Any good western movie has a scene where a cowboy is cooking on an open fire with their pot hanging over the flames. While cooking over a flame is a viable way to prepare food, it is usually the coals that are more desirable and useful for cooking. Dutch oven cooking is an easy way to cook delicious food and fill stomachs that are hungry from a day outdoors.
A trip through your local store’s cooking section may hold several different varieties of Dutch ovens. Dutch ovens are thick-walled cooking pots that have a tight fitting lid. They can be made of cast-iron, cast aluminum or be ceramic. (Cast iron is the choice of the Nevada Outdoor School staff.) Sometimes the pot is enameled. Enameled is a coating, called “frit”, which is a form of glass that is baked onto the surface to make it non-stick. Enameled cast iron cookware can only be used on a stove top or in the oven up to 400 F. A seasoned cast-iron pot has had oil baked into the cast iron. This also provides a non-stick surface, but over time with use and cleaning it can wear off, therefore periodic seasoning may be required. With all this variety, how do you know what makes a Dutch oven “good” for outdoor cooking?
A good outdoor Dutch oven is a cast-iron pot that is well seasoned and that has a lid with a lip and legs. The lid is usually flat, well-fitting, and has a lip, because coals are placed on both the top and bottom of the pot to assist with a more consistent and even cooking temperature. A lid with a slope makes it difficult to place coals. Feet on the bottom is also good for an outdoor pot so coals can be placed underneath. If the Dutch oven does not have feet, rocks can be used to prop-up the pot.
Because outdoor Dutch oven cooking utilizes hot coals, Nevada Outdoor School encourages people to practice Leave No Trace and refrain from cooking directly on the ground as it can scar and damage the earth. Plus, having a cook table saves the back! A cook table needs to be inflammable and able to withstand heat. The cook table needs to be large enough to allow for space around the Dutch oven and between each oven if cooking with more than one. The cook table needs to be at a height that you can lift your ovens onto the surface and be able to remove and replace lids easily. Having a table that can accommodate a windscreen is also helpful, especially in the afternoon winds of Nevada. Nice-to-haves are shelves and hooks for keeping tongs, gloves and other equipment.
The heat associated with outdoor Dutch over cooking lends itself to some additional safety considerations. Having good heat-proof gloves or mitts nearby is essential. Do not attempt to maneuver hot Dutch ovens without good gloves! Lid lifters are also a good investment. Coal shovels and tongs will help with coal management and prevent burns and a charcoal chimney will help get those coals hot more efficiently.
Finally, the clean-up of a cast-iron Dutch oven is important so it is ready-for-action the next time your stomach grumbles for some amazing food. Though there are differing opinions on whether or not to use dish soap, this is how Nevada Outdoor School cares for our Dutch ovens – as recommended by our dear friend Terry Bell, The Dutch Diva. Wipe down the Dutch oven, removing as much food as possible. Next, add a small amount of water and a few drops of dish soap and scrub off any remaining food particles with a plastic scrub brush. Rinse and dry thoroughly. If you do not have the chance to clean your Dutch ovens immediately after use and you are left with dry, baked on food, you can fill it with water and bring to a boil, being sure to cover places that have residue that may be left. After water boils, allow it to cool and then scrub the interior using a dish scrubber or plastic spatula. After a good scrub, rinse well and dry. Heating up the pot to thoroughly dry is not a bad idea to remove all moisture. Finally, after your cast-iron pot is clean and dry, rub in a small amount of cooking oil or Camp Chef Cast Iron Conditioner using a paper towel. Store with a paper towel hanging over the edge of the pot and under the lid to wick out any environmental moisture that the ovens may be exposed to.
Sometimes after storing for a long time, your Dutch Ovens may have a sticky residue from the evaporated oil. Just put those in your indoor oven or outdoor grill at 400 F for 30 - 40 minutes and the oil will re-absorb into the cast iron and leave you a nice smooth surface.
Cooking outside can be a lot of fun and super yummy! To learn more about Dutch oven cooking, check out Nevada Outdoor School at nevadaoutdoorschool.org and watch our videos. Please join us for our Virtual Buckaroo Dutch Oven Cook Off fundraiser to either watch or participate on September 12, 2020. Get outside and cook; fresh air, tasty food and sunshine is good for all of us!