Hunting Camp Journal
Camp Cooking With
the Historic Dutch Oven
Chuck wagon cooks on western ranches still depend on the magic of cast iron Dutch ovens today just like they did 100 years ago. Hunting guides and outfitters still depend upon Dutch ovens just like the Mountain men of the 1820s did. And a growing number of hunting camp cooks, as well as back yard chefs, are rediscovering the fun and delicious dishes that can be prepared in Dutch ovens.
Born Out of Necessity
The cast iron Dutch oven was an improvement in fireplace and campfire cooking devised by early American settlers out of necessity. The iron cook stove had not been invented and most of their cooking was done outdoors or in a fireplace. They needed a pot which could do all the things a stove could do –bake, boil, fry, stew and broil. Thus, the first crude cast iron Dutch oven was created. It is said that several of the ovens’ perfections were made by the skilled craftsmen Paul Revere. This design is still used today.
As the cast iron pot became popular in the colonies, it was produced in large numbers by New England manufacturers. It was not uncommon for Dutch traders to stop by the manufacturers to purchase large quantities of the pot for trading with the settlers and Native Americans: thus, according to some historians, the pot became known as the "Dutch" Oven.
Tied to American History
As the westward movement crossed the Appalachian Mountains and traveled down the Ohio River, so did the Dutch oven. Almost all early longhunters, mountainmen, explorers, military expeditions, and settlers depended upon the muzzleloading rifle and the Dutch oven. The Lewis and Clark Expedition depended upon the iron pot. The rifle supplied the game and the Dutch oven turned the game into a meal.
When mountainman John Colter died in 1813, the sales bill of his personal property included "To John Simpson –one Dutch oven - $4.00." The mountain man had kept his Dutch oven to the end.
Today cast iron Dutch ovens have become a very popular way of cooking at home, on the patio, or in a hunting camp. These ovens and accessories needed to cook with them can be purchased from hardware stores and camping supply stores.
Selecting A Dutch Oven
When purchasing a Dutch oven, one should make sure he is getting the real thing. It is made of heavy cast iron with a flat bottom, with three short legs protruding about two inches. These legs are to hold the pot above hot coals. It will have a bail. The lid is made of the same heavy cast iron, and will have a small handle in the center. The rim of the lid is flanged so that hot coals will stay on the lid while cooking.
The Dutch oven can be purchased in several sizes, usually from eight to 16 inches in diameter, and from three to five inches deep. The 12-inch diameter size is the most popular size for hunting/fishing camp cooking. The cost ranges from about $40.00 for an 8-inch oven to about $116.00 for a 16-inch oven. The weight ranges from 11 pounds to 30 pounds for the large size. A word of caution: many modern flat-bottomed pots are called Dutch ovens. They should be avoided as they are not designed for cooking on an open fire. Insist on a high quality camp Dutch oven made by a well known manufacturer such as Lodge Mfg. Co., www.lodgemfg.com, or Camp Chef, www.campchef.com.
Seasoning Is A Must
The first step after purchasing a Dutch oven is the most important one – seasoning the oven. Seasoning gives the oven a non-stick finish and protects the cast iron from rust. The method most often used to season an oven is to nearly fill the oven with good cooking oil and have a fish fry. If you don’t want to do this you can season a new oven by coating the inside and out, including the lid, with a thin coat of Crisco and place in a charcoal or gas grill and heat for one hour. Remove the oven and lid and wipe dry. It will have a black finish and will be seasoned. From then on, wash with hot water and never scrub with metal scrapers, pads or brushes. Thanks to the nonstick seasoning the Dutch oven surprisingly will usually wipe clean without any strong detergents or scrubbing.
The Magic From Even Heating
A Dutch oven is probably the most versatile piece of cooking equipment available to campers who enjoy cooking over an open fire or with charcoal briquets. Due to its design and to the fact it’s made from cast iron, it distributes and holds heat evenly for a long period of time. It is ideal for shallow frying, deep fat frying, stewing, boiling, baking, or roasting.
Hung by a hook over a fire, the Dutch oven can be used for boiling. By placing hot coals or charcoal briquets under the Dutch oven and on the lid, it can be used for roasting and baking. Set the oven in the hot coals of a campfire or over several charcoal briquets, and it can be used for stewing and frying.
I have learned to use charcoal briquets for baking in my Dutch oven. When the proper number of briquets is used for a particular size Dutch oven, the results are as good, or better, than coals from a campfire. Since most dishes are cooked at 350 degrees here is the formula I’ve worked out for using charcoal briquets:
||Number of Briquettes
How briquets are arranged under and over the oven is important. Under the oven place the briquets in a circle about ½-inch inside the outer edge of the pot. On the lid make a ring around the outer edge with a briquet on either side of the handle. Since charcoal briquets give off a great deal of heat, you will want to rotate the oven ¼ turn every 15 – 20 minutes and the lid the opposite direction to avoid hot spots.
If you are using more than one Dutch oven, try "stack cooking" to save on charcoal briquets. After you have the first Dutch oven heating properly, set the second on top of the first and add hot briquets to its lid. I have seen outfitters stack as many as five Dutch ovens on one stack and serve a camp full of hungry hunters quickly as a result. At my hunting camp I have settled on a 14-inch oven for our main course with a smaller 10-inch oven sitting on top of it, baking bread at the same time.
It is possible to bake two dishes in the Dutch oven at once if they require about the same amount of cooking time. You just simply place each foodstuff in a separate loaf pan and place the pans in the oven on the cake rack. A venison meat loaf and sweet potatoes turn out well cooked this way.
The Dutch oven lid, when turned upside down and placed on a small bed of hot coals, makes an excellent frying pan. If you are using charcoal briquets, you can turn the pot upside down, place four to six briquets on the bottom, and then set the lid upside down on the oven’s legs and fry away. It serves as an excellent camp griddle.
Dutch oven cooking requires a few tools. To handle the hot ovens and to move hot coals, I carry four tools that I consider essential with my Dutch ovens. The first is a shovel. This shovel is used for spreading coals, placing coals on the lid, and digging pits for cooking. The second tool is a lid lifter. This tool allows me to move a hot oven and to lift a hot lid for checking food. My third tool is a long handle set of tongs to move charcoal briquets around for proper spacing. And fourth is a pair of heavy leather gloves to wear when handling hot ovens.
As any seasoned Dutch oven chef will tell you, you can cook anything in a Dutch oven that you can cook in the kitchen at home. As with anything new, experience will help you master the
skills of cooking in a Dutch oven. It will take a little time and experience to learn how to control cooking temperatures, but once you get it down you will always be the cook in demand, at home or camp. Food cooked in a cast iron Dutch oven taste better, especially to hungry hunters.
J. Wayne Fears is the editor of HUNTING CAMP JOURNAL magazine www.huntingcampjournal.com and has written a book entitled THE COMPLETE BOOK OF DUTCH OVEN COOKING.