Dutch Ovens have been around for so long because they are extremely versatile and durable. They can be heated with charcoal, wood coals, or open fire. What can you cook in one? The answer is pretty much anything you can cook at home in the oven or on the stove top. Anything from bread to beans or pot roast to peach cobbler can be served up using a Dutch oven. Most beginners need to learn how to season a Dutch oven before taking it on the road. Don’t believe the box when it claims to be pre-seasoned. Dutch ovens are a great investment, but you must take care of them.
How to Season a Dutch Oven
- Pre-heat your kitchen oven or gas grill/charcoal grill to 400◦ F. Use a temperature gage or thermometer for a grill. I recommend lining a kitchen oven with aluminum foil on the bottom (not the racks) to catch any drips.
- Straight from the box, a Dutch oven should be cleaned with dish detergent and hot water. Use a brush or scrub pad to clean all of the surface including the lid. In the future, soap will not be necessary.
- Rinse well and dry with paper towels or a kitchen towel.
- To ensure that your Dutch oven is truly dry, place it in the oven or on the grill for 2-5 minutes. Don’t forget the lid. Water is your enemy for the next few steps.
- Remove from the oven using oven mitts or pads and set your Dutch oven on paper towels or a kitchen towel. Allow it to cool to the touch.
- Smear pure shortening or vegetable oil* all over the Dutch oven, inside and out, top to bottom, including the lid. I usually use paper towels to smear the shortening or oil but a cloth or fingers work just as well. This doesn’t need to be a thick layer of shortening or oil but it does need to cover the entire surface. In fact, the Dutch oven will be sticky after it is seasoned if the layer of shortening or oil was too thick. In that case it would need to be heated longer to melt off the sticky layer.
*Note: Never use butter, grease left-over from cooking, or flavored shortening. I use plain Crisco. Pure lard or canola oil or flax oil will also be fine.
- Place the Dutch oven face down and the lid with the handle on top inside your heated oven or grill. Make sure the oven door or grill lid is sealed. Bake for 45-60 minutes. Don’t worry about the smoke. Just turn on the exhaust fan or open your kitchen windows if you are inside.
- Once the bake time is up, turn off the heat and let the Dutch oven sit undisturbed for an additional 30 minutes inside the oven or grill.
- Remove the Dutch oven carefully using oven mitts or pads. Set it out to cool on a towel. Be careful not get burned or to scratch countertops or ceramic stove tops. We are talking about a heavy cast iron Dutch oven, here. It could even crack a ceramic stove top if you’re not careful
- Let the Dutch oven cool completely.
Once it is cool, I recommend seasoning your Dutch oven 2 or 3 more times by following steps 6 -10. The darker the coating the better.
You will need to periodically season your Dutch oven as well. Acidic or sugary foods are more likely to eat through the protective layers of seasoning. For this reason, I recommend serving the food cooked in a Dutch oven in separate containers so that you can rinse your Dutch oven with water and a brush to remove food while the Dutch oven is still warm. You can also re-heat the it by the fire with some water in it before cleanup. At the very least, rinse and wipe out your Dutch oven before any food scraps have a chance to completely dry. Again, no soap. I recommend applying a very light coating of vegetable oil after each use. (Too much oil will cause a rancid smell.)
So, what if food gets burned or if soot builds up on the surface? Coarse sea salt or sand can be used as an abrasive to scour a really dirty Dutch oven. Just make sure you rinse it thoroughly and re-season if necessary. Oven cleaner or vinegar can also be used. It is a good idea to re-season after either of those harsher cleaners.
Do you want to avoid a messy cleanup? You can also line a Dutch oven with aluminum foil. For example, I love to make peach cobbler on campouts. The first time I made it, I let it scorch a bit. The cleanup was not fun. Since then, I have lined the whole Dutch oven with foil and kept a closer eye on the baking process.
Storing a Dutch oven
Dutch ovens need to be kept relatively dry. If you live in a place with high humidity like here in North Carolina, you know that keeping anything dry can be a challenge. Rust is a constant threat to all things metal here by the Atlantic Ocean. What can you do?
Well, the best idea is to leave a very light coat of vegetable oil on the Dutch oven when storing. Place folded up paper towels between the lid and the pot or use cardboard. This creates spacers for air flow. You can put your Dutch oven in a bag or box. You can buy specialty bags that are nice. I personally don’t have one just because I didn’t want to spend the money, but the box it came in works fine. If you have room in your home, good for you. Air conditioning is a wonderful thing. If you’re like me, my wife gets a bit miffed if I try to keep too much camping gear in the closet. A garage or shed is fine as long as you keep your Dutch oven seasoned and allow air flow. Remember the light coating of oil as well.
Since it is so versatile, your Dutch oven can be heated by coals, charcoal, or directly over the fire. Charcoal is fast and easy, but wood ash smells a lot better even though it takes a little longer.
For general cooking, charcoal should be placed in a safe place on the ground to begin with. Heap the charcoal briquets in a pile and light them after letting lighter fluid soak in for a minute or two. If you have the matchlight variety, just light it and make sure it catches. Let the briquets burn for about 5-7 minutes or until they start looking grayish white. Some people buy a coal starter which looks roughly like a metal watering can. Follow the manufactures instructions for it. Using tongs, spread out the charcoal into a single-layer ring about the size of the Dutch Oven. Nestle the Dutch oven over it then add 2-3 briquets between the legs. Make sure the Dutch oven is sitting as levelly as possible. Cover the lid with a ring of briquets as well and add 2-3 in the center. Some recipes have the number of briquets listed. This generally creates an oven temperature of 350 degrees F. You can cook things wrapped in aluminum foil on top of the Dutch oven’s lid also. If you lift the lid to check the food, be careful to keep out ashes. You can buy an attachment to lift the lid that is very helpful. I strongly advise you to get one and wear grilling gloves. No one wants to be burned or drop their food. Most recipes have a recommended cooking time. I usually try to leave the lid in place until just before that time is reached. Why waste heat? You can buy a lid stand as well, but it isn’t absolutely necessary. It just gives you a place to hold the lid while you are stirring or checking food inside the Dutch oven. When baking breads use about ¾ of the briquets on the lid and ¼ underneath. This prevents the bottom from scorching. When frying, use all the briquets under the Dutch oven and cook with or without the lid as you please. Rotate the Dutch oven about every 10 minutes. This ensures a more even baking temperature. If the cook time is over 45 minutes, you will need to prepare more briquets about 30 minutes into the cook time and switch the other ones out as soon as they are hot.
For wood coals, build your campfire with hardwood if possible. Make sure the fire is in a safe place and let it burn down until there are sufficient coals to go under and on top of your Dutch oven. I generally use a shovel to move the coals off to the side so that I can keep the campfire going. Make sure the Dutch oven is situated in a level position over the ring of coals about the same size as the Dutch oven and cover the lid with a similar ring of coals along the edge. Bigger pieces of wood coals may need to be chopped up a bit with the shovel. Follow the directions for cook time on your recipe. The benefit of wood coal is that you don’t have to buy charcoal or lighter fluid. It smells like a piece of the outdoors as well. If you have time and enjoy the camp fire anyway, wood coal is the way to go. For longer cook times, start replacing the coals about 35-40 minutes in. You can set a Dutch oven right in the coals of the fire if you want. This does cause soot to build up on the bottom and sides. Most people prefer to hang it on a tripod structure, however. Tripods are better for warming food or keeping it warm.
A Couple of Easy Recipes
1 stick of butter or margarine
2 large cans of peaches
2 cups of self-rising flour
2 cups of sugar
1 cup of milk
Line the Dutch oven with aluminum foil. Prepare and place 6-9 coals in a ring around the legs of your uncovered Dutch Oven. Allow the butter to melt in the pot. In a separate bowl, mix the flour, sugar, and milk into a batter. Pour the batter into the Dutch oven in the center of the melted butter. It will spread out on its own without stirring. Spoon the peaches onto the top of the batter/butter. Try to spread them over the entire top of the batter evenly as you spoon them in without stirring. Do not add the extra juice since the juice that was spooned in along with the peaches is enough. Cover with the lid and add a ring of coals plus 2-3 extra in the middle. For a 12 inch Dutch oven this is approximately 18-19 briquets. Bake for 30 minutes while rotating the Dutch oven 1/3 rotation every 10 minutes. If the crust is not slightly browned, bake it for an additional 5 to 10 minutes.
Chili with Beans
2 large can of dark red kidney beans or 2 small cans
2 lbs ground chuck
2 20oz can stewed tomatoes or crushed tomatoes
3 or 4 packets of McCormic chili seasoning
Prepare your charcoal briquets and place about 12-15 coals in a ring around the bottom of your Dutch oven. Lightly coat the bottom of the Dutch oven with oil. Brown the ground chuck and dip out as much grease as possible with a spoon or ladle. Add the other ingredients and stir. Cook for 20-25 minutes uncovered while stirring occasionally. Rotate the Dutch oven 1/3 of a turn halfway through.
Here are a few good dutch oven options: