many generations. Although the information is oriented toward Dutch ovens, the treatment and care instructions are applicable to any cast iron skillet, griddle etc. The secret of the cast iron's long life is really no secret at all. Constant and proper care beginning with the day it is purchased will keep the oven in service for many years. All quality ovens are shipped with a protective coating that must be removed. This will require a good scrubbing with steel wool and some elbow grease. Once removed, the oven needs to be rinsed well, towel dried and let air dry. While it is drying, this would be a good time to pre-heat your kitchen oven to 350. After it appears dry, place the Dutch oven on the center rack with its lid ajar. Allow the Dutch oven to warm slowly so it is just barely too hot to handle with bare hands. This pre-heating does two things, it drives any remaining moisture out of the metal and opens the pores of the metal. Now, using a clean rag or preferably a paper towel, apply a thin layer of salt free cooking oil. Oils such as peanut, olive or plain vegetable oil will be fine. Make sure the oil covers every inch of the oven, inside and out and place the oven onto the center shelf again with the lid ajar. Bake it for about an hour or so at 350. This baking hardens the oil into a protective coating over the metal. After baking, allow the oven to cool slowly. When it is cool enough to be handled, apply another thin coating of oil. Repeat the baking and cooling process. Again reapply a thin coating of oil when it can be handled again. Allow the oven to cool completely now. It should have three layers of oil, two baked on and one applied when it was warm. The oven is now ready to use or store. This pre-treatment procedure only needs to be done once, unless rust forms or the coating is damaged in storage or use. This baked on coating will darken and eventually turn black with age. This darkening is a sign of a well-kept oven and of its use. The pre-treatment coating's purpose is two-fold; first and most important, it forms a barrier between moisture in the air and the surface of the metal. This effectively prevents the metal from rusting. The second purpose is to provide a non-stick coating on the inside of the oven. When properly maintained, this coating is as non-stick as most of the commercially applied coatings.
Cleaning Your Oven
For aluminum ovens, the cleaning is the same as for ordinary pots and pans. Use soap, water and scrub as usual for your other pans. More often than not, cleaning cast iron ovens is much easier than scrubbing pots and pans. For cast iron ovens, the clean process is in two steps. First you remove the food and second, maintenance of the coating. To remove stuck on food, place some warm clean water into the oven and heat until almost boiling. Using a plastic mesh scrubber or coarse sponge and NO SOAP, gently break loose the food and wipe away. After all traces have been removed, rinse with clean warm water. Soap is not recommended because its flavor will get into the pores of the metal and will taint the flavor of your next meal. After cleaning and rinsing, allow it to air dry. Heat over the fire just until it hot to the touch. Apply a thin coating of oil to the inside of the oven and the underside of the lid. Allow the oven to cool completely. The outside will need little attention other than a good wipe down unless you see signs of rust forming. It is a good idea to keep a scrubber for cast iron and never use it with soap.
My Favorite Method of Cleaning:
Add 1 to 2" of clean water and bring to a boil (uncovered) this will open the cast iron pores and allow the food to release. Scrape again, if the water is very dirty repeat with fresh water and after boiling pour off 1/2 the water. A trick of mine is to wad up a foot long piece of aluminum foil and use it to scrub the Dutch oven. For all of you who now protest, I encourage you to try this because it has never harmed our seasoned Dutch oven. The foil is soft enough that it removes the toughest particles. Rinse the Dutch oven and add 1" water and boil. Discard water, dry with paper towels and oil interior with 1 tablespoon of vegetable oil. Do the same for lid.
Things NOT To Do:
1. Never, and I repeat, NEVER allow cast iron to sit in water or allow water to stand in or on it. It will rust despite a good coating, and then pass that taste into the food. Rust is nasty.
2. Never use soap on cast iron. The soap will get into the pores of the metal and won't come out very easy, but will return to taint your next meal. If soap is used accidentally, the oven should be put through the pre-treatment procedure, including removal of the present coating.
3. Do not place an empty cast iron pan or oven over a hot fire. Aluminum and many other metals can tolerate it better but cast iron will crack or warp, ruining it.
4. Do not get in a hurry to heat cast iron, you will end up with burnt food or a damaged oven or pan.
5. Never put cold liquid into a very hot cast iron pan or oven. They will crack on the spot!
Tips on Cooking:
Enough about the oven and on to what you can do with it! You can also figure that each charcoal briquette is worth about 25 degrees. Twenty coals will give about 500 degrees. Of course, you can also use wood, but the temperature will be a little more unpredictable. Try it anyway, it makes the experience more authentic and besides, you can’t beat the smell of a nice hardwood on the fire.
The heat source should come from the top and bottom equally. Coals should be placed under the oven and on the lid at a 1:1 ratio. If you are roasting at 350 degrees, this would mean 7 coals on the bottom and 7 coals on top, roughly.
Ahhh, one of my favorites. I think one of my favorite recipes is pineapple upside down cake in the Dutch oven. Baking is usually done with more heat from the top than from the bottom. Coals should be placed under the oven and on the lid at a 1:3 ratio, having more on the lid.
FRYING, BOILING ETC:
All of the heat should come from the bottom when using liquids. Coals will be placed under the oven only.
Almost all heat will be from the bottom. Place the coals under and on the oven at a 4 to 1 ratio with more underneath than on the lid. This is normally accomplished simply by bring the Dutch oven to boiling with a 3:1 ration of coals. Then when you want to turn down the heat a bit and just let it simmer, you knock off a few coals from the top to make it a 4:1 ratio. Remember, heat transfer occurs slowly with this method of cooking, so be patient when adjusting the temperature.
Here’s a hot tip for you, the lid can be placed on the fire or stove upside down and used as a skillet or griddle. Everybody just thinks of the lid as a covering, but using the lid in this fashion, you can make some awesome pancakes and eggs that don't run all over the place. This is because most lids are shaped like a very shallow bowl so things naturally stay in the center, even if the lid is not level. I have a griddle at home that is flat and making an omelet can be problematic. Not with a Dutch oven lid. Perfect omelets every time!
Fill your belly!