Early American pioneers had some important decisions to make for their journey into the mostly unknown territories of the West. Everything their family would need to survive had to be packed into a wagon that was roughly 18 feet long by 4 feet wide. And it had to be light enough that a team of oxen, horses, or mules could pull it across plains, through creeks and rivers, and over mountain passes.
Tools, firearms, clothing, and gear would vary from family to family, but the one constant for every wagon heading out was the Dutch oven. There isn’t a more versatile cooking vessel on the planet. From baking to frying to slow-cooked soups and stews, the same holds true today.
Large pots constructed of brass were popular in the 17th century, but the material and casting process made them more expensive than the common family could afford. In the early 1700s, Abraham Darby, an Englishman, visited Holland to learn about their metal-casting process using dry sand molds. He took the knowledge back to England and used the technique to cast pots from less expensive iron.
The heavy pots were an immediate success, and Darby soon began to export them to English colonies, including those in the Americas. Those early pots were deep with a smooth bottom and domed lid. They worked well for fireplace cooking, but not as well for slow cooking over an open campfire.
Silversmith, industrialist, and American patriot Paul Revere is credited with altering the Dutch oven’s design to feature three legs and a rimmed, flat lid designed to hold coals on top of the oven to cook evenly from both the top and bottom at the same time
Not much has changed in Dutch oven design in the 250 or so years since Revere made his improvements. While aluminum, stainless steel, and even ceramic pots are available today, cast iron is still the most popular material. If you never plan to use your Dutch oven over an open fire, then enameled cast iron is easier to clean and requires less maintenance. If you plan on using your Dutch oven both indoors and out, then seasoned cast iron is the way to go.
Seasoning and Care
The main enemy of cast iron is rust. Untreated iron can rust seemingly overnight. There was a time when most Dutch ovens came from the factory in a nearly raw state and you had to season them before use.
Luckily, Lodge, Camp Chef, and other manufacturers now season their Dutch ovens at the factory, making them ready to cook straight out of the box. But that doesn’t mean a little seasoning know-how isn’t a good thing. There are a lot of older Dutch ovens sold every day at yard sales across the country for pennies on the dollar. Just because these ovens may have a bit of rust on them doesn’t mean they aren’t usable. Even a well-seasoned Dutch oven can use a bit of touching up from time to time. A bit of elbow grease and a little time is all it takes to bring one back to better-than-new condition.
Scrub and clean the pot well. Dunk the pot in a sink full of hot, soapy water and go to town with a scrub pad. Don’t worry about the soap, you want to remove any standing oil from the pot’s surface. More on soap later, but don’t let it scare you. A well-seasoned pot will stand up to a bit of dish soap if the need arises after a particularly messy cook.
Once the pot has been cleaned and rinsed well, place it on the stove on medium to heat it until it’s completely dry. Remove the pot from the heat and allow it to cool just enough that you can touch it safely but the metal is still warm.
Years ago, the seasoning compound of choice would an animal fat like lard or rendered bear fat. Those still work, but animal fat can turn rancid in warm weather, not a good thing for something you plan to put food in. Today, use vegetable shortening, flax seed oil, or any number of proprietary seasoning blends that are made for the task. Good choices include BuzzyWaxx, Camp Chef Cast Iron Conditioner, and Crisbee Puck.
Use a paper towel to wipe on a thin layer of your seasoning product of choice, making sure to cover all surfaces of the pot and lid, both inside and out.
Place the pot and lid, upside down, on a cookie sheet, then move them to a preheated, 400-degree oven for one hour. After an hour, remove the pot and lid from the oven, allow to cool just enough to touch (a pair of leather gloves comes in handy here), and apply another layer of seasoning material. Return to the oven and repeat the process up to four times. Your Dutch oven should be dark, slick, and well-seasoned by this point.
Seasoned cast iron often requires nothing more than a quick wipe down with a paper towel for cleanup. If you do get some stuck-on bits, try scrubbing with a bit of kosher salt and a nylon scrub pad or a stiff bristle brush. Still seeing crud after the salt trick? Pour in some water and heat to a simmer and then scrub again. As mentioned earlier in the article, don’t be afraid to use a bit of dish soap on a seasoned pot. Contrary to popular folk tales, it won’t hurt your seasoning layer at all.
Once your pot is clean, return it to a warm spot near the fire to heat until it’s completely dry. Wipe the pot down with a paper towel and a bit of oil before putting the pot away.
Cooking on a Dutch Oven
When it comes to cooking, there isn’t much a Dutch oven can’t do. With a few adjustments in the way you supply the heat, you can fry, braise, bake, or boil food in one.
Frying and Boiling
Supply heat directly from the bottom by nestling the Dutch oven directly into the coals near the fire. Adjust the temperature by moving coals toward or away from the base of the pot.
Supply heat evenly from above and below the pot by placing an equal number of coals in both locations. When using charcoal, figure two coals per inch of pot, 20 for a 10-inch Dutch oven, 24 for a 12-inch Dutch oven. Divide evenly below the pot and onto the lid.
For baking in a Dutch oven, supply more heat from above than below. Take the size of your pot in inches, add three to the number for the top coals, then subtract three for the bottom coal number. For instance, a 12-inch Dutch oven will need 15 coals on the lid and 9 below to maintain around a 325-degree cooking temperature.
Each pair of coals added or subtracted will adjust the temperature up or down 20 to 25 degrees. For long bakes, add fresh coals every 35–45 minutes to maintain a constant temperature.
Try this recipe for Dutch Oven Venison & Apple BBQ Camp Beans