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Tips for Grilling, Smoking
Making the Most of Your Dutch Oven

At the start of every new outdoor cooking season, folks start telling me they want to do something special like cooking a whole hog on a spit or cooking a lamb in a hole in the ground. First thing they do is ask me to send them complete instructions. It breaks my heart to have to tell them this is not a job for amateurs.

There are things you just can't learn out of a book. Sure, there are articles that will point you in the right direction, but things are going to come up that are not in the book. You can waste a lot of time and ruin a lot of meat experimenting. If you have the time and money to invest, go for it. Sooner or later you will hit the right formula. If you do decide to experiment, keep notes so you will know what you did that was right or wrong. The best way to learn this type of cooking is to find someone who knows how it's done and then go watch them or have them come and supervise.

Smoking / Grilling

I also hear from lots of folks who have just bought new smoker, grill or pit. They find that their new unit is running too hot or too cold, or it makes too much or not enough smoke. As best I know, these sorts of equipment come with instruction books. The book should tell you how much fuel to use and give approximate cooking times.

Near all outdoor cooking machines come with "dampers"; that is, valves to regulate the air flow to the fire. Fuel needs oxygen to burn. In theory, the more oxygen, the hotter the fire. Smoke comes from the incomplete burning of fuel.

If your pit is not getting hot enough to suit you, try opening the dampers more. You might also consider adding more fuel if there is room to do so.

If your pit is getting too hot, you might consider removing some of the fuel. If that doesn't cool it down, you might have to prop the lid open a little and let some of the hot air out.

You can get too much smoke in a hurry, especially if you are using hickory or mesquite. If you can't regulate the airflow to produce optimum results, you might try letting the fire burn down to coals and then adding just a bit of your wood of choice that has been soaked in water. This works really well when you are using charcoal.

There is a lot of bad information about grilling on television. They like to show something on the grill with flames licking up around it. You never want flames while you are cooking. They are too hot and will char the outside of your food while the inside remains uncooked.

If you get unwanted flames on your grill, close the lid and close the dampers to shut off the air supply. If it flames up again when you open it, squirt it a little with some water from a squirt bottle you should keep on hand at all times. I'll say again, if you have a squirt bottle for flame control, don't let the kids play with it. You will end up with either no fire or no water.

The best investment any serious cook can make is a good meat thermometer. It takes all the guesswork out of deciding when something is done and to what extent. There are dozens of different kinds of meat thermometers. Check them all out and pick the one that is right for your needs.

Dutch oven cookery

Dutch oven cookery is very popular. The cast iron varieties come in a large range of sizes and shapes. There is one for every purpose. Cast iron can be used inside on your gas or electric range or on the campfire with coals for heat. They all have one thing in common. They need to be "seasoned". That is, applying a layer of grease and cooking it into the pores of the cast iron. Instructions are almost always included with a new cast iron piece. You want to be sure when you get a new cast iron utensil to first wash it in hot, soapy water to remove the protective film that it is on it. The best thing to "season" the iron with is hog lard. It's organic.

I get notes from folks telling me that they followed all the instructions in seasoning their cast iron, and it still sticks. In most cases, the villain is sugar. This is especially true in the case of pancakes or flapjacks. When you remove your first pancake from the griddle, there will be a slight amount of residue left on the griddle. You need to scrape this off with your spatula before you put on the second cake. You also need to add a small amount of shortening and spread it around before adding more batter. You don't need a lot, just enough to coat the surface. Even non-stick cookware calls for a little fat in the pan before cooking. Don't use any non-stick spray on your cast iron. It will make a big mess that even I don't know how to remove.

The sugar thing is also true with sugar-cured bacon and ham. Bacon should be started on a cold griddle or pan, not plopped down on a hot one. This will let some of the fat cook out and lubricate the surface before it gets hot enough to turn the sugar into adhesive carbon.

If you are going to cook a dessert with lots of sugar in your Dutch oven, line the pot with foil. It works just fine and if you don't line it, you will have the biggest mess you ever want to see.

The best way to clean cast iron after you use it is to have it at cooking temperature and then stick it under running water and give it a scrubbing with a stiff brush. It won't hurt it. If there is some stuff that the brush won't take off, scrape it off with spatula or even a putty knife. Don't turn the scraper up on edge and put scratches in the surface, keep it flat. Then you dry the iron. If it has cooled completely, warm it up a little and apply a very thin protective coat of fat inside and out. Wipe with a clean cloth or paper towel, and it will be in fine condition for the next usage.

Now get out there and cook something. Your family will love you for it.

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