How to cook in a Dutch oven over a campfire:
1. Start a fire.
2. Have a beer.
3. Re-light fire.
4. Have another beer.
5. Feed fire.
Okay, enough silliness. You need a really good coal-bed to cook in a Dutch oven. You also need a really good cast-iron Dutch oven with a tight-fitting lid. The best ovens have three stubby little feet and a slightly domed lid with a lip. They come in a variety of sizes from about 8 inches across to 16 inches across.
Now, cast iron needs to be seasoned, and most cast-iron implements come with instructions on how to do this. If yours didn’t come complete with instructions, the easiest way to season any cast-iron is to wipe it with oil or shortening, completely covering the cooking surface, then heat it in a warm oven for an hour or so. Wipe off the excess oil. When storing it, make sure it is well greased, and store it somewhere it will stay dry. Once it is seasoned, try never to wash it. Just wipe it clean with a dry rag or paper towel. If you have cooked something really sticky in it, you can fill it with water and boil it, then wipe it dry. Remember to grease it again. Never pour cold water into a hot oven – it will warp.
You can cook almost anything in a Dutch oven over an open fire. Stew, beans, cake, biscuits…I’ve heard of them being used for everything from deep-frying to baking pie. To use it for things like deep-frying, you need some way to hang it over the fire. If you plan on baking a cake, or biscuits, you set it into the coal bed, and pile coals on top of the lid to surround it with heat. This is a very fast method of cooking, so you have to pay attention. The first time the Bag Lady tried baking biscuits; she settled back with her beer and left them, without checking them, for the full amount of time, only to discover she had manufactured hockey pucks - colour and all!
The easiest way to hang your oven is to drive a couple metal posts into the ground on either side of your fire, then rest another post across these with some hooks for hanging your pots. To cook this way, your pots should be hanging approximately 12 – 16 inches above the fire.
You also need some type of implement to handle your pots and lids, called a goncho, or pothook. These can be made of twisted wire, or strap iron. Even a stout green limb with a stub of a fork can be used in a pinch.
(The Bag Lady couldn't find any pictures of her actually cooking with her Dutch oven, but the photo at left does show the apparatus the Cowboy constructed for hanging the pots.)
The best wood for cooking fires is a hardwood – oak is great, but hard to come by in some areas. Poplar and aspen are plentiful in this neck of the woods, though not the greatest for cooking. But you have to make do with what you have.
Once you have a good bed of coals, it’s time to start cooking. Warm your oven – pre-heat the lid, too – then grease it, and cover the bottom of the oven with biscuits. Put the lid on, then set your oven on a level bed of coals. Pile coals up along the sides of the oven, and fill the lid to the rim with coals. Use your goncho to remove the lid to check on things, but be careful not to spill ashes on your food. Rotate the lid when you replace it.
If your biscuits are browning too fast on the top, remove the lid and dump your coals; replace the lid. If they are browning too fast on the bottom, lift the whole oven off the coals. The biscuits will finish cooking in the hot oven.
This is a quick, basic, rather simplified lesson in the art of Dutch oven cooking. (The Bag Lady likes quick, basic, simple instructions!)