I'm a 61-year old Aerospace Engineer from Southern California who had never even heard of a Dutch Oven until my son joined the Boy Scouts. I witnessed the usual array of cobblers (some excellent, others not-so-good), and was taken through a meal as part of a hands-on demo at roundtable. When left to my own devices, I led a Boy Scout troop through pineapple upside-down cake -- and they were thrilled. (Even the boy who swore he hated pineapple ate it!)
However, once I got more involved in Girl Scouting, I had to become a little more proficient! I became an outdoor trainer for my council, and had to teach the use of Dutch Ovens to cook a casserole meal for a patrol of about 10 people. I expanded my repertoire a little, and after purchasing my first Dutch Oven, found out about that pernicious disease known as castironitis -- the uncontrollable urge to purchase more cast iron cookware!
I'm talking about what is called a "Camp Dutch Oven" -- a metal pot (usually cast iron, but sometimes cast aluminum) with three legs and a tight-fitting more-or-less flat lid with a raised rim around it. It's an oven because one bakes in it by placing whatever it is to be baked inside, and then placing hot coals underneath it (those legs get it up off the coals) and on top of it (that raised rim keeps them from rolling off). In theory, anything that can be baked in a home oven can be baked in a Dutch Oven using charcoal, from tasty appetizers and breads and unbelievable main courses to elaborate (or plain!) desserts. While it looks impressive, it isn't really all that difficult -- like all cooking, what's really required is the spirit of adventure and the willingness to take a few chances (and the desire to eat well!),
This is only part of the cast iron cookware collection belonging to a Girl Scout leader and her husband, both of whom are excellent Dutch Oven cooks. You don't need to obtain anywhere near this much stuff -- most of us start with one oven! The shorter ovens with rims are probably by Lodge, and the very deep ones are by MACA. These are relatively costly ovens, and various other brands are available. One thing you'd want to verify is that the lid fits the base without much rocking (don't want to let the steam and juices out!).
Most recipes are written for a 12-inch Dutch Oven -- but a 12-inch Dutch Oven might be a little large for two people. How many are you going to cook for? What would you like to cook? A suggestion would be to ask other Dutch Oven cooks what they'd recommend (or what they wished they'd started with), or look at published recipes and see what might be done.
The Boy Scout troops I was associated with tended to go with cast aluminum rather than cast iron ovens because they're lighter (about 1/3 the weight of an equivalent iron oven) and can be cleaned with a scouring pad. They aren't as non-stick as iron ovens, but won't rust. They heat up (and cool down) much faster than iron ovens, and are more prone to developing hot spots when cooking with charcoal. It's also theoretically possible to melt one with a lot of coals in a brisk wind, but I've never seen that happen. I HAVE heard stories...
Any local sporting goods store, many surplus stores, some discount superstores, and even the occasional hardware store. Some large e-tailers carry them. For a list of specialty suppliers, see the IDOS site.
When you purchase a cast iron oven, it can come either "pre-seasoned" or not. A properly seasoned cast iron oven looks shiny and black. The IDOS website has a nice description of seasoning. Manufacturer's directions used to say (and may STILL say!) that 350 degrees F was sufficient, but some research was posted by the Southern California Dutch Oven Society indicating otherwise! These two pages are better than anything I could come up with!
In fact, that IDOS link in the paragraph above leads to a number of answers to frequently-asked questions (FAQs) -- well worth visiting, even if you already know what you're doing!
Baking generally requires setting an oven to a specific temperature. As a rule of thumb (and our thumbs are probably different!), I recommend looking at the diameter of the oven and using twice that many coals for 325 degrees F -- half plus 3 on top, and half minus 3 on the bottom. For example, for a 325 degree 12 inch iron oven, I'd try 15 briquettes on top and 9 on the bottom. Tables can be found at the Southern California Dutch Oven Society web site for iron and aluminum ovens.
If you're baking (rather than stewing) in an iron pot, most cooks take the oven off the bottom heat after about two-thirds of the cooking time is done. Of course, there's always "If you can smell it, it's done. If you can't, it ain't!"
This picture is a 22 pound turkey being baked in a 17-inch MACA Dutch Oven (by someone else!). At this stage, the turkey is being basted.
These are garlic-cheese biscuits being baked on an inverted cake pan in a 12-inch Dutch Oven.
These are a few of the dishes during the Winter Dutch Oven gathering ("D.O.G.") at Doheny State Beach in January 2005.
For something really easy, this photo shows the result of cramming 60 store-brand biscuits on edge into a 12" oven, squirting in some squeeze margarine, sprinkling with brown sugar, and baking at 325° for 45 minutes. Makes something like "Monkey Bread", and variations of this simple recipe abound.
Want more? See the list of on-line cookbooks and recipes in the next paragraph. The four recipes we used to use with our Girl Scout patrol meals during troop camper training are:
Chicken, Rice, and Broccoli
|12 inch Dutch Oven||Serves 10-12|
|Bake at 350 degrees|
|2 cans cream of mushroom soup||2 bunches fresh broccoli, cut into small flowerettes|
|2 cans water|
|1 pkg dry onion soup mix||4 cans minute rice (a 14 oz box)|
|10-12 boneless, skinless chicken breasts, whole|
Mix soups and water in Dutch Oven. Add whole chicken breasts and broccoli. Trust us! They will cook! Cook 35 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add rice. Remove from bottom heat. Cook 10 minutes.
Ground Turkey and Zucchini Bake
|12" Dutch Oven||Serves 10-12|
|Bake at 350 degrees F|
|1/4 cup olive oil||1 tsp poultry seasoning|
|2½ pounds ground turkey||½ tsp salt|
|1 small onion, chopped||½ tsp pepper|
|1 clove garlic, minced||½ cup margarine|
|2 cups mushrooms, sliced||6 medium zucchini, sliced ½" thick|
|2 cups Italian bread crumbs||½ cup water|
|2 Tbsp chopped parsley||2 cups jack cheese, grated|
Heat olive oil. Add next 4 ingredients and cook 15 minutes stirring occasionally. Add bread crumbs and the 4 seasonings. Mix well. Remove the mixture from pan and cover to keep warm. Wipe oven with paper towel. Melt margarine. Add zucchini and water. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Steam for 5 minutes. Stir, then layer turkey mixture on top of zucchini. Sprinkle with grated cheese. Cook 15 minutes.
Sloppy Joe's Dumplings
|12" Dutch Oven||Serves 10-12|
|Bake at 350 degrees F|
|4 pounds ground beef||5 cups water|
|1 large onion||2½ cups mushrooms, sliced|
|4 packages Sloppy Joe seasoning||5 1/3 cups biscuit mix|
|4 cans tomato paste - 6 oz||2 1/3 cups water|
For this recipe, place ½ of top coals under Dutch Oven to brown beef and onion inside the Dutch Oven. Remove liquid if excessive. Add seasoning, paste, water and mushrooms directly to Dutch Oven. Rearrange coals and cook 20 minutes stirring occasionally. Mix biscuit mix and water in a large zip-type bag to form a soft dough. Spread over top of meat mixture covering entire surface. Cook 10 minutes. Remove from bottom heat and cook an additional 10 minutes.
Steamed Rice and Vegetables
|12 inch Dutch Oven||Serves 8 - 10|
|Bake at 325 degrees F|
|2 Tbsp margarine||1 tsp salt|
|½ cup onion, chopped||½ tsp pepper|
|½ cup celery, chopped||4 Tbsp parsley flakes|
|2 10-oz cans broth (vegetarian)||1 tsp poultry seasoning|
|2 10-oz cans water||2 10-oz cans long grain rice |
(measure rice in the empty broth cans)
|4 veggie bouillon cubes||1 cup chopped broccoli|
|1 cup diced carrots|
|1 cup frozen peas|
Heat dutch oven. Cook onion and celery in margarine for 5 minutes. Add liquid and seasonings. Bring to a boil. Add rice and vegetables. Cook until tender. Will probably need 9 briquettes under dutch oven and 15 on top. Cook ~45 minutes.