My family and I have always loved camping. Cooking over the open fire is something I have perfected over the years. There’s just something about a meal sizzling over a campfire that makes the food taste so much better! Dutch oven cooking has always been quite intimidating to me. I understand the science of it, but the implementation just wasn’t working for me.
One Thanksgiving my entire family went on a camping trip, and we cooked a traditional Thanksgiving dinner over the open fire. My parents, Tom and Betty-Lou Seager used Dutch ovens to cook the turkey. Since we needed a large turkey, they cut it up and cooked the turkey breast in one Dutch oven and the remaining pieces in another Dutch oven. They carefully tended the ovens, regulating the temperature. Our meal was amazing! Since that time, I have been interested in Dutch oven cooking but intimidated to the point of not trying it.
My father-in-law, Danny Murphy, is also quite proficient when it comes to Dutch oven cooking. He has taught me some of the basic skills needed. However, maintaining the oven temperature still alludes me. Danny isn’t highly technical when he uses his coals, he simply pours them on and cooks the meal. I hope that someday, Dutch oven cooking will become that easy for me, but for now, I am clinging to the basic guidelines of Dutch oven cooking. Danny helped my daughter and I cook a fresh duck in the Dutch oven here.
Types of Dutch Ovens
To clarify, when I refer to the Dutch oven, I am referring to what Lodge calls a Camp Dutch Oven. A camp Dutch oven is a thick-walled cast-iron pot with a tight-fitting lid. The pot has legs so that it can stand in a campfire. The lid is flat and has a rim, that allows the cook to place coals on top to evenly heat the pot, surrounding the food in the heat. This camp Dutch oven is used for traditional outdoor cooking.
Over the years, the traditional Dutch oven has transformed from its original design. It remains a thick-walled pot with a tight-fitting lid. However, it no longer has legs, for use in the oven. The lid has also evolved. Since the flat lid is no longer needed for coals, a domed lid allows for greater versatility in the use of the pot. A roast chicken might be a little taller and a domed lid fits better around the meat. For the sake of this post, I will refer to this pot as the kitchen Dutch oven.
We have both types of Dutch ovens. In my video, I use both and found that the Dutch oven made for kitchen use is not transferable to outdoor use. I did indeed cook in it. I used rocks to create a solid platform to place the Dutch oven over the coals. That worked fine, however, the domed lid did not allow me to spread the coals over the bread inside the pot, creating a hot spot. While I didn’t burn the bread to the point that we couldn’t eat it, it was overly dark in the center and undercooked in other areas.
Materials of Dutch Ovens
Dutch Ovens are traditionally made from cast iron. Like all cast iron pots, they require seasoning and special care. There are now additional options of materials, aluminum Dutch ovens are one possibility. While I don’t have one, I read that they are much lighter than a traditional cast-iron Dutch oven. The downfall of a cast-iron Dutch oven is how heavy it is. Combined with being full of food and extremely hot, I find I need help to move a very large Dutch oven.
Kitchen Dutch ovens are also available in enameled cast iron. These pots don’t require the special care of traditional cast iron and they come in a variety of colors and styles to match a cook’s décor. They also offer the nonstick properties of enamel.
Outdoor Dutch Oven Cooking
My ultimate goal is to master Dutch oven cooking to the point that I can stack several Dutch ovens and cook the contents to perfection. Stacking Dutch ovens conserve space and better uses the coal and heat distribution. However, until I master just a single Dutch oven, I think I will take it slow to stack them.
Cooking outdoors comes with its own challenges. Wind can greatly affect outdoor cooking, blowing away the heat from the pots. If needed, a wind barrier can be added. A simple three-sided screen can make a huge difference in maintaining the heat over your outdoor cooking. If the ground is extremely cold or moist, the ground absorbs the heat that can also influence cooking. The sheet metal helps with this problem. Direct sunlight can also have an effect, causing the Dutch oven to heat more quickly.
Setting the Stage Outdoors
To set up my outdoor camp kitchen, I put a piece of sheet metal on the ground where I was planning to cook. This helps protect the ground but also keeps the coals where I put them. My father-in-law has an elevated platform that he cooks on which makes it a lot easier to cook rather than bending up and down cooking on the ground.
Next, I prepared my coals. This was the first time I used the charcoal chimney by myself, and I used it incorrectly in the video. I mixed the paper in with my charcoal. However, the chimney was designed to put the coals in the chimney and place the newspaper in the bottom. The chimney allows you to light the charcoal and then handle the charcoal.
Heating the Dutch Oven
I aspire to learn to use the Dutch ovens without needing to closely measure and count the charcoal briquettes. But for now, I am clinging to the system to gain the confidence I need to cook with the Dutch ovens. Charcoal briquettes are easy to use because they have a measurable unit of heat.
Determining the number of briquettes that are needed to cook is dependent on the size of the Dutch oven. The general rule of thumb that I followed in the book I used for this recipe gives a simple rule of thumb that is easy to remember. The general rule is to cook at 325 degrees, multiply the diameter of the Dutch oven by two. So for an 8″ dutch oven, double the diameter 8×2 equals 16 briquettes to cook at 325 degrees. A 12″ dutch oven, double the diameter 12×2 equals 24 briquettes for a temperature of 325 degrees. Every two briquette is about 25 degrees of heat. To adjust the temperate, add or subtract two briquettes.
Lodge, the maker of Dutch ovens has slightly different temperature rules. I found in my research that every other briquette chart that I found matched the Lodge recommendations. I want to experiment more with the different recommendations, as they are significantly different.
Briquette Placement for Dutch Oven Cooking Techniques
The placement of the briquettes is determined by the cooking method you will be using. Roasting, baking, boiling, or simmer.
For roasting, half of the briquettes are placed on top of the dutch oven and half are placed under the dutch oven.
For baking, 2/3 of the briquettes are on top of the dutch oven, 1/3 under the dutch oven. I’ve created a simple chart for the coal placements for BAKING.
To saute, fry or boil, all the briquettes go under the dutch oven.
To simmer or stew, 1/3 of the briquettes are placed on top of the dutch oven, 2/3 are placed under the dutch oven. This is the opposite of the baking recommendations found in my chart. To stew or simmer, REVERSE the placement of briquettes, placing the smaller amount on top and the larger amount on the bottom.
I’ve created a FREE Dutch oven baking temperature chart in the Kowalski Mountain Subscriber’s Library. This chart eliminates the guess work when it comes to managing the temperature in the camp Dutch oven. Already a member of the Kowalski Mountain Subscriber’s Library, you can download it here. Not a member yet, sign up now for instant access.
The book I reference in the video is titled Dutch Oven and Cast Iron Cooking and is a wonderful resource to get me started! This article gave me a lot of helpful information as I strive to perfect my Dutch oven cooking, though the formula for temperature is slightly different.
Even Heat in a Dutch Oven
Danny taught me some of the hands-on aspects of Dutch oven cooking. When using charcoal heat, the heat source is not even, resulting in a hot spot in the Dutch oven. To counteract that, Danny taught me to turn the lid a quarter turn every fifteen minutes during the cooking cycle. While researching this post, I learned that many Dutch oven cooks also turn the pot itself a quarter turn the opposite direction they turn the lid. This ensures more even cooking.
Maintaining the Heat
The most difficult option for me is learning how to maintain the temperature during a long cook time. The first time I cooked a whole chicken in the Dutch oven, it didn’t cook fully. I did not know to add additional coals during the cooking cycle. I added the initial coals, and I never added anymore. This time, I think likely I was adding too much coal too quickly. I really think that it just takes practice to learn to maintain an even heat source.
I did use a meat thermometer while cooking but I did not open the Dutch oven to check it while it was cooking for fear of losing the temperature. To better monitor the cooking temperature, I have purchased a digital thermometer that will allow me to put a probe into the meat and monitor the cook temp while the meat cooks. The Dutch oven has a small slot that will allow me to use the digital thermometer.
Successful Dutch Oven Cooking
Overall this experience went so much smoother than my previous attempt. Watch the videos below to find out exactly how our chicken and bread turned out! Baking and roasting require different coal techniques. When roasting, the coals are divided with half on the bottom and half on top. While baking, the coals are divided with 2/3 of the coals on top and 1/3 of the coals on the bottom. Since I used the kitchen Dutch oven for baking the bread, I was unable to spread the coals appropriately since the lid was domed, creating a hot spot. Also, in the heat of the moment, pun intended, I forgot the correct ratio of charcoal briquettes for baking.
Join Me in the Outdoor Kitchen
I made two videos for this week’s cooking. The first is Dutch Oven Cooking Prep, join me as I make the homemade Maple Oatmeal Bread by hand. The second is Dutch Oven Cooking, come along as I bake the Lemon Rosemary Roasted Chicken and Maple Oatmeal bread in the Dutch ovens. Find out if I was successful!
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Recipes for Tonight’s Meal
I wish I could take credit for developing the amazing recipes on the menu. You can find them here.
About the Author: Barbra-Sue Kowalski grew up on a small hobby farm. She was always drawn to farm life, however, she was stuck in an urban life far from her roots. Barbra-Sue was a single mom for 13 years, raising her 3 children on her own. She met Philip in 2018 and they married in 2021. Between the two of them, they have 5 grown children and 4 grandchildren. These empty nesters are following their dreams! As they both turn 50, they are building their off-grid homestead to live the life that they dream about. Learn more about Philip and Barbra-Sue here. Contact them here. To leave a comment on this post, please scroll down.