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Why Dutch Oven Cooking is a Thing!

By Debbie Briscoe, NOLI Instructor

Originally published Mar 2019, updated May 2022

In all my years of being an outdoor person I’ve met a lot of folks who have had some kind of camping experience, from being in the Scouts or at summer camp when they were young to camping with their family and friends as adults. Most take a grill for hot dogs, hamburgers, steak etc. A Coleman stove is a standard as well, mainly for fixing food in skillets and pots and to make coffee. But the last few years I’ve been seeing more and more Dutch ovens being used for main meals.

My first experience was when I was a little girl watching my grandmother set a Dutch oven in the coals in the winter to cook dinner in our fireplace in the den. From that time on I've always loved having a fire and wish I had paid more attention when my grandmother cooked. So, when I got my first home, I made sure to build a firepit in my back yard and occasionally, when friends would visit, I would say "Come on outside with me, we're going to do a little experimenting in the fire pit." They were fascinated as I started a fire to generate coals and, after I had it going well enough, baked a peach cobbler! Since then, I’ve watched the trend grow and often see them now at just about every camping event or gathering I go to. Using them can really step up your game from the norm to have better food in camp. One pot meals like spaghetti where you don’t have to boil the noodles first save time and require less cleanup. And cleanup is made simple for greasy breakfasts and sticky desserts when you use specially made liners.

But they’re so heavy you say? Good news! A family owned US Company named GSI Outdoors has a line of hard anodized aluminum Dutch ovens that are a 1/3rd of the weight of traditional cast iron. I have the full set and love how easy they clean up, are non-stick and cook more evenly than cast iron. But best of all, they don’t rust. The exciting part is they can be packed in a canoe or kayak without the extra weight! For example the 10” weighs less than 4 lbs and the 12” is a mere 6 lbs vs. a cast iron that can weigh almost 20 lbs!

I have cast iron Dutch ovens as well and love using them when I’m car camping. Once taken off the fire they keep the food good and hot for a very long time which is good in cooler weather. But the aluminum DO’s are the ones to take on canoe/kayak trips. I’ve done it many, many times and they perform a little better than cast iron in the respect they heat up faster and aluminum is a better conductor of heat.

It doesn't take much equipment to Dutch oven cook in camp. All I need is my DO, a pair of tongs and a lid lifter and, if it's been raining or I'm pressed for time, a bag of charcoal. The concept isn't that much different from cooking a casserole or a pan of biscuits in the oven at home. I just had to learn a few simple techniques of how to use coal placement to create a perfect oven environment inside a Dutch oven of 350°.

When I go on trips with friends, instead of eating instant or Mountain House type dehydrated meals we use a Dutch oven to make a one-pot meal that’s hot and hardy and can serve everyone. The way I look at it is, "What else is there to do around camp after you get set up? Why not cook in the fire!" It's fun to me and I enjoy eating better food than hot dogs and sandwiches. Nine times out of ten when car camping folks will just throw something on the grill. But I think its nice to make a hearty pot of stew or my gourmet spaghetti with cheese that everyone seems to enjoy. Something baked is nice, like corn bread to go with soup or biscuits in the morning for breakfast with homemade jam. Even just a hot fruit cobbler is a welcome change to normal camp food. This is why it has become such a “Thing”! It’s no more trouble to have freshly made spaghetti, a cherry cobbler hot and gooey right off the coals and even freshly made hot biscuits or cornbread in the great outdoors! With a little prep, planning and education it makes things easy because once the “pot is on” using these techniques, it’s a perfect outcome practically every time. That’s when you can set a timer and sit back and relax a bit while the food cooks.

During my Campfire Dutch Oven Class at our outpost at USA Raft on May 7 I'll talk about the history and current uses of cast iron and Dutch oven cookery, how to choose and care for a Dutch oven, how to use different arrangements for baking, roasting, stewing or frying, and, most importantly, how to use various ingredients to create delicious camp meals perfect for sharing. The class will include a demonstration of how to cook a one-pot meal, bake scrumptious cobblers and breads, and other delights. We'll cap off the day with a group meal of baked spaghetti, bread, salad and hot fruit cobbler for the perfect ending to our outdoor culinary experience! Cost is $55. You can learn more and register here.

Happy campfire cooking and I hope to see you there!

Debbie Briscoe is a lifelong outdoor enthusiast and instructs kayaking and camping for NOLI. She has helped countless individuals get into the outdoors over the years, many of whom she now counts among her friends.

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