Tips for making gourmet camping meals guaranteed to become a tradition
The fire crackles as the sun slowly begins its descent below the canyon walls. Nestled next to the flames is a large cast iron pot with a lid. Lifting the lid from time to time, the smell of the meal inside escapes and makes our mouths water as we wait patiently for the call: “Dinner’s ready!”
Ideal for car camping and raft trips, the dutch oven is a hefty kitchen item, weighing in at roughly 14 pounds (depending on the size). While slightly heavier than other camping cookware items, the meals that a dutch oven prepares stand out from the typical foil pouch or hot dogs on a stick. Plus, the dutch oven serves as a multipurpose cooking tool: use it to simmer, boil, steam, sear, pan-fry, sautee or bake meals. The weight of a dutch oven is well worth its utility.
Dutch oven cooking is something of an art: it takes time and practice to perfect different methods and recipes. But when done correctly, a dutch oven meal is one of the best outdoor dining experiences. Whether you’ve already dabbled in cooking with dutch ovens or are interested in trying out this new skill on your next trip, up your camping meal game with these tips.
DUTCH OVEN SELECTION AND HELPFUL TOOLS
When selecting a dutch oven, opt for one that has a flat lid. This will allow your coals to lay level and distribute heat evenly, and can also second as an additional cooking surface. A dutch oven with feet will provide room underneath to place charcoal or other heating elements as well.
Size and depth are also important factors to consider, and will depend on your cooking goals. For overnight raft trips with large parties, opt for a larger dutch oven — about 14 inches in diameter. For a simple car camping getaway with a friend or loved one, a smaller 8-inch dutch oven will do just fine. A deeper dutch oven is ideal for most dutch oven meals, while a more shallow dutch oven is best for baking. Having the lid closer to the contents allows for browning the tops of specific items such as bread.
Invest in a pair of heavy duty, heatproof gloves for handling the dutch oven. A couple of other helpful items to have handy are a charcoal chimney (if choosing to cook with charcoal) that helps start the charcoal and will heat it up quickly, and a 4-in-1 dutch oven tool. This nifty device assists with lifting the lid to check on the contents, and can also be used as a trivet for either the dutch oven or the lid.
The most important aspect of cooking with a dutch oven is to maintain consistent heat. Not doing so will result in uneven cooking. The best fuel for consistent heat is charcoal. Start by lighting the charcoal first and allowing the briquettes to fully heat up. Then distribute the briquettes above and below the dutch oven, placing one-third of the briquettes on the bottom and the other two-thirds on top.
Wood embers are another option, but the embers produced depend on the type of wood. Softwoods, such as pine, produce a weak ember that is not ideal for dutch oven cooking; whereas hardwoods, such as oak, beech and hickory, will produce a longer lasting ember.
FINDING THE SWEET SPOT
The trickiest part to dutch oven cooking and baking is getting the placement, temperature and timing just right. Make sure to select an area with flat, even ground that’s out of the way of the wind to place the dutch oven. Any kind of slope will tilt the dutch oven and result in uneven cooking of the contents.
For most recipes, a temperature of 350 degrees Fahrenheit is ideal. So how do you determine how much heat is needed to achieve this temperature? A good rule of thumb is to take the diameter of the dutch oven, double it and add one. For example, a 14 inch dutch oven would need about 29 charcoal briquettes to reach 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
However, take this with a grain of salt. Factors such as the air temperature, type of heat source and the contents within the dutch oven will play a part in the final results of your meal. Ultimately, practice makes perfect with dutch oven cooking. The more you work with a dutch oven, the better you will become at reading the signs for optimal meal prep.
TIME TO EAT!
When it’s time to move the dutch oven from the hot coals, use caution and move slowly; the dutch oven will be hot and heavy. Take the lid off and allow the contents to cool before serving, as it will be extremely hot. Let everyone know that it’s time to eat, and watch as the fruits of your labor are enjoyed around a warm campfire below starry skies.
For a few of our favorite dutch oven recipes, click here.