If you’re like a growing percentage of the world’s population, there’s a good chance that you occasionally emit a bloodcurdling scream, turn off your TV, grab your army surplus sleeping bag, and head for the great outdoors—away from the absurd stew of smog, noise, cars, crowds, concrete, and asphalt that constitutes our urban crunch.
And finally, after fighting the freeway hordes of other people doing the same thing, you arrive at your own little camping space with its own little pine tree, and you celebrate your freedom by munching on wilted lunch meat, drinking scorched chocolate, and crunching on the sand in your sticky scrambled eggs.
And that’s a shame, because outdoor eating at its best is a gourmet’s dream. In fact, with some practice, you can eat a lot better in your own little camping space #587 than most people eat at home.
The best and most basic tool the serious outdoor chef has at his command, and the first one you should master, is the dutch oven. It’s a magic cauldron from which can emerge golden-crisp fried chicken, steaming-good hash browns, heart-melting biscuits, and soul-stirring stews—if you know what you’re doing.
Dutch ovens are heavy, cast iron pots that pioneer families used for all types of cooking. Today they are still used by ranchers, prospectors, hunters, fishermen, smart New Era readers, and others who need simple but versatile outdoor cooking equipment.
The outdoor or open-fire dutch oven has three legs to hold the oven above hot coals for cooking, and a flat lid with turned up edges that will hold coals on the lid for baking. The lid has a handle in the center that allows it to be lifted with a hook, claw hammer, pliers, or forked stick when it is hot or loaded with coals.
There is another type of dutch oven known as the indoor dutch oven. It is flat-bottomed with no legs and has a dome-shaped lid adapted for cooking on a stove or in the oven of a stove. It can be adapted for outdoor cooking by supporting it on three rocks, bricks, or stakes driven into the ground. The lid can be adapted for open-fire baking by turning it upside down to hold the hot coals, or by making a rim for the coals by folding aluminum foil about one to two inches wide and placing it in a circular band around the top of the lid.
If you buy a new dutch oven, you should immediately “season” it to prevent rusting and make it more adaptable for cooking. First, heat the oven and the lid until they are too hot to touch; then apply cooking oil or fat with a brush, cloth, or swab wired to a stick. Apply the oil freely both inside and out and wipe with a cloth or paper towel while it is still hot. Now the oven is ready for any type of cooking. Remember not to overheat it or clean it with detergents or soap pads later on, because these things will destroy the seasoning.
You’ll get best results by cooking on hot coals from the fire or on hot charcoal briquettes. You should usually avoid cooking over an open flame because it’s too hot and you can’t control the heat. Be sure to plan ahead and start your fire soon enough to have hot coals when you want to start cooking.
When using hot coals from the fire, move them to a small hole in the ground a short distance from the fire. A “keyhole fire circle” is one good way of doing this. Outline a three-quarters circle with rocks; then extend the rocks outward a short distance from the circle and across, connecting the two sides, thus forming a keyhole shape. Build your fire in the circular part, and move hot coals to the extended part with a shovel or a stick when you’re ready to cook.
Dutch oven frying lets you give the magic, back-to-nature, gourmet touch to meat, eggs, scones, potatoes, and hotcakes. When frying, place the oven on hot coals or briquettes. Controlling the heat is the key to good dutch oven cooking, so keep your eye on the cooking oil or fat. If it smokes, it is generally too hot. You can control the heat by adding or removing coals.
Hot coals are, as usual, preferable to an open flame, but you can fry over an open fire if you wish by supporting the dutch oven above the flame by ground supports or hanging it by the bail on a wire from an overhanging limb, spit, or tripod. You can control the heat by raising and lowering the oven or adding or removing fuel.
To keep cooked food hot, remove the oven from the coals and put coals on the lid. This will keep the food hot without burning it.
For a delicious roast, sear the meat in cooking oil or fat under moderate heat, season, and roast with the lid on. This should take an hour or more depending on the size of the roast. The roasting can be done with hot coals above ground or in a preheated pit in the ground. If you wish, you can add vegetables when the meat is partly cooked. Onions, potatoes, carrots, and many other types of vegetables are delicious cooked with roasts.
Treat it with love and your dutch oven will give you fluffy rolls, melt-in-your-mouth hot bread, golden-crusted pies, and rich, moist cakes. Heat control is once again the key, and the expert’s touch can only be obtained through experience. For baking you will need to put coals both underneath and on top of the dutch oven.
Here’s a recipe for a pineapple upside down cake that no one will be able to believe you really baked out-of-doors. First, line your dutch oven with aluminum foil, shiny side up. (Wide, heavy-duty foil is best.) Turn the edges of the foil down inside the oven so it won’t lap over the outside and prevent a tight seal of the lid. Grease the foil with cooking fat, oil, or butter. Place pineapple slices over the bottom of the oven with maraschino cherries in the holes. Sprinkle the pineapple with about 1/2 cup brown sugar and 1/2 cup chopped nuts. Wet the brown sugar with two to three tablespoons pineapple juice. Whip up a white or yellow cake mix, following the directions for your altitude, and pour the batter over the fruit. After replacing the lid, set the oven on hot coals and put some coals on the lid. Leave about an inch of air space between the bottom of the oven and the top of the coals. This lets air circulate under the oven so that the cake won’t burn.
Bake for 30 to 45 minutes, checking the cake about every ten minutes. If it’s browning to a finished cake appearance early in the baking period, it’s baking too fast, and you should remove coals. If it’s baking too slowly just add some coals.
When the cake is ready it will be golden brown, feel solid to the touch, and spring back when touched. If your finger leaves an indentation, the cake needs to cook some more. Insert a toothpick or match in the cake from time to time. When no batter sticks to the wood, the cake is done.
If you’ve got to be away from camp for a while and would like to find a hot meal waiting for you when you return, the first thing you need to do is grab a shovel. Next, dig a pit in the ground and line the bottom and the sides with rocks. The lined pit should be four to six inches wider than the dutch oven and deep enough so that the oven can be buried and covered with four to six inches of dirt.
Build a fire in the pit and let it burn down to a bed of hot coals. This will heat the pit and the rocks and leave hot coals for cooking. Prepare the roast, vegetables, stew, bread, or whatever you want to come home to, and put it in the oven. Remove some of the hot coals from the pit and place the dutch oven, with its lid on, in the pit. Put hot coals on top of the oven, and then bury it under four to six inches of dirt. It can be left unattended throughout the day, and the food will be cooked and hot when you return. If properly planned, a whole meal can be prepared this way, and it’s delicious!
Caution: Unless you like fireworks, don’t use limestone, sandstone, or other porous rocks that may contain moisture. When rocks with moisture in them are heated, the moisture expands into steam, and the rocks explode!
Remember—you can cook anything in a dutch oven that you can cook with the most expensive kitchen range ever made, and the dutch oven delicacy will probably taste better, especially considering that you get to eat it out-of-doors. Dutch oven cooking is an art, however, and like all arts, it takes time and experience to perfect your skills. But if you want to eat like a king while living in a tent, it’s more than worth the effort.