Just because you are camping, doesn’t mean you have to scrimp on food. Once you learn how to cook in a Dutch Oven, your camp meals can gourmet!
My kids have about 4 weeks left of school. Of course, this past week I have one kid down with a sinus infection and another sick with a cold. But, I am so ready for summer, summer fun and summer cooking.
We are a camping family, as well as a scouting family, so we camp A LOT. We have cooked all kinds of meals while camping using all sorts of of methods, from foil cooking to camp stoves to barbecues. But the fun really started when we learned how to cook in a Dutch Oven.
Think of a Dutch Oven as a mini oven. You place hot coals on the bottom and top to bake in it, or you keep coals underneath to cook in it like you would with a stove top. This isn’t your Le Creuset enamel pot. This is a cast iron pot that is made to tolerate high temperatures and the rugged environment.
How to Choose a Dutch Oven:
When shopping for a Dutch Oven you want to choose one with little legs on it. These legs are to lift the oven above the coals and keep the air flowing between the coals and the pot. The lid of your Dutch Oven should also have a little rim around it to keep the hot coals and ash on the lid and not let it fall into your pot when you are peeking inside.
The lid should fit flat on top of the pot. It should not wiggle or jiggle. You want to keep the heat inside your oven while you cook, just like you do at home.
The size of your Dutch Oven will vary on need and use. Is it just for you and your family of four? Are you cooking for a crew? How many meals are you preparing?
I like to use the 10-inch Dutch Oven for desserts. The 12-inch and 14-inch sizes are great for one pot meals for 5-12 people. Yes, we own more than one Dutch Oven. Everyone who camps should, too!
Cast iron Dutch Ovens produce more heat and heat evenly compared to the lighter aluminum versions. And like your cast iron pan, your Dutch Oven will need to be seasoned before use.
Equipment Needed for Dutch Oven Cooking:
- Good Quality Cast Iron Dutch Oven (10-inch, 12-inch and/or 14-inch diameter)
- Charcoal Briquettes
- Chimney Charcoal Starter
- Long Metal Tongs
- Lid Lifter
- Sturdy Oven Mits
- Drain Pan
These are the basic necessities, other than your recipe, ingredients and cooking utensils. A charcoal chimney helps you heat up the coals. Some people like using charcoal fluid to help ignite the coals, but we just use shredded paper or dried leaves as kindling. We have also used the camp fire ring to heat up coals when we didn’t have our chimney with us.
The long metal tongs are for handling the hot coals. You have to transfer them from the chimney and place them strategically below and on top of your Dutch Oven. Remember, you are working in a very hot environment, so protection is key.
Oven mits may not be enough protection when you need to remove the lid of your Dutch Oven. A lid lifter will make things easier without getting yourself burned. The drain pan is a terrific place to heat your coals and position your Dutch Oven in a small, contained spot.
How Many Coals Do You Need?
There are many theories and charts out there in determining the heat generated from coals. When you are using the Dutch Oven like a stove top, you can control the heat by adding and removing coals from underneath your pot, just as you would turn the dial on your stove at home. You want more coals (to produce more heat) when sautéing vegetables and browning meat, but then you need to remove coals to lower the heat for simmering or stewing. How many do you need exactly? That varies with the weather outside, where the coals are positioned, etc.. It’s not as confusing as it may sound, especially for anyone who can cook basic meals in a kitchen. Use the tongs to scoot the coal back and forth to raise and lower the heat.
But with baking, as in a real kitchen, there are more exact measurements and quantities in determining the heat you need. I have a couple of charts and Dutch Oven cookbooks that give me charcoal briquette quantities and I usually take them with me when I go camping. But, I recently found a simple way to measure out coals needed when you forget that chart at home.
I found this method from Scouting Magazine. Let’s say you are using a 12-inch Dutch Oven. You take the diameter of your Dutch Oven (12-inches) and subtract three (so, 12-3=9). This is the number of coals you need for underneath the oven, 9 coals.
Now add three to your diameter (12+3=15) and this is the number of coals you place on the top of the lid of your Dutch Oven. These measurements produce a temperature of approximately 325ºF.
To increase the temperature by 25-degrees, place one additional coal on top and one additional coal underneath your Dutch Oven.
So, let’s do a math problem, shall we? Let’s say we have a 14-inch Dutch Oven and we need to heat it to 350ºF. How many coals do we need? Well, underneath we need 12 coals (14-3=11 then +1=12) and on top we need 18 coals (14+3=17 then +1=18). That’s a total of 30 coal briquettes. Did you get the right answer, too?
The arrangement of the briquettes is also important. You should arrange them evenly spaced for even cooking. You don’t want to clump a bunch of hot coals grouped together to produce a hot spot and burn what you are baking.
How to Use Your Dutch Oven:
The basic process of cooking with a Dutch Oven is the same, whether you are baking, sautéing or simmering. Don’t forget that the lid can be used, too. It makes a great hot plate to warm up tortillas!
First, you have to light up your coals. Find a small space, clear of brush to place your chimney starter. If you have a fire ring, this would be a perfect spot, or you can use a metal drain pan. Place your chimney starter in this clear space and place some dry kindling or crumbled up paper inside the bottom of the tube.
Place the charcoal briquettes you need for cooking inside the chimney. Light the kindling. Make sure the flames reach the coals since you want the briquettes to catch flame. The coals are ready to use after about 10-15 minutes, when they stop smoking and are glowing red.
Position your Dutch Oven in a fire-safe, flat area. This can be a campsite barbecue, your fire ring or the metal drain pan. Using your tongs, transfer the hot coals needed and position them evenly underneath your Dutch Oven, making sure not to smother the coals.
You can also stack the ovens on top of each other with largest on the bottom. This way, the coals in between the two ovens will heat up BOTH ovens.
Cook as you would at home, or add cake batter or whatever it is you are going to cook. If you are baking, place the lid on top of your Dutch Oven securely and place your charcoal briquettes evenly spaced over the lid.
Remember to use your lid lifter to carefully remove the Dutch Oven lid. Use your oven mitts, too, as your oven can produce a lot of heat.
Recipes You Can Cook in a Dutch Oven:
What can you cook in a Dutch Oven? The list is shorter for what CAN’T you cook in a Dutch Oven. You can cook and bake most anything using a Dutch Oven.
Soups, stews and chili are some obvious choices for the Dutch Oven. But why not try something different? One camping trip, I made chili and topped it with cornbread batter. I then added the Dutch Oven lid and baked until the cornbread was done. A real treat after white water rafting!
You could also make a traditional beef stew or go gourmet with Beef Bourguinon. I made Osso Bucco in the Dutch Oven on another camping trip. Now do you see what I mean about going gourmet while camping?
Don’t do boring spaghetti. How about Chicken Cacciatore? Or Lasagna? Even Pizza?!!!
All of these are possible in a Dutch Oven.
And for dessert? This is even more fun. Fruit cobblers and crisps (pictured at the top of this post) are scrumptious for a camping treat. Cakes and brownies are easy, too. I even baked a giant chocolate chip cookie in a Dutch Oven.
How to Clean Your Dutch Oven:
You can take some preventative measures before cooking in your Dutch Oven so that clean up is quick and easy. This is super important when camping. It’s not fun cleaning a bunch of pots and pans in the dark when you’re exhausted.
If you are baking, line the bottom of your oven with parchment paper. When cooking, you can line the whole oven with heavy duty aluminum foil. Then after the meal, all you do is toss the foil and wipe down the pot.
But, if you don’t line your Dutch Oven, heat up some water in your dirty Dutch Oven and scrub the food off with a soft scrubber or sponge. You do not want to use soap, as this will remove the protective seasoning of your Dutch Oven. Sometimes, wiping down with a wet paper towel is all your Dutch Oven needs.
How to Store Your Dutch Oven:
After your Dutch Ovens are clean, make sure you completely dry them. Remember this is cast iron and any residual water will cause rust. Coat the inside of your Dutch Oven with a thin layer of oil to protect the seasoning and have your oven ready until the next gourmet meal.
Final Thoughts on Cooking with a Dutch Oven:
My husband got us hooked on Dutch Oven cooking after he took a class through our local scouting group. That’s what happens when you’re the Cub Master! He learned the basics like Pineapple Upside Down Cake and chili. We took what he learned and kicked it up a few crazy notches. Our friends and fellow scout families have enjoyed our camping experiments – especially the kids. Their faces really do light up when they realize that can make good food, even on a camping trip.
If you haven’t tried cooking with a Dutch Oven, I hope you give it a try. Once you learn how to cook with a Dutch Oven, you’ll find yourself cooking EVERYTHING in the Dutch Oven. When we go camping, my husband and I like to challenge ourselves and create fabulous, gourmet meals in the great outdoors. It’s equally fun to cook right in your backyard.
Some of these recipes and information is also featured in my new cookbook, The Camp & Cabin Cookbook (Countryman Press 2018). I have 100 recipes that are all prepared outdoors and over fire using multiple techniques, including the beloved Dutch oven. Learn more about my new book and where you can get your copy here!
Disclosure: This post does include affiliate links.