Selecting a Dutch oven
Dutch ovens provide a lifetime of fun camp cooking and it’s not that difficult to use them. In fact, Dutch-oven cooking can be pretty simple — throw the ingredients in the oven, put it on the coals, and in an hour or so you have a perfectly cooked meal.
First, you’ve got to pick a Dutch that fits your family. Do you want pre-seasoned? Cast iron or aluminum? Big or small?
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Pre-seasoned Dutch ovens eliminate a lot of the hassles of breaking in raw cast iron pots (getting that black coating), but pre-seasoned ovens cost more. The most popular Dutch ovens on the market today are pre-seasoned and they will continue to improve over time. First-time Dutch-oven cooks should opt for pre-seasoned.
(Make sure the Dutch oven is for outdoor cooking, not for a stovetop. Outdoor Dutches have feet and a snug-fitting lid with a rim that holds the lid in place and has space for briquettes on top of the lid. This style allows you to stack several Dutches — the main meal in the oven on the bottom, the side dish in the middle and dessert on top. An outdoor Dutch also has a bail handle (heavy wire attached on both sides of the oven).
Aluminum or cast iron?
Aluminum Dutch ovens are much lighter than cast iron. They are easier to pack around whether you’re car camping, river running or horse packing. If all you will be doing is car camping and don’t mind lugging around the weight, cast iron is the way to go.
Cast iron heats more evenly and retains heat for easier cooking. Cleanup is slightly more difficult because you can’t use soap and basically have to re-season it after cooking to prevent rust. However, a deep, rich, black Dutch oven is a thing of beauty. It is improves with re-seasoning after every use. On the other hand, aluminum is easier to clean because you can use soap and water. They also come with an anodized surface, which means it’s nonstick. Go anodized if you want something that’s easy to take care of.
Size-wise, a family of four should choose a 10-inch (6 quart) to 12-inch (8 quart) Dutch. The common recommendation for first-time users is 12 inches. Most recipes are written for this size.
Expect to pay from $50 to $90 for a pre-seasoned, cast-iron Dutch oven depending on size. Anodized aluminum ovens range from $75 to $150, depending on size.
When you take a pre-seasoned, cast-iron Dutch out of the box, rinse it with water and dry it completely. Don’t use soap. Before cooking, coat the inside of the oven and inside of the lid with cooking oil or an oil spray. After cooking, clean it with a stiff brush and hot water. Soap is not recommended because it will remove seasoning. After cooking, clean your Dutch oven by scraping out remaining food, then add a little water and heating it to a boil. Use a plastic scrubber or bristle brush (the boiling water will sterilize your Dutch oven) to clean out the rest and wipe it with a towel. After your Dutch oven is dry, apply another light coating of oil for storage.
Never add cool water to a hot Dutch oven. It will crack. Wait until the oven is cool to add water to clean it.
Store in a cool, dry place and put a paper towel between the oven and lid, or a wad of newspaper or paper towels inside. That will let the air circulate and prevent rust.
For an aluminum Dutch, wash your new oven with soap and hot water as a pre-treatment. Some companies put a coating on an oven for shipment. Then use a light spray of oil when cooking.
Cleanup is easy: Just wash in soap and water. Don’t put it in the dishwasher. Store in a dry place.
For a Dutch oven temperature of 325 to 350 degrees:
▪ 8-inch: Place eight to 10 briquettes on top and six to eight on the bottom.
▪ 10-inch: Place 10 to 12 coals on the bottom and eight to 10 on top.
▪ 12-inch: Place 12 to 14 on top and 10 to 12 on the bottom.
If you don’t need a specific temperature, some recommend that a 10-inch oven should have seven briquettes on the bottom and 13 on top. (Three less than the oven’s diameter number is the number of coals on the bottom, generally, and three more than that number is how many coals you want on top. But you need to experiment because of outside temperature, wind and other variables. It’s the experimentation that’s fun.
A general rule is every two briquettes added or subtracted means a 25 degree change in the baking temperature.
▪ For roasting, put the same amount of briquettes on top and on bottom.
▪ For baking, use the three-briquette rule above.
▪ For frying, simmering, boiling or making a stew, all the heat should be on the bottom.