Dutch oven--a Utah Tradition

Dutch oven--a Utah Tradition
Dutch oven--Utah's official cooking pot

In Utah, the state cooking pot is the Dutch oven and it’s no wonder.  For Utahns, Dutch ovens have a special significance as they were used by our pioneer ancestors.

Early pioneers came to Utah by covered wagons, handcarts and by the power of their own two legs!  Pioneer trains, gearing up near Independence, Missouri, were given a list of essentials with the Dutch oven being at the top of the list because of its versatility for baking, frying, and roasting as well as its durability.  Today, the Dutch oven is also on the list of essentials for every Scout or Girls Camp! 

Dutch oven cooking may seem tricky to you, but with a few good tips and some practice you can create nearly any type of meal and you can’t beat the aroma when you lift off the lid.

Let’s Get Started

A camp-style Dutch oven is made of cast-iron with legs that let the pot sit above the coals on the ground and a lid that is specially designed with a rim to keep the coals on top of the oven.

The ovens vary in sizes, but the most popular size is a 12-inch pot.  It’s the perfect size for feeding a big group.

Dutch ovens become non-stick when they are seasoned.  The dark non-stick coating is called the oven’s “patina” or “seasoning”.    Seasoning is baking oil onto the iron to prevent rust.  Because it’s microporous, the cast iron will trap and hold the oil, which creates a sterile layer during the cooking process.  This non-stick finish continues to improve with use and proper care.

How to Season the Dutch Oven

Lodge—Cast Iron, a popular manufacturer of Dutch ovens and other cast iron cookware gives their recommendations for seasoning a Dutch oven.

  • Wash the cookware with hot soapy water.  (Hot soapy water can be used only the first time--after it's been seasoned, soapy water will ruin the patina.)
  • Dry completely.
  • Apply a very thin, even coating of MELTED solid vegetable shortening (or cooking oil of your choice) to the cookware inside and out. Too much oil will result in a sticky finish.
  • Place aluminum foil on the bottom rack of the oven (not directly on bottom) to catch any drips.
  • Set oven temperature to 350 – 400 degrees F. (expect some smoke—you can also season the Dutch oven on a charcoal grill or a gas grill)
  • Place cookware upside down on the top rack of the oven to prevent pooling.
  • Bake the cookware for at least one hour. After the hour, turn the oven off and let the cookware cool in the oven.
  • Store the cookware uncovered, in a dry place when cooled.
  • If the seasoning on your pan is sticky, this is a sign of excess oil building up and not fully converting to seasoning. To remedy this, place the cookware in the oven, upside down on the top rack and bake at 400 degrees for 1 hour. Allow to cool and repeat if necessary.

Other Tools Needed

  • Pair of leather gloves (long enough to cover your wrists)
  • A lid lifter
  • Long-handled tongs for briquette placement
  • Charcoal chimney 

Getting the Right Temperature

Most often, charcoal briquettes are used to cook meals in a Dutch oven.  Using charcoal makes it easier to control the cooking temperature. 

The size of your oven determines the charcoal count both on the top and bottom of the oven.  Baking calls for a distribution of the charcoal between the lid and underneath the oven.  It takes fewer under the oven than on the lid.  This helps prevent your food from charring on the bottom. Remember to get plenty of charcoal and that a charcoal chimney starter will come in handy. 

Place the briquettes equally around the rim of the lid and coals should be approximately one inch apart in a circle under the oven.  Never place coals directly under the center of the oven, if you do, you will create a hotspot and burn whatever you are cooking.  By placing the coals in a circle, the natural conductivity of the oven will distribute the heat evenly and effectively.

The type of cooking that you do will determine the placement of the briquettes:

  • Roasting:  The heat source should come from the top and bottom equally (1:1)
  • Baking:  Usually done with more heat from the top than from the bottom (3:1)
  • Frying or boiling:  All the heat should come from the bottom.
  • Stewing or simmering:  Almost all heat will be from the bottom (4:1)

Here’s a coal-temperature conversion chart used by the Boy Scouts.  It’s helpful in determining total briquettes and the number to use on top and under the oven to achieve a constant oven temperature.

 

Preparing Meat in a Dutch oven

Meats prepared in a Dutch oven are delicious!  They have a flavor and aroma you won’t get with other cooking methods.  The secret to producing a visually appealing meat regardless of the type of meat or the spices in a Dutch oven is to always brown the meat first.  This will seal in the natural juices and provide a more appealing outer texture and color.  Once the meat is well browned on all sides, drain off excess fat, add seasonings, put on the lid, and cook the meat for 30 to 35 minutes per pound for beef, pork and lamb and 25 to 30 minutes per pound for poultry. 

Clean up and Storage

You don’t have to worry about leftovers—the crowd will “cleanup” your Dutch oven creation, but once all the food has been inhaled, the oven will need to be cleaned.

A well-seasoned oven doesn’t require too much more than a sponge or dish rag for wiping, a gentle spatula for scraping, warm water for washing and rinsing and a towel for drying.

Don’t ever give into the temptation to use a metal scouring pad on a Dutch oven (unless you are restoring a rusted Dutch oven).   Don’t use dish soap and detergents (except cleaning the oven for the first time, before seasoning it).  Dish soap will attack the cast iron’s patina.  This will leave spots where the food will stick to the oven.  One last precaution, don't put a Dutch oven in the dishwasher.

After you have washed your oven, rub or spray a thin layer of food-grade oil over the entire surface including the legs and outside of the oven.  Store it with the lid slightly askew to allow for airflow.  A folded paper towel in the bottom of the oven will help absorb excess oil and moisture.

There you have it—the basics of Dutch oven.  I haven’t met a person yet who doesn’t love a Dutch oven cooked meal!  Jump on board and celebrate Pioneer Day with a Dutch oven tradition.   To start, try this easy breakfast casserole.

Easy Breakfast Casserole

Oven Size:                 12 inch

Heat:                          Top:  19-21 coals and Bottom:  1-7 coals

Serves:                       8-10 people 

Ingredients

  • 8 slices bread
  • 2 pounds sausage
  • 16 oz. grated cheddar cheese
  • 12 eggs
  • 1-quart milk
  • 1 ½ tsp. dry mustard
  • 1 tsp. salt 

Directions

Line a 12” Dutch oven with heavy-duty foil.  Lightly grease the foil with butter.  Break up bread into the oven.  Crumble cooked sausage meat over bread and cover with cheese.  

In a separate bowl, mix eggs (lightly beaten), milk, dry mustard, and salt (to taste).  Pour the egg mixture over the layered bread/sausage/cheese in the oven, cover, and bake for 35 to 40 minutes, checking occasionally.  The cheese rises to the top, melting into a golden-brown crust over a fluffy layer of eggs, making a super filling camp breakfast for a crowd. 

Variations

  • Substitute diced ham for the browned sausage.  Add raw or sautéed onions or mushrooms and/or chopped, cooked potatoes.
  • For a meatless option, replace the sausage with chopped broccoli or spinach.  The spinach version is particularly good with Swiss and feta cheese.  Add chopped green onions and a touch of tarragon.
  • Using different cheeses or breads will give the dish a different flavor and character.


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