"Learning to cook on an open fire with a Dutch oven is a trial and error business."
Due to many request from my readers, I'm going to tell you what I know about cooking in a Dutch oven.
Dutch oven is the term that refers to a cast iron pot with tight fitting lid. (There are a few aluminum Dutch ovens around, but they are not all that popular). The Dutch oven is sort of squatty. Even with the largest models, the lid is no more than six or eight inches above the bottom. There is a reason for this. Coals are meant to be placed on the top of the oven for baking operations, and the distance must be kept to a minimum for the heat to radiate down. The Dutch oven has what's known as a coal top; that is, the top is nearly flat and has a raised lip all around the edge to keep the coals from falling off. If it does not have a coal top, it's a stew pot. The Dutch oven will also have feet on it to keep the bottom off the ground and above the coals. A skillet with feet is called a spider.
Dutch ovens come in a variety of sizes ranging from eight inches in diameter, which holds two quarts, to sixteen inches in diameter, which holds fourteen quarts. A twelve-inch oven is about right for the novice. It will hold a main dish for twelve to fourteen people and is also suitable for baking bread and biscuits.
In purchasing a Dutch oven, you want to make sure the lid is a tight fit. If the lid jiggles or wiggles it will not work right. Look for a better fit. The Lodge Manufacturing Company makes a good line of cast iron products. If you find a used Dutch oven at a tag sale it will probably be okay as long as there are no deep rust pits on the inside. You can buy a new Dutch oven these days cheaper than you can get one at a lot of so-called antique stores. Your new Dutch oven will come with instructions for seasoning it. Read and follow them. (See How To Love Your Cast Iron Skillet.)
Dutch Oven Cooking
Learning to cook on an open fire with a Dutch oven is a trial and error business. You just have to learn by doing. Don't worry; you can't ruin your oven. About the worst you can do is burn something and have to clean and reseason the Dutch oven.
For cooking with your Dutch oven, you are going to need some coals in the form of either real coals or charcoal briquettes. Real coals are much more authentic than the briquettes. You'll need a place to build a fairly large fire in a safe place and keep the kids away from it. Clumsy adults, too. Hardwoods make the best coals. Mesquite will make the hottest coals, and oak and hickory also make dandy coals. You will need a sturdy long handled shovel for handling the coals. One with a square end is best.
You start the fire on three or four logs of decent size, say about six inches in diameter and two feet long. When the flames have died down and the logs are just glowing you chip off some coals with your shovel and place them where you need them. If you are using charcoal, you light the briquettes in a safe container and don't use them until they have turned gray all over.
You will want to put your oven(s) in a level spot. If you are in your backyard or somewhere else where you don't want to kill the grass, put down a cushion of three or four inches of dry sand. You can save and reuse it if you wish.
Most recipes call for preheating your oven. To do this, simply place about four or five hot briquettes or an equal amount of coals on the ground and spread them to about the size of the bottom of your oven. Set the oven on top and just wait a while. If the lid needs preheating, as for baking, just slap it in place and put about four briquettes on it.
Now's the time to talk about special tools you will need. That cast iron gets really hot, and it doesn't have an insulated handle on it. First thing you need is a pot mover. This is simply a hook with a handle on it that you slip under the bail of the oven to move it. Next you need a lid lifter, that is, a device to let you pick up the lid. There are several such devices on the market. You can get by with a stout pair of pliers if you are careful. Using pliers means you have to get your hands close to the hot iron. Get a pair of insulated welder's gloves from the welding supply store. They are not expensive and will save you lots of blisters and singes.
Something else you will find handy is an inexpensive soft bristle brush for dusting ashes off the lid and anywhere else they land. Get a cheap brush because the heat of the iron will ruin one in short order. No, the sponge brush on a stick won't work.
You will need a clean, heatproof, flat surface or two to set your oven and lid when you have them off the coals. A couple of concrete paving blocks of appropriate size or a couple of bricks will work just fine.
The starting point for cooking in your Dutch oven is to keep the temperature on the low side. You can wait a little longer for something to get done, but you can't repair something you've burned. For a twelve-inch Dutch oven, start with about six briquettes underneath and about eight on top or equivalent amounts of real coals. It won't take long for you to learn when to add or subtract from the bottom or top. Soon it will come natural to you, and you will be the envy of all your friends who can only warm up pizza in the microwave.
Again, before we leave, BE CAREFUL. The cast iron gets very hot and holds its heat for a long time. The pots and lids will be hot enough to cause second- and third-degree burns in an instant. Also, remember little things like if you leave your lid lifter on the lid in the coals, it will be red hot when you reach down to pick it up. Get those gloves and don't take chances.
We just don't have room to go into any recipes here. You can find them all over the Internet. Perhaps in a future column I can get some of my favorite Dutch oven recipes for you.
Happy Halloween. Boooo!