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Secrets to Successful Cooking : Roughing It Made Easy: A Practical Guide to the Campers' Dutch Oven

September 03, 1987|BETSY BALSLEY | Times Food Editor

LOGAN, Utah — The Dutch ovens used for camp cooking should not be confused with the ordinary Dutch ovens found in many kitchens. Home-style pots are flat on the bottom and designed to fit over the burners on a range. The outdoor pots have three short legs that permit hot coals to fit under them. Indoor ovens usually have a rounded lid, sometimes of glass, that is unsuitable for holding coals. The flat iron lids for the outdoor ovens are flanged around the edges so they can hold coals easily. These lids often perform double duty on camping trips when they are turned upside down over coals and used as flat grills for pancakes or bacon.

Dutch oven camp cookery requires a remarkably small amount of space. Essentially you need just enough room to arrange a single layer of charcoal briquettes or pieces in a circle no larger than the bottom of the iron pot you plan to use. You'll also need a spot to heat additional coals for use on the top of the oven or to replenish those used if the cooking period is a long one.

At the Great American Dutch Oven Cookoff in Logan, each team of contestants cooked on a flat dirt rectangle that was 4-by-6 feet. (Groundskeepers at the Utah State University simply removed the sod from the cooking areas and replaced it after the contest.) It was an ideal arrangement, but not necessarily a practical one for the average home cook.

Most of the contestants and other Dutch oven experts present had permanent barbecue pits or areas in their yards which could be adapted for this type of cooking. But several pointed out that it is just as easy to use a free-standing barbecue grill as it is to rely on a permanent installation.

Flat and Sturdy

The main thing to remember is that the bottom coals must be arranged in the bottom of the grill in a single layer on something flat and sturdy enough to hold the heavy pot. This could be a smoothed-over layer of sand or a grill rack with a fine enough grid so the Dutch oven's legs don't slip through. Otherwise you'll have uneven cooking.

Anyone without a shallow portable barbecue can resort to a Rube Goldberg arrangement that has worked well for others. In order to test the cook-off recipes, The Times bought three 24-inch metal garbage can lids and balanced each of them, handle side down, on three bricks. This kept them perfectly level and firm. The lids were filled with damp sand, which was tamped down well and covered completely with several layers of heavy-duty foil. The foil not only provided a bit of reflected extra heat, it also made cleanup a snap.

In addition to the cooking base, you'll need a spot where you can put extra foil or something else that is clean to hold the hot lid from the Dutch oven when you need to add food to the pot or stir the contents. Don't forget that the lid usually will be both very hot and heavy, so be sure to put the foil on something that won't be damaged by the heat.

Besides the cooking base and a good, well-seasoned Dutch oven or two, several other pieces of equipment will be needed for easy cooking. A good cast iron Dutch oven is heavy no matter what size it is. It heats evenly and stays hot; thus you'll need heavy-duty oven mitts, some tongs suitable for handling hot coals and a heavy poker or sturdy claw hammer for lifting the hot lid on and off the pot.

Special Tools

At the cook-off, many of the contestants used special tools specifically designed for the latter purpose. One such set of tools, containing a short lid lifter and a longer, one is available from TWIN-K Enterprises, P. O. Box 4023, Logan, Utah, 84321. Cost is $19.95 plus $3 postage and handling. To order, send a check made to Twin-K Enterprises. Be sure to enclose your name and address and allow four to six weeks for delivery.

Knowing that we would prepare several dishes at once in testing the winning cook-off recipes, we used one of the three garbage can lids as a "fire base" for heating the coals to the white, ashy state needed. The other two were used for cooking. Two of the three Dutch ovens we used were 12 inches in diameter and one was 10 inches.

Knowledgeable Dutch oven cooks contend that a well-seasoned pot is absolutely essential. Otherwise it will have hot spots that will burn the food. Dr. Glen Humphreys of Salt Lake City, an experienced "Dutcher," provided some well-seasoned advice on how to turn a brand new oven into a well-behaved pot. "There's a coating on new ovens that needs to be scrubbed off with a good, mild soap," he said. "Then dry (the oven) well and put it in a cold oven at home. Set your oven to 350 degrees and leave the Dutch oven in it until the temperature rises to that level. Then take the Dutch oven out and rub it well inside and out, lid and all, with an unsalted shortening or oil." (Do this carefully. The pot will be hot.)

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