Dutch ovens and camp outs can be a lot of fun, and with a little practice, can offer campers some very tasty meals. Back when I used to do a lot of group camping, the dutch oven was a staple for either lunch, supper or both for lunch and supper. It is easy to use requiring very little maintenance except for a little cleaning and light oiling from time to time.
I thought I'd share a recipe and some tips on successful dutch oven cooking for anyone that might be interested. My best tip for you though is to practice cooking with it as often as possible. After burning up a few good meals, you'll learn rather quickly. I'll offer some tips, but experience is the best teacher.
Make sure you have a good quality dutch oven. Cast iron is best and yes, size and thickness matters. Thin dutch ovens could warp with the heat and a good tight "seal" between the top and the body of the dutch oven could be the difference between mediocrity and incredible. You do not want your water to evaporate from the oven because best case, your food will be dry and worst case, it will burn. As long as there is plenty of water/moisture in the oven, you'll be fine. Don't forget your oven gloves and maybe some sort of metal hook or long pliers so you can remove your food from the hot coals or remove your lid when required.
You first time trying to cook, you might be tempted to put live burning wood under the oven. Coals under the oven are desirable and allow you to control the temperatures much better. Active fire can burn your food and make it difficult to get even temps around your oven. If you were hanging the oven from a limb or tripod over the fire, it would be easier, but I like the simple hot coal cooking method myself. Hardwood coals are best.. If you're impatient and start your fire right before meal time you will be hungry for an hour or two. Start your fire a couple of hours in advance so that you'll have enough hot coals to do the job properly. Oak makes the longest lasting coals. Pine and other softwoods make coals, but they often burn out too quick only leaving warm ashes behind. Also, make sure your oven is completely "level" because if it is not, the liquids will move to one side and possibly might bubble out.
This recipe is very simple and reasonably priced. Before going camping pick up the following things at the grocery store:
1. A bag or two of mixed veggies. Personally, I like the broccoli, cauliflower and carrots. They come pre-mixed in a plastic bag so it's very simple to just toss them in the oven.
2. Grab a few hot peppers. Your choice. I put in 6 once and it was a little too spicy for some tastes so 3 to 4 is a good mix.
3. Find a good roast, the thicker the better... make sure there's lots of good marbling because it sure makes your Dutch oven roast extra tasty.
4. Sea salt and ground pepper
5. Butter is optional
6. Olive oil to rub on the roast is optional.
Get the oven HOT... hotter than I show here to properly sear the meat before adding veggies
Now, right before you get your coals spread out evenly the way they should be you need to get the dutch oven very hot because you want to "sear" your roast on both side which will help seal in the juices. I know this is different than what I said before, but a little fire under it at this stage of the game is what you want. I like to rub the pepper and sea salt all over it and then rub on some olive oil. Once your oven is extremely hot, throw that piece of meat in it and let it stick and smoke like crazy for a couple of minutes, then un-stick it and flip it over to sear the other side. Try to flip it with tongues and don’t puncture the meat with a knife or fork unless absolutely necessary. If the pan is hot enough, it will hiss and smoke like crazy. You know you did it right when it sticks and appears to have a burnt texture just on the surface of the meat. Congratulations, you’re ready for the next stage.
This is when you take it off the fire and place it onto your coals. There are several ways you can do this. You can remove the wood leaving only the coals behind or you can use a shovel or something to move the coals off to the side of the wood. When everything is ready, add water to about ½” from the top after you throw in your mixed veggies, peppers and enough salt and pepper for your tastes. Put the lid on afterward, add coals to the top of the lid, then sit back and let it cook.
Depending on the time of year and type of coals ½” to 1” thick layer of coals on the bottom should be enough. A thin layer on top helps in my opinion. Make sure the coals are not too hot. The problem with having the coals to hot, or your pot un-level or a warped lid which lets your moisture escape is that the water will dissipate leaving nothing but the food which will turn rather quickly into a good hot burnt mess which isn’t fun to clean up on a still hungry stomach. A good way to make sure your heat is right is by putting your hand near the coals. If you’ve ever stuck your hand in the oven when the temps up around 350 to 400 degree, then you should have a good feel for the temps you need to cook in your dutch oven as well. On very cold winter days, it will not hurt it to be a little hotter than; it will actually need to be a little hotter to ward off the cool temps of winter. Another thing about cooking during the winter is to be wary the coals will cool off quicker than summer time so have more in hand so that you won’t run out.
So, how long to cook? It just depends on how hot your coals. The best roast is slow cooked with a thin layer of coals. If the coals are hotter, you could be looking at 35 to 45 minutes. If not, maybe up to 1 ½ hour. Don’t check it often. You’ll smell it and hear it as it is cooking. The key is to not let the water boil off. If you have to, don’t hesitate to add some water, but the roast will be best if the original water makes it to the end.
Good luck and remember that practice makes perfect. Bring some sandwich meat the first time just in case.