Camping food. It doesn’t all have to be hot dogs on a stick and s’mores for desert. If you camp often, a little variety is always nice. With a little cooking skills, some charcoal briquettes, and a cast iron Dutch oven you can cook gourmet camp meals in a cinch.

Dutch ovens are heavy….think sumo wrestler heavy.

The first thing to know about Dutch ovens is that they are heavy and are best for trips where you won’t be packing the weight yourself (or at least for not very long). Think car camping, rafting and canoe trips, or packing in on horseback.  A standard 12” Dutch oven weighs around 20lbs, and that’s without the charcoal briquettes you’ll need to cook with!

Dutch ovens come in a variety of sizes, from 8” (great for cobbler or one or two people) all the way to 16” ovens (great for things like lasagna or large groups).  If you want to buy one oven for everything, you’re best off choosing a 12”.  

What’s a Chimney starter? Or a lid lifter? And  why would they make cooking with my Dutch Oven so much easier?

To cook you need heat, and with Dutch ovens, your best source of heat is charcoal briquettes.  The easiest way to light charcoal is with a chimney flume. Simply stuff some paper in the bottom of the tube, add your briquettes on top, light the paper on fire, and let the charcoal do its thing. The chimney allows the charcoal to be ready at the same time.  Once your charcoal is ready, you can set the coals on your oven (and whatever tasty dish you’ve prepared inside). 

Here’s a handy little temperature guide for how many briquettes on the top and bottom you need to get your oven to the right temperature.

To check the doneness of your food, you’ll need to lift the lid. Bare hands lifting a hot lid= bad idea.  A basic lid lifter will allow for you to ensure your food is cooked without obtaining third degree burns.

From Pineapple Upside Down Cake to Pot Roast and Potatoes. What can I cook in this thing?

A Dutch oven is essentially an oven. You can cook cakes, biscuits, cobblers, pot roasts, scalloped potatoes, and anything else you would make in a standard oven, even lasagna!  Just make your dish like you regularly would and put it into your Dutch oven. Place the appropriate amount of coals on top and bottom to get it to the desired temperature (use the chart above, in case you don’t have photographic memory), and cook for the standard amount of time you would cook in your oven at home. Note: Dutch ovens do tend to cook a little hotter than standard ovens so you’ll want to check your food often so it doesn’t burn.

If I’m not allowed to use soap and water, how the heck do I clean a Dutch oven?

To make clean up a cinch, you can always line your Dutch oven with parchment paper before you put your food into it.  If you don’t have parchment paper, you can always use hot water and a scrub brush (the green side of the sponge always works well) . Forgot your sponge? You can use a little sand and very hot water. Just make sure to rinse all the sand out so you don’t eat gritty brownies the next time you cook.  Once you’ve cleaned your Dutch, just be sure to add some oil to it to maintain the patina and seasoning (the coating that makes it non-stick).

This isn't high tech Teflon, you'll need to maintain it to keep food from sticking.

Nowadays most Dutch ovens come pre-seasoned. HOORAY! This means you won’t have to smoke up your house or BBQ to get that shiny non-stick coating, aka patina. But, if you've recently inherited one at a garage sale, or you left food in yours so long the only way to get it clean was to use soap and water, then you'll need to re-season it.

To season your oven you’ll want to coat it with vegetable oil, place it upside down on a hot bbq (around 350 degrees) and cook it for an hour. Turn off the heat and allow it to cool on its own. Don’t have a BBQ? You can do this in your home oven, just be sure to lay a cookie sheet covered in foil on the tray below the Dutch oven to catch all the dripping oil. Note: This method creates a lot of smoke and foul smells. The BBQ is the ticket. This method also works on cast iron skillets and griddles. To restore your Dutch oven’s coating without a full season you can fill it with oil and make Fry Bread. Because what's better than a boiling hot pot of oil that produces some of the most delicious home cooked donuts?

Fill the Dutch oven with vegetable oil so that it’s almost full. Then heat the oil over an open fire outside (this is best done when you're camping and have real wood fire, briquettes just don’t seem to get hot enough). When the oil is good and hot, drop in your favorite bread dough, and cook it through. Don’t want to make any bread dough? Use canned biscuits instead. Once you’ve fully stuffed yourself with Fry Bread and the fire has died down, dispose of the oil in a safe location. Voila! Your Dutch oven is good as new.

Now  that you know you don’t have to eat marshmallows and weenies every camping trip, get out there and get your gouremt camp chef on!

Need a little help getting started? Check out this great recipe archive.


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Originally Published: Jun 22, 2014