How to use Dutch Ovens

Just about anything you can cook in a conventional domestic oven or on a hob can be cooked outdoors in a Dutch oven. With a little practice and some patience say goodbye to sausages, boil in the bag and cold sandwiches and say hello to hearty stews, roast dinners with all the trimmings, oven baked bread and cakes, even camp pizzas. A Dutch oven will give you great results and tasty camp food to remember.
If you are new to Dutch oven cooking then it's a good idea to start with something simple that will help you to learn how to regulate cooking temperatures and times, and if you are using a new oven, something that will help to build up a good layer of seasoning on the oven. I would recommend that you try some deep fat frying- maybe chicken and chips or some bacon and sausages, this way you will soon get a feel for regulating the amount of heat generated from your coals and the fire.

When adapting a recipe that you use at home you may need to adjust the amount of liquid you would normally use since the closed lid on the oven creates a steaming affect on the food, to begin with rather than trying to adapt your own recipe there are many very good Dutch oven cookbooks available. Lots of dutch oven cooking is done using charcoal briquettes placed onto the lid and underneath the pot. This method makes it easy to estimate and regulate the temperature giving you better cooking results; it also helps prevent burning by heating the oven evenly. The other advantages of using Charcoal is that it does not take up a lot of room when transporting, it burns longer and hotter than wood (so you use less) and with the help of a charcoal chimney you can have it up to temperature and ready to use in under ten minutes. When using Charcoal you want to avoid bunching of the briquettes as this will cause hot spots in your cooking, here are three possible patterns you could try.

A checkerboard pattern under oven and on the lid.
A circle pattern under oven and on the lid.
A circle under oven and checkerboard on the lid.

Most recipes will use charcoal briquettes however for most of the camp cooking that I have done I used quality British lump wood charcoal and I have been able to consistently turn out good food, I do however also use wood but it takes a little bit more practice.

Using Wood

Choosing the right fuel is very important when cooking on a wood fire. If the wood burns to ash quickly it is difficult to get coals for even cooking; soft woods tend to burn hot and fast so using these often results in food burned on the outside while the inside remains raw. For this reason some woods to try and avoid are Pines, Spruces and Elder.
Hardwoods when burned hold heat better, burn slower and last longer Oak, Ash and Beech will give you much better temperature control.

Here are some hints to make this style of cooking easier:
Start early, hardwoods burn slowly so start the fire well ahead of time to reach cooking temperature.
Tools – have a long handled shovel to hand.
Try to get coals the same size.
Don't heap coals.
Don't bury the Dutch oven in the campfire.
Turn the Dutch oven 1/3 of a turn every 10-15 minutes and twist the lid in the opposite direction.
Replenish coals regularly.
Avoid high flames.

As with your oven at home you will be looking to get the temperature in your oven to about 180 degrees C to estimate how hot your oven is place your hand about 6 inches over the coals on the lid and count; one thousand; two thousand; three… remove your hand when it gets uncomfortable – one is hot, two is moderate, and three is a low heat. Remember you can cook food slowly, but you can't un-burn food, use less heat and cook longer rather than overheating.
As a general rule of thumb you can follow this formula for temperature control. Take the diameter of your Dutch oven in inches for example say 12” add 3 to make the number of coals for the top = 15 and subtract 3 for the bottom = 9. This method should maintain a steady temperature of about 180 degrees C. Some recipes will suggest a cooking temperature, but for those that don’t aim for this.
However this is not the only method and some recipes and cooking techniques may require the heat to be concentrated in different areas.
Frying (Deep & Shallow) & Boiling: Heat from the bottom only.
Roasting: Heat from top and bottom equally, the ratio of coals underneath to coals on top is a 1-1.
Baking: Usually done with more heat on top, use a ratio of 1 underneath to 3 on top.
Stewing & Simmering: Requires almost all heat from the bottom, a ratio of 4 underneath to 1 on top.
When cooking the amount of wind, the type food, and outside temperature can all affect the temperature of your oven. Cool air temperatures, high altitudes, shade and high humidity will decrease the amount of heat generated by the charcoal, however hot air temperatures, low altitude, direct sunlight, and wind will increase the amount of heat generated. If you are in a hurry or short on coals a good trick is to cover the Dutch oven with aluminium foil to help focus the heat.

Maintaining Even Heat
No matter how evenly you distribute your coals above and below your Dutch oven, there will be some spots that get hotter than others. To prevent having some burned and some raw parts of your meal, you should occasionally rotate your oven. Try turning the oven clockwise for a 1/3 of a revolution, and using a lid lifter lift turn the lid anti-clockwise the same amount-maybe every 10 to 15 minutes. When doing this take a quick look inside, this will give you an idea how the cooking is going-just be careful to not drop ash in. I like this method because both the heat from the top and bottom moves in relation to the food and there's nothing for me to remember except that the lid logo always remains the same position. There are some foods that you should really wait to cook and be careful of cooking in a new oven. Tomato-based sauces, beans, and any acidic foods can be harsh on the seasoned layer. Wait until you've got a strong, solid coating in place before cooking these and then be sure to clean up quickly as soon as you're done cooking-beans left in a pot for a few hours will start peeling the seasoning layer off. Cleaning your oven right away is always a good idea (when it has cooled sufficiently), if the food cooked in your oven is blackened or has a metallic taste this can be an indicator of an insufficient level of seasoning or poor cleaning.

Stews & Soups
Stewing and simmering is an easy and great way to start to use a Dutch oven. Just throw everything in and let it simmer for a couple hours. It's as easy as that and has a low risk of burning. Most of the heat can be directly under the oven so this is really Dutch oven campfire cooking at its best. A tripod can be used for this as the height of the oven can easily be adjusted to control the temperature.

Meats & Roasts
Dutch oven meat is awesome stuff, packed with flavour and rolling out of clouds of aroma. This is because the heavy lid of a Dutch oven keeps the steam and flavour inside (as long as you don't open it to peek too often). If you're cooking a joint of meat, allow about 30 minutes per lb and 25 minutes per lb if it is chicken or other poultry. About 30 minutes before the end I like to put in small new potatoes and about 15 minutes later add your veg, you will then have a full roast dinner with gravy all from the same pot. Always let the meat rest for at least 10 to 15 minutes before carving and you will have roast that will melt your mouth.

Cooking with a Dutch oven should definitely include baking. Breads have a tendency to burn on the bottom, but this is usually caused by putting too many coals under the oven and not enough on top. When cooking breads, rolls, and biscuits, almost all the heat should be coming from the top so place 3/4 of the coals on top of your oven.
Also try placing 4 or 5 small pebbles in the bottom of your oven, mix up your bread recipe as normal and put it in a baking tin, balance this tin on the pebbles and then cook as required. Having the tin raised on the pebbles allows air to flow under and around the bread creating a more even heat all around and minimizing the chance of burning. This really works well, use this method to cook bread, rolls, pastry, or anything you like. As an alternative I also like to cook my bannock in a large cast iron skillet and have included a very quick and simple recipe you may want to try.

Dutch oven desserts are great to cook, however desserts usually contain a lot of sugar and sugar tends to caramelize and make a sticky mess that can be very hard to clean off. A tip to keep in mind for sugary desserts is to line the Dutch oven with aluminium foil before cooking so when you finished you just remove the foil liner plus the worst of the sticky mess. To be honest with you I now tend to line my pots for most of my cooking as its so much easer to clean up.

Lid Cooking
Don't forget that your Dutch oven lid can make a great pan for cooking. Set it upside down on a bed of coals and let it warm up. Bacon, sausage, eggs, and pancakes all work great on the lid. Since it is slightly concave, it works great for making a single large pancake every time! A good way to check the temperature is to drop a drip of water on. If it dances around, then that's a good heat. If it just sits there and steams, it's too cold. If it quickly fizzes away, it's too hot.

Just remember one thing there is no right or wrong way just what works for you. But I do hope this has helped to de-mystify Dutch oven cooking and gets you on you way to some fantastic camp food.

Many Thanks to
MartinK9 - Martin
Twodogs - Cliff
Nolightweight - Neil
Andy2112 - Andy
For the Chicken and Chips