Everything you wanted to know about Dutch ovens (but were afraid of having nightmares)

No modern alloy metal or non stick pan can hold a candle to old fashioned cast iron cookware

2nd in a series on cast iron cooking-

I guess the best place to start this blog is to describe what a Dutch oven is and what it’s used for. Since many folks have little knowledge of the Dutch oven let’s then assume you don’t own one.

If you do own one and never use it, then kick out the plant growing in it and give it a good washing. After it regains some of its original self esteem, re season it using the method I describe in an earlier post in this blog called “Cast iron cookware, the cooks holy grail.”

First, lets let’s describe what Dutch oven is.

Think of a heavy cast iron stock pot with a cast iron lid and you’re pretty close to what it looks like.

Q.  Why do some have legs, others none and some have lids with raised rims on them and others not?

A.  That’s because there are ‘indoor’ or flat surface and outdoor Dutch ovens.

Q.  How does a Dutch oven work?

A.   Think of your oven at home. It is a self contained total surround cooking area. A Dutch oven works in a similar fashion. Being able to have its bottom, sides and top radiating heat from all places at once, the food inside is cooked from all directions in an equal temperature. Thus the reason it is called an oven.

Note the legs, lid dimples, raised lid rim to hold hot coals and the handle on this outdoor Dutch oven.

Legs are handy if you’re cooking outdoors on an open fire. Hot coals can be bunched up underneath and having three stubby legs gives it a pretty solid stance on a not so level surface. Outdoor style Dutch ovens usually have a lid with a raised lip on it. That one inch lip allows you to place hot coals on its lid without the coals falling back into the fire or the insides when you lift the lid to check on the food inside.        The coals underneath and on those placed on its top is why the Dutch oven is called an oven and not a pot. It is one of the few true baking tools that don’t need an oven. (Cast iron skillets with a lid can bake but need to be placed inside an oven for even heating).

An outdoor oven should not be used indoors. The legs will prevent the bottom from being heated if you have it on top of an electric stove. On a gas stove, the burner grate will get in the way of the legs and it can tip causing spills.

Typical flat bottomed indoor Dutch oven with rounded lid. Note the handles are made to accept a hanger.

The indoor or flat surface Dutch ovens have no legs. This style can also be used as an outdoor oven if you’re careful in placing it on the coals. Many indoor and outdoor Dutch ovens have tabs on the rim so the oven can be hung over an open fire using a tripod stand as shown below. Since an indoor Dutch oven can be placed within a gas or an electric stoves oven, there is no need for a lid with a raised lid to hold hot coals. Older manufactured Dutch ovens had lids with dimples in the inside of them. This allowed for self basting. Many newer Dutch ovens no longer have these.  😥


Quality;

Before purchasing your Dutch oven, read the earlier post here on cast iron cookware.

Then, before throwing your cash or credit card at the sales clerk inspect the thing! Look for loose fitting lids, or lids that are not completely flush with the edge of the pot section.

Check for uneven wall and lid thickness. An uneven casting will not cook evenly. Most good ovens have a wire bail handle attached to the pot section and a loop handle on the lid for easy lifting. Many newer ovens no longer have these, forget it and look for another one that does. The finish should not be extremely rough, especially on the inside and free of any scaling. All the casting seams should be ground smooth without any sharp edges.

Lastly, examine the origin of the Dutch oven. Foreign imports for the most part, use a lower quality of cast iron and have more defects than domestic ones. In my post on cast iron cookware, I go into this in more detail, I recommend you read it. I highly recommend you search for all of your cast iron cookware including your Dutch oven, at antique dealers, estate sales, yard sales, rummage sales … anywhere that you have the possibility of finding older American made cast iron cookware. While visiting my daughter in AZ this summer, I stopped at a number of “old west thrift stores” and “miscellaneous vintage” roadside sales places. There I found incredible deals on some of the finest cookware American foundry’s ever produced. I Found names like Griswold, Miami, Wagner Ware, Wapak, Herters, G Barthel Norma, Lesauveur Rechaud Pigeon, Scranton Stove Works, Lodge, Western foundry and Stover. Any of these cast iron cookware implements would be a honor to own and cook with.

Accessories

OK, you now own and / or have re seasoned you your cast iron cookware. What else do you need to compliment it?

Gloves. Many folks go and buy leather work gloves. I never recommend leather for this reason alone. Once leather gets heated to a certain point, it transfers that scalding heat quickly to your skin.

I one was at a ‘Chefs cook off’ to help raise funds for a local battered women’s shelter. (Note; You western men know how a woman is to be treated so get off your high horse and start acting like it!)

But I digress. The fellow Trail cook next to me started making fun of my yellow Kevlar cooking gloves. He held up his gauntlet style thick leather welding gloves and proudly told me, “These is what a real man uses to cook with, not them sissy city thangs you got there.”

Now I am the furthest looking thing from being a sissy. 6’2”, nice western bow mustache, 270 pounds and an evil eye that at a cutting glance can punch new holes in leather belts when needed.  So naturally my ire was hefted a bit.

So I told him, “Hey my friend, let’s make a wager, Ten dollars says I can hold onto my hot frying skillet here for a longer time wearin’ my gloves that you can wearin’ yours.”

“Ten? Make that fifty an’ you got yourself a bet!”

Not two minutes later he set his down, ripped off his leather glove and wrapped his hand around a ice cold soda can from his cooler. I not only continued to hold onto my skillet but moved my hand from the handle to the actual sides of the pan and held it up to him while smiling. He got the idea, I got fifty bucks!

Another thing you need is a lid lifter. Anyone who’s ever cooked on an old wood cook stove like mama had, knows you never touch a stove tops ‘eye’ without a lid lifter. The same goes for pot lids.

A trivet is also good thing to have. It’s a cast iron circle with nubby legs on it to set your hot pots on. It prevents leaving burn marks on your counter tops.

Lastly, get a good strong pair of long handled tongs. I’d recommend getting them at a restaurant supply house or online at a supply site. Forget those ones in the grocery store, they’re too cheap.

Temperature  

How to get the right temperature to cook with.

A fellow cast iron aficionado has a web site that explains it better than I can, so I went ahead and copied his method to explain all this to you.

  “On the kitchen oven is a really cool dial. I turn it to 350 and trust that the oven will heat up to and remain at 350 degrees. I put in the food, set the timer, and go do something productive. When camp cooking in the outdoors, there’s a bit more hit-or-miss.
On my Dutch oven, there’s no dial, nothing to tell me how hot the oven is. Since cooking food at a fairly consistent and known temperature is important for success, there are 3 ways I know of for estimating temperature. Depending on your skill level and how you’ll be cooking, one of them should work for you.

Also keep in mind that there are many environmental factors that will influence your oven temperature. Wind might blow heat away; colder air temperature, higher humidity and higher elevation reduce heat generated by coals; direct sunlight makes a black oven a bit hotter. You might consider making an aluminum foil wind shield to place around your oven, but if it is that windy, I would recommend you not have an open fire.”

“Nearly all dutch oven cooking will come out ok if your Dutch oven is about 350 degrees. Some things should be cooked hotter and some cooler, but that’s the temperature for all recipes that fail to include a temperature suggestion.”

Hand test


“Use your hand to feel the heat. Of course, every person has a different sensitivity to heat but this works well for me. Just remove the lid from the Dutch oven and place your hand just above or just inside the oven. Count how many seconds you can keep your hand there before it gets too hot.

 It is about 50 degrees per second counting down from 550, so I just count – “550, and 500, and 450, and 400, and 350, and 300, …”.

Seconds Temperature

1

500+

2

500

3

450

4

400

5

350

6

300

7

250

8

200

“This is my preferred method. It is consistent and detects temperature instead of estimating the amount of fuel. You do release heat so you need to do the check as quickly as you can.”

Counting Charcoal


“Lots of dutch oven cookbooks tell you how many charcoal briquettes to put under and on top of the oven. This is the easiest way to cook since every coal is similar and consistent. If you are like me and use real wood for your outdoor camp cooking coals, it doesn’t help much. Also, different brands of charcoal give off different amounts of heat. But, let’s say you are going to use charcoal…
The normal formula is to use twice the number of briquettes as the diameter of the oven. For a 12 inch oven, you would use 24 briquettes. Depending on the type of cooking you are doing, you need to make the heat come more from the top or bottom of the oven. For example, too much heat on the bottom will burn bread.
To do this, you place more or less of the briquettes on the lid.”


Here is a simple chart:

Baking Most heat from top so bottom does not burn.
Place 3/4 coals on top and 1/4 underneath.
Roasting Heat comes equally from the top and bottom.
Place 1/2 coals on top and 1/2 underneath.
Stewing, Simmering Most heat is from bottom.
Place 1/4 coals on top and 3/4 underneath.
Frying, Boiling All heat comes from bottom.
Place all coals underneath.

Below is a beginners recipe. I recommend trying simple foods at first, especially like baking goods. You can test them out using your Dutch oven inside your kitchen oven. Set to the correct temperature your recipe calls for. Form more recipes, check some of these in this blog. Don’t forget to research more online, there are great recipes folks have posted for your to try. JW

BAKING POWDER BISCUITS*

2 Cup all purpose flour
2 tsp baking powder plus 1/4 tsp baking soda
4 Tbsp butter or shortening
1/2 tsp salt
3/4 cup milk

Instructions: Heat Dutch oven to 400 degrees with 3/4 of coals on top.
Combine flour, baking powder, and salt in bowl.
Cut in small pieces of shortening or butter.
Add milk gradually, stirring until soft dough is formed.
Turn out on a lightly floured board and lightly knead for 30 seconds, enough to shape.
Roll 1/2 inch thick folding the dough over on itself at least four times and cut with open end of tomato paste can.
Place in single layer in Dutch oven.
Bake for 12-15 minutes.

* For these or any recipes, remember to  write down in a log book all your temp and time settings or changes to a recipe for future use.

There is nothing more exciting than showing off your cast iron cooking skills in front of a group of family or friends. When the lid is lifted and that wonderful smelling recipe plows into their nose like a raging bull steam rollers itself into a attention deficit disordered Spanish Matador, you can proudly yell, “Now that’s what I’m talkin’ about!”

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10 comments on “Everything you wanted to know about Dutch ovens (but were afraid of having nightmares)

  1. Ingrid says:

    Can’t even make smores this year with drought and fire ban. Perhaps next season I’ll cook over an open fire and surprise hubby…..propane grill is my usual form of heat. Good info, thanks!

    • Boy would he be surprised! Most men think they own the cooking outdoors scene. I know I do! LOL
      I can remember as a teenager watching this guy cook up a bunch of meals using cast iron etc over an open fire. I thought at the time, “This guy must own a restaurant, look at all he’s got going at bone time.” Later, after I myself owned and operated a restaurant I thought back on that day and said, “Shoot, that wasn’t nothin’!”

  2. tbnranch says:

    Do you really think I am capable of this? lol Good information friend!

    • Ha! They say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks… well I know you ain’t no old dog! Next time I’m out there we’ll cook up some goodies in one!
      I’m baking hamburger buns and bread as I write this. Since I started eating different and returned to making everything from scratch, I’m spending only 25% of what I used to spend on food and I’m delighted with the dinners etc I’m making. I never figured I’d eat like this but then that’s why I always try t6o be positive in my outlook. You never know what is around the next corner!

  3. That looks like a contraption in which I would burn myself on in a million different ways! 😉

  4. Everything I always wanted to know! I promised some friends a while back I’d take them on a day trip and cook over a fire. Only, I don’t really know what I’m doing…now I’ll be able to say I’ve done my homework 😉

    • I Dear Alana, It also puts you in the kitchen with your ancestors! LOL
      Practice makes perfect so don’t wait until the last minute. Start with simple recipes first then go to soups, stews and more in depth bakery goods. There are lots of great recipes online to learn from.
      A side note; Learning to cook outdoors can also be life saving. We never know what tomorrow brings and we may find our way of life is altered. If you cannot adapt, you will not survive. No meaning to scare here, just saying it is always a good idea to be prepared for lifes changes. Have fun cooking dear! Let me know what you made and how it turned out 🙂 Joe

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