Dutch Oven Cooking 101 (Part 1)

by Joslin Fritz
( November 28th, 2011 )

Food cooked in a dutch oven (d.o), as seen here, is absolutely delicious. Used as a substitute for an oven while camping, you can pretty much cook anything in one of these cast-iron or aluminum containers. (I prefer the cast-iron ones). As you can see in the photo, charcoal briquettes are used in place of a handy dandy oven. With charcoal, you don’t have the handy dandy temperature gage that you have on your oven, hence, the art of dutch oven cooking is born. On river rafting trips we often utilize our dutch ovens for making a wide variety of dishes, such as chicken enchilada pie, brownies, pineapple upside-down cake, lasagna, even biscuits!

Cooking in a dutch oven never ceases to strike awe from our river guests, and let me tell you, it truly is a skill where practice makes perfection. I’ve decided to ‘fess up and share some basic d.o cooking how to’s that I’ve learned over the years on the river. Let’s use the example of a cooking a pineapple upside-down cake in a dutch oven, shown here in a photo from Mtncook on Photobucket.

1) Figure out your time needed for cooking preparation.

You will need to light your coals about 10-15 minutes before you are ready to start cooking your dish. In terms of making a cake, prep is fairly straightforward, and so you can light your coals the same time as you start stirring the batter. If you are making a meat dish, you will need more time, as it is important to cook the meat before putting the coals on your closed dutch oven.

2) Think safety before you light the coals.

Make sure the area is clear of any debris that might catch fire. Use a fire pan or another barrier in between the ground and the dutch oven, so you don’t damage the area underneath with a fire ring (leave no trace!). Make sure you have a lid lifter or a rapidslide wrench to lift the dutch oven lid, and a pair of thick gloves. Have a small shovel on hand to move the hot coals in place.

3)Prep the dutch oven.

Oiling the bottom of the dutch oven is key to prevent a flawless finish to a pineapple upside-down cake. Really, it’s important in any dessert type dutch oven dish. Another KEY TIP in cooking with a dutch oven is to preheat the lid and the dish. This is often overlooked by many d.o. newbies, and it makes a world of difference. Usually, in main meal dishes such as pot roast or chicken enchilada pie, you have already started cooking your meat or vegetables in the dutch oven, and so you don’t need to worry about oiling or preheating it, it’s already done.

4) Set your coals.

By now your coals should be an orange hue, your pineapples and cherries set in the bottom of the warmed dish, your cake mix poured over top, and your lid nice and hot. How many coals to use and where to put them seem to be opinions that folks differ on, a quick goggle will prove that. Your aim is to reach 350 degrees. My tried and true method is this; 5 or 6 coals placed underneath the dutch oven in an equally spread out fashion. Like a star if you will. On the lid, line the perimeter of the top with coals, and then place 2 in the middle of the lid. This provides an even, steady supply of heat.

5) Wait patiently and don’t peek!!

Your dish will take anywhere from 30-45 minutes to cook, sometimes longer for certain dishes. A cake will take about a half hour or so. It is important NOT TO OPEN THE LID AND PEEK. This will let the heat out and cause a gooey, undercooked cake. I go by the smell test-once I can smell the cake, I wait just 5-10 minutes more, and then I take the lid off. I know it can be tough to know exactly when, but with practice you’ll get the hang of it. OH, and beware of lifting the lid at an angle, you don’t want to get charcoal in the cake!

As you’ll soon realize, each dutch oven chef has their own secret style, and so I encourage you to check out the MANY websites dedicated to dutch oven cooking. You can even join the International Dutch Oven Society if you’re feeling particularly inspired.

Now that you know the dutch oven basics, stay tuned for Dutch Oven Cooking Part 2-Tricks of the Trade, coming up soon!

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