What do I need to know for Dutch oven cooking?   How can I tell how hot my Dutch oven is?  What should my first meal be?

What to know for great Dutch oven cooking

The most predictable way to cook with a Dutch oven is indoors with an easy to control temperature setting.  But where is the excitement in that?  You need to get out, enjoy the sights and smells of the outdoors.  If you mess up your cooking while using a camp Dutch oven, it’s OK.  Everything tastes better outside and if it’s dark enough there is a good chance no one will notice.  The vast majority of the time however things turn out better than expected.  Dutch oven cooking rarely disappoints.

Outdoor cooking with a Dutch oven can be done with a wood fire, but requires a lot of wood as there will need to be a sufficient amount of coals to fuel the entire cooking process.  You will need enough coals to cover the top of the oven as well as the bottom.  Only coals will adequately provide enough heat for the cooking process.  If there are still unburned portions of wood, there won’t be enough heat.  After creating a large bank of coals, place a nice layer of coals on the ground.  Set the oven onto the coals and then place a layer of coals on top of the lid.  Cover the top with a layer of dirt.  This is a trick to help the coals last longer and to retain heat.  When your food is done, you’ll have to remove the dirt and coals while keeping the lid on.  You don’t want a dirty meal.  

Cooking with a wood fire is fun and more true to how Dutch ovens were originally used, but these days most camp cooking is done with charcoal briquettes.  There is a plethora of data on how many briquettes to use and where to place them.  We disclose some of the magic here.

First, you need to light your charcoal.  The fastest and easiest way is by using a coal starter.  Pour your charcoal briquettes in.  Light a small bunch of newspaper at the bottom and in 15 minutes your coals should be hot and ready to go.  You do not have to use lighter fluid.  Don’t wait too long as your charcoal will be ash.

Generally speaking you want to place the coals in a circular pattern at the edges of the oven; this is for good heat distribution.  The bulk of the metal in the oven is found in the lid and body around the edges. Placing the coals at the outside is the best thing to do get good even heat distribution.  A small circle of charcoals should be placed around the handle as well.  Don’t place coals directly in the center on the bottom.  The only exception to the outside circular rule is when using Dutch ovens 16-inches or larger.  There is so much surface area, that help is needed to provide the extra heat.  A good checkerboard pattern is recommended for the big Dutch ovens.

When the charcoals are in place, it is good practice to rotate the oven counter-clockwise and the lid clockwise a quarter of a turn every so often.  Not all coals are created equal and this ensures proper distribution of heat.  An alternative is to try and move the coals around if needed.  If there appears to be an area that is not cooking correctly or a cake that isn’t rising evenly, move some heat to it.  Or if things appear to be cooking too quickly, remove some charcoals.

How many charcoal briquettes will I need?

The most common temperature for a Dutch oven is 350º F.  If in doubt, aim for 350º.  There are a few rules of thumb to hit the 350º target. 

(1)     Take the size of the oven, double it, and then put 1/3 of the coals on the bottom and 2/3 on the top.  Each additional charcoal adds 10-15º to the cooking temperature.

(2)     There is also the “Rule of 4”.  Take the Dutch oven diameter and add 4, that is the number of briquettes for the lid.  Take the Dutch oven diameter and subtract 4 and that is the number of briquettes for the bottom.  For example, a 12-inch oven will have 16 on top and 8 on the bottom.

Whichever rule is easiest to remember, use.  Both work for any size of Dutch oven.  You can add or subtract depending on the type of Dutch oven cooking you are doing and what the weather conditions are like.  If it is cold, windy, high humidity or high elevation, it might take more coals to get the same temperature.  If it is hot and sunny, it might take less. 

If your meal is required to cook longer than 30-45 minutes you may need to add a few more fresh coals.  If ashes start to form in certain areas, just add a fresh few coals to fill the gaps or put a fresh batch all at once.  Either way, make sure there is heat until your meal is cooked.  

How can you tell how hot your Dutch oven is?

Simple, hold an open palm 6-8 inches above your Dutch oven, rotating your hand in a circle. If you can hold your hand there for the durations listed below, then the heat and temperature will be as follows:

dutch oven cooking

If there are still some doubts as to how many coals are required to reach a certain temperature. Here is a handy table with sizes and temperatures.  

dutch oven cooking

Lastly, there are instances where you want to get really specific with the heat in your Dutch oven.   First start with the twice the number of briquettes as the diameter of your oven, then divide the number in the following way.

Bake – Coals in a circular pattern with a 2:1 ratio top over bottom

Stew or Simmer – Coals split evenly top and bottom

Broil – Coals in checkerboard pattern with a 2:1 ratio top over bottom

Fry or Boil – All coals on the bottom

Can I save space by stacking ovens?

To feed a big group with multiple options AND have the cobbler available, multiple Dutch ovens are going to be required.  In this case, there is a little trick to saving charcoal briquettes.  You stack them, one on top of the other.  Cool, eh!

The coals on the lid can be counted towards the coals of the bottom of the oven on top.  It is common to see three stacked, but you can have up to five.  Keep in mind that the top oven will see the most heat and the bottom will see the least amount.  That means, stews on top, desserts on bottom and meat in the middle.

Of course, rotating your ovens and replacing coals becomes a little trickier, especially when you want to maintain good head distribution.  It can be done though, and in less time than you think.  When rotating, remove the top one first, work down, and then build back up your tower. Cast iron is so efficient in retaining heat that if you move quickly, little heat will be lost.

What should my first Dutch oven meal be?

If you haven’t cooked with a Dutch oven before you are going to want to get comfortable with regulating the temperature of you Dutch oven.  And since you’ve just but your oven’s first coat of oil, it might be good to start with something easy and won’t strip your seasoning.  Bacon, chicken or biscuits are a great place to start.  They all cook well at the nominal 350º F.  Bacon is easy, just heat up your oven, using enough coals to hit 350º and cook, watching and flipping the bacon so it does not burn.

Dutch oven chicken is also known to be an easy food to master.  Pour some olive oil into the oven, place some chicken thighs and legs in, add some seasoning, put on the lid and wait.  Every ten minutes, move the chicken around. 

Biscuits are also fairly easy as to begin with if you buy the cardboard tube full of biscuit dough.  Add oil to the bottom, arrange the biscuits and cook.  Be sure to follow the Dutch oven baking protocol with coals in a circular pattern with a 2:1 ratio top over bottom.  In 20-25 minutes the biscuits will likely be done.

Since grease is used on these first meals, your cast iron is likely to have a better seasoned layer after than before.  Not all meals are like this.  Foods with a lot of acid can end up removing your seasoned layer if it hasn’t had sufficient time and use to get a good coat of cooked in oil.  Foods with tomato based sauces are notorious for removing a little bit of seasoning each use.  As a first time Dutch oven cook, meals with tomato sauce or beans should be held off until the oven has been used a few times.

Another food that might be frustrating for a first time user is dessert. Sugar will caramelize when it gets hot (crème brulee lovers know this) and it can be a real pain to clean.  A trick here is to line your oven with aluminum foil.  This will keep the sticky mess away from the walls of your oven and save time during cleaning.

Other hints that you might find useful:

(1)     Watch your coals closely, they won’t last forever and will eventually need to be replaced and the oven rotated.

(2)     If you see the contents boiling at a rate that makes it difficult to see the food, then remove coals, your Dutch oven is too hot.

(3)     When you take the lid off and nothings is boiling after being over coals for twenty minutes, your oven is too cold, add more coals.

(4)     Keep your lid on tight and try to reduce the number of times you peak into see, because each time the lid is opened, it will take a little longer to cook.

(5)     You can remove ash that builds up on a briquette by tapping it on the ground.

(6)     If your oven and coals are in the wind, one side is going to burn faster and hotter.  You may have to add more coals to the side getting hit by the wind more quickly than the other side.  Setting up a wind break helps.

(7)     Wood coals burn more quickly than charcoal briquettes.  They will have to be watched more carefully and replaced more frequently.

(8)     If baking bread, add a few similar sized pebbles to the bottom of your oven, to create space between the aluminum bread tin(s).  This allows more air flow, which in turn allows for more uniform heating.  This works great for bread, rolls, and pastries.  You’ll have less burned food.

(9)     The Dutch oven’s lid is perfect for bacon, sausage, eggs or pancakes.  Place your lid on a bed of coals to heat.  You’ll know when it is the perfect temperature by flicking a drop of water on the lid.  If it dances around without quickly fizzing away, it is probably the perfect temperature.  If it does nothing and steams a little, it is too cold.

Have fun with your Dutch oven cooking!  Here are some tantalizing recipes. Enjoy!