The ultimate guide on how to use a Dutch oven while camping. This comprehensive post will cover a lot of areas – bookmark it, it will come in handy.
For those of you who have not experienced the magic of camp food cooking, you really are missing a treat. It is an amazing experience and my Dutch oven is a significant contributor to that magic.
Over the years, I’ve tried many methods of cooking, from barbecues to stoves, grills to dried food. In all honesty, in terms of convenience and a great end result, nothing comes close to Dutch oven camp cooking. It is almost like you are bringing your kitchen stove with you…that is how versatile these pots are.
In all goes into one pot. The flavor’s fuse and the cooking is thorough and even. The risk of under cooked food is less and importantly, the cooking does not need to be constantly monitored. Therefore…less work. The ability of the pans to retain heat is simply amazing, and even when you have finished cooking, it still keeps your food warm for a long time.
The number of recipes is endless and the results are simply amazing. Your food will not burn with the non-stick properties of a well-seasoned Dutch oven.
Add in the fact there is very little cleaning up afterwards and you have a clear winner. No scrubbing, no scraping of grills…a clear win for this method of campfire cooking.
What is an outdoor Dutch oven?
I could simply describe it as amazing and leave it at that…I guess you want more information.
Let me start by saying, they are heavy. Very heavy. Too heavy to take back packing…this is a robust piece of equipment that cannot be carried easily.
They are made of heavy cast iron and they have a flat bottom to aid stability as well as even cooking.
The camping Dutch oven comes with three short legs. This is to keep the oven away from the ground and allow space to place coals beneath it. They come in a number of heights so it is worth comparing different ovens depending on your needs.
The strong wire handles are secured to the molded tangs on the side of the oven. In most cases, the handle falls to either side out of the way, however on some versions, you can rest it at 45 degrees.
Although a common feature on ovens, I can see why people assume they are a good idea. The reality can be quite different. They can easily become a problem too. They have a tendency to get in the way of the bail handle and there is also the issue of stability. The oven can become unstable and off balance when being lifted by the handles.
Storage can also become an issue, however minor.
In summary, if you can avoid a handle, do so.
You may think of the lid…as just a lid. In outdoor Dutch ovens they have a purpose and it is a significant one for cooking.
Hot coals are placed on the lid, as well as below, to set the cooking temperature. They therefore need to be flat to keep the coals on place. Some versions offer domed lids which also have some benefits but in reality, they don’t have a lip around them which means ash can fall into your food.
Furthermore, on the lip or the ridge, this is an important feature. It is flanged so the hot coals stay in place. Not all lids have this so make sure this is a consideration.
The type of handle is also important. It is always better to have a handle that is a molded loop. Keep in mind that these lids get incredibly hot, you can hook these handles to remove them. This is the safest way of removing them.
Some Dutch oven lids are solid tabs with a drilled hole, they are difficult to handle and, in some ways, quite dangerous. They should be avoided where possible.
Outdoor Dutch ovens are obviously available in a range of sizes, from the smallest 4” ones to the mammoth 24” versions. In most cases, the sizes in the middle of the two are adequate for most situations.
It is always worth considering how many people you are cooking for in order to ensure you meet the needs of the camp trip. Remember, some Dutch oven recipes take a long time to make, so making it twice may not be a realistic option.
Difference between indoor and outdoor Dutch ovens
Although they essentially function the same, key differences make them suitable for different environments.
In order to make a realistic comparison, let us remove the enameled version from this. The enameled cast iron Dutch ovens are for indoor use only and it is not a good idea to expose them to an open flame.
They are a lot more delicate than their outdoor counterparts as the enameling is prone to chipping and cracking if not maintained properly. The accessories used must also be delicate enough to avoid damage.
To offer a fair comparison, we can look at the indoor cast iron versions with no enameling.
These are essentially made from the same cast iron as the outdoor versions. Depending on the brand, the quality of the cast iron will differ.
The key difference between the two is the features. The indoor cast iron oven is designed for stovetop to oven. They do not have functionality to make them easy to use outdoors.
They may not have legs therefore making it impossible to place coals beneath without improvising.
They may not have a suitable lid to place coals on in order to cook evenly. Do they have a lip or a ridge to prevent the coals falling off?
The handle may be inappropriate and not allow it to be hooked safely from a distance. An important consideration with open fire cooking.
What to look for in an outdoor oven
Its important that you look at your budget before you look to buy and outdoor Dutch oven. This is an item that should last many years if maintained properly so it is worth spending a little more on a better-quality item.
Not all cast iron is the same. There can be significant variations in the quality of it between manufacturers.
Increasingly we are seeing cheap Chinese imports. These tend to be very low quality with very thin cast iron and uneven thickness. I would recommend you stay away from these as they are a false economy.
We have discussed design features above, so please consider them when you make your buying decision.
It is always worth looking at reviews of the manufacturers. Reputable companies include Lodge, Staub as well as many others. Please have a look at our brand information pages.
For more information on how to buy cast iron skillets and Dutch ovens
Buying a used outdoor Dutch oven
A used Dutch oven can be a bargain especially if the seller has no need for it. Here are a few things to look for and consider;
- Check for any cracks or chips to the metal.
- Look for any rust spots…not a deal breaker as they can be fixed if superficial.
- Look at the pot and lid, inside and out to see if there is any obvious problem.
- The lid should fit properly with no rocking movement.
- The lid should not fit too tightly on the oven.
- The wire bail should move easily and be strong.
- Check the thickness of the metal – is it the same all the way around.
- Avoid Dutch Ovens with riveted tabs, they are weaker.
How to use a Dutch oven while camping – Tools
Given the very basic nature of the oven, it is designed to be simple. There are a few accessories that may make your life a little easier…none of which you need to spend much money.
Pot hook – You may want to invest a small amount of money in a pot hook. This allows you to lift and move the oven or the lid safely, keeping your hand away from the fire. Remember, cast iron gets incredibly hot so keeping your hands away is important. Available at low cost. Well worth the investment.
If you don’t want to pay for an oven hook, then a pair of lock pliers will do the job…not as well, but they will do. You need to wear
Fire safe gloves – If you don’t want to pay for an oven hook, then a pair of lock pliers will do the job…not as well, but they will do. You need to wear fire safety gloves.
You also need a method of moving the hot coals. Personally, I use a small shovel that folds. It is small and easy to transport.
Tripod – You may also wish to invest in an outdoor Dutch oven tripod. Your Dutch oven will hang down from this. Personally, I think they look good but are a luxury rather than a necessity. I like to take the minimum amount of equipment and this is something I can do without. However, they do serve a purpose so by all means do purchase one. Just ensure that they can carry the weight of your oven when fully laden with food.
Lid Stand – Consider getting a lid stand. Often when you remove a lid to check food, it is placed on the ground. The risk is that you may end up with dirt in your food.
You may also want to get a storage bag. Your cast iron is delicate and protecting the surface and patina should be a priority.
You may also want to invest in some heavy aluminium foil to line the oven. This method saves time at the end with the clean-up. Simply remove the foil at the end and you are done.
Technically not a tool, you may want to keep a few bottle caps or stones with your accessories. These are great for placing in the bottom of the pan to lift food off the base. This allows the air and heat to circulate and cook the food evenly.
Seasoning your outdoor Dutch ovens
This is an important process, the importance of which cannot be underestimated. The lifespan of the oven can literally depend on whether you follow the seasoning process. Failure to do so may mean that your oven will rust.
Cast iron is porous, very porous. The point of seasoning is to add a grease patina to fill in the pores of the cast iron. This will protect it from rust but also give it that much desired non-stick quality.
If you follow the process that I will outline, your Dutch oven will last you many years…and will more than likely outlast your lifetime.
All new cast iron is delivered with a coat of wax or oil coating to protect it after production. This needs to be removed.
Use steel wool to scrub of the layer. This will require some effort but it is a necessity.
Rinse thoroughly and wipe down, then leave to air dry. While it is drying, preheat your oven to 350 degrees.
When the oven has heated, place the cast iron in the center of the oven. When it is to hot to handle, remove from the oven.
This process is designed to remove all moisture from the cast iron and opens the pores.
Cover the whole pan and lid with vegetable oil with a clean paper towel. Corn oil can also be used. Make sure every part has a covering.
Return the pan and lid back to the oven at 350 degrees and bake for an hour.
Remove after an hour and add another layer of cooking oil. Return back to the oven and bake for another hour.
After the hour, remove and add a third layer of oil when it cools enough to handle with ease.
Your outdoor Dutch oven is now ready to use or put into storage. This is a vital process so make sure you do it properly.
Over time, your pan will blacken. This is a sign of a well-maintained pan. You only need to do this once unless your pan shows signs of rust. If it does, you need to repeat the process above.
Once complete, your Dutch oven should be free of rust and will have a non-stick surface.
Cleaning your Outdoor Dutch oven
Cleaning your outdoor Dutch oven is an easy process.
DO NOT USE SOAP.
This is an important fact that you must pay attention to. Using soap removes the patina you took a great deal of effort to apply. This means that it will begin to rust. Using soap may also cause your food to taste like soap as it penetrates and stays in the pores.
In order to clean the oven, follow this two-step process;
Remove any food in the oven using a wooden or plastic spatula. Following this, fill the oven with warm clean water and heat it until it is almost boiling. Using the spatula, scrape and remove any ‘stuck on’ food particles. Empty the water and wipe clean…remember, do Not use soap.
Heat the oven over the fire until it is hot to touch. This will remove any moisture and open the pores. Apply a thin layer of cooking oil using a clean paper towel inside the pan and underside of the lid.
You do not need to do the outside unless there are signs of rust.
A couple of points you should also bear in mind;
- Never allow water to stand in the pan. Rust can be created through the best seasoning.
- Never pour cold water onto hot cast iron. It will cause it to crack.
Benefits of outdoor Dutch oven cooking
I love cooking when I’m out camping. It’s one of the principle joys apart from tasting the outdoor life. So, when I talk through the benefits, I really mean them because I live them.
Firstly, the simplicity. Most the recipes I make a re rugged and wholesome…real back to basics food. You may think it is simple, but you really start appreciating the taste of real food when so much of our lives is spent eating processed food. Trust me, you will appreciate it.
I also consider it healthier, especially the recipes I follow. Simple fresh ingredients which is full of nutrients and vitamins. I really feel the energy from this food.
I also use less fats generally using the Dutch oven. The non-stick ability of it means that I just don’t need it. Sometimes I do add healthy fats but that is mainly for taste purposes.
Since I take my whole family camping…and sometimes my extended family. I can end having to feed a small army. This method of cooking means I can create a huge volume of food quite easily with the minimum of fuss. No extra washing up and cleaning required. The cast iron properties mean that the food retains its heat so not everybody has to eat at the same sitting.
This is just the oven I am referring too. If you buy the right oven, the lid effectively becomes a skillet. So, should the need arise, I can fry and braise extra items without a major headache.
The biggest benefit I have left until last. The fun factor. It’s simply fun to cook together in the outdoors. The togetherness and teamwork…and the joy of eating a delicious meal that you all contributed too. It’s a fantastic feeling.
Cooking tips – How to use a dutch oven while camping?
You will not have the luxury of having a million utensils and ingredients at hand, you probably won’t have access to a supermarket. You need to be prepared and consider what needs to be done before you even leave home for your camping trip.
It is the versatility of Dutch ovens that make them such a popular option. You can pretty much cook anything you can do at home.
However, it is a skill to master this technique and is no different to learning a new cooking method at home. Learn the following and you will become a master in no time at all.
It’s easy in the kitchen, you simply turn a dial. Easy. Not so easy when your cooking outdoors.
Charcoal briquettes are now very common when cooking in their footed camp ovens. Using briquettes ensures even heating.
There are many factors that will impact on the heat that is produced. The wind might be blowing…blowing heat away from your oven. The temperature outside might be low…cold weather means its difficult to heat your oven. Humidity affects the heat as well as the elevation. Many things can impact on the heat.
This is an important consideration as a consistent temperature is important for consistent edible results. Generally speaking, most cooking is done at 350 degrees unless stated otherwise on the recipe.
Now, estimating the temperature takes a little skill but once you have this down, everything else is easy. There are three principle methods to do this.
Method 1 – Hand test
The hand temperature test is my favored option. This method is quite reliable but you need to exercise caution.
The method involves removing the lid and placing your hand above the Dutch oven or just inside it. The theory is that for every second you can hold your hand there without having to move it, it indicates a certain temperature. The range starts at 550 degrees Fahrenheit and every second indicates 50 degrees of heat. Therefore, if you want 350 degrees Fahrenheit, you must be able to hold your hand for 5 seconds. You are essentially counting down 50 degrees every second…550, 500, 450, 400 etc.
Method 2 – Coal counting
For most recipes, you will be told how many charcoal briquettes you need to place beneath or on top of the Dutch oven. This is relatively simple to comprehend and therefore difficult for it to go wrong. Since most briquette sizes are similar, this method works.
If you use any other method of heating such as wood, oil…this method is not particularly helpful.
The formula goes as follows. Measure your oven diameter in inches. For baking & roasting food, you would use twice the number of briquettes so for a 12-inch oven, you would use 24 briquettes. Three quarters (3/4) would be placed underneath, one quarter (1/4) above on the lid.
For boiling, simmering, frying etc, you use the same number of briquettes as the diameter. Therefore, 12-inch equals 12 briquettes. All of these are placed below.
Method 3 – Rule of three
This is another simple method and basically involves a little simple math.
Measure the diameter of the Dutch oven. If we say the size is 12”, add 3. This is the number of briquettes placed below the oven…therefore, you would place 12 + 3 = 15 briquettes below the oven.
Above the oven, you minus 3…so 12 – 3 = 9 briquettes on the lid.
Obviously, consider environmental factors so you may need to add more. This is a case of common sense.
For best results, every 15 minutes or so, you can move the oven and lid a quarter turn. This prevents your food from burning in certain areas and prevents hot spots.” The oven and lid should be rotated separately from one another so they are not in unison.
Generally, it is worth learning all three methods as it will provide you more accuracy and improve your overall skill level.
Coals and briquettes provide heat for between 30 – 45 minutes on average. Therefore, if your dish is going to take longer, you will need to switch them or add more.
It is worth checking every 20 minutes or so to ensure nothing goes wrong.
- It is normal to put your food in cold and let it all heat up together. The exception is searing meat or frying, in this case you need to heat up first.
- It is better to cook at a lower temperature and take longer to cook rather than the other way around and overheating. Burnt food is rubbish. It’s better to take longer and eat well.
- When your briquettes are running low, it takes time to get them up to heat. Use chunks of wood instead to keep your heat up.
- To reduce the time of heating briquettes, some place new ones alongside the burning out ones to keep the heat going.
Outdoor Dutch oven tips
Here is a list of random tips that will make your life easier, safer and smarter. Pay attention to them and before long you will find that they are second nature to you.
- Use Aluminium foil to line your oven. It saves a lot of time when cleaning up.
- Be patient with your coals. Wait till they are white. Try not to cook over yellow flames as you will end up with soot in your food.
- Try adding hardwoods in your pit, they make your coals last a lot longer.
- Ensure you clean and dry your oven after use. Lightly season it after each use to maintain the patina.
- Do NOT let water sit in it. It will start to rust and also remove the seasoning.
- Lightly season it before use to stop food sticking. It makes for a better cooking experience and less cleaning at the end.
- Always monitor the fire and oven. Always err on the side of caution.
- It will attract attention, so make clear to everybody the dangers and do not let people close.
- Never place a hot Dutch oven in cold water, it will crack.
- Don’t drop your cast iron. They are more brittle than you think.
- Never heat an empty pan for a prolonged period, it will simply remove the seasoning. You will then have to go through the whole process of re-seasoning.
- If there is a lot of steam coming out from around your oven, the oven is simply too hot or the lid is not sat properly. Simply move the lid so it sits properly and try removing some of the briquettes.
- Its always worth having a few bottle tops or small rocks if you want to raise some food items off the base of the oven. This ensures that the heat and steam is circulated for even cooking.
- Always set a clean area to rest your lid when you remove it. Otherwise there is a risk of dirt ending up in your food.
- Use wooden or silicone spatulas. Metal can scratch the cast iron.
- Its worth preparing as much food as you can at home. It saves time and makes things easier to plan. Use zip-loc bags to keep them fresh and clean.
- When cooking, the smaller the pieces, the quicker they will cook. Cut things in half if they don’t need to be that big e.g. potatoes, carrots
- Finally, keep a log of what you cook, the number of briquettes, time taken, number of portions, what was in the recipe. This will help you plan for future trips and also reduce any problems. It is essentially a learning exercise.
There we have it, I hope I have shown you how to use a Dutch oven while camping.
Of course, many of these tips take time and practice. However, these skills will serve you well over many years and good equipment is priceless. It lasts many years if maintained properly and makes your camping trips a smooth joyful experience.
How to use a Dutch oven while camping…i hope this helps you out and should be a great starting point. I have camped for many years and I most this content comes from my own experience. From my single days where I would head off for the weekend to the present day, taking my family away for short trips. You may well have your own opinions and how you want to do things but one thing is for sure, my Dutch oven has served me very well over a number of years.
Let me know your thoughts and leave a comment below. I answer them all so if you have any questions, let me know.
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