They say that the pioneers brought dutch ovens across the plains. While only the very essentials were packed on the wagons to make the journey to the west, dutch ovens were included. This tells us that they were important to pioneer life, and that they were well used. It also tells us that while my friends and neighbors in the midwest don't know what dutch ovens are, folks in the midwest used to be quite familiar with them.
Rumor here in the west says that the dutch ovens hung from hooks at the bottoms or sides of the covered wagons. When used for cooking, they are most efficient when used with coals. Since the pioneers were traveling on a tight schedule, and had no access to a local grocery store to buy charcoal briquettes, they often used buffalo chips for the coal. Since it takes a while for charcoal to get to just the right point for cooking, and since buffalo chips will smolder for long periods of time, rumor says that the pioneers would take smoldering buffalo chips and place them in the dutch ovens as they left camp in the morning. These chips would then be the start of their evening fires. One presumes they cleaned the oven well before cooking in it.
A dutch oven is a cast iron cooking pot with three legs that are about an inch high. The bottom of the oven is flat, and the lid is fairly flat with a good sized lip on it. The oven also has a handle that is made out of thin metal and can be moved from side-to-side in a fashion similar to a bucket handle. I have seen dutch ovens with flat bottoms, no legs, and rounded lids, but I have discovered that they are not dutch ovens in the true sense of the word. Dutch ovens come in various sizes, with the most common being 10 inch, 12 inch, and 14 inch. The sizing refers to the diameter of the oven. I have recently seen a tiny oven - about a 4 or 6 inch, and I have seen some BIG ones that are larger than the 14 inch.
New ovens must be "seasoned" to prevent rusting, as well as to prevent foods from sticking when cooking. A good dutch oven will come with directions for seasoning. Generally this involves coating the insides of the oven with a thin coating of cooking oil, and baking in your home oven at a temperature of about 250 degrees for an hour or more. Your house will smell funny for a while, but it will be well worth the inconvenience. When the dutch oven cools, if you have seasoned it properly, it will give you years of rust-free enjoyment. However, don't despair if you fail to season the oven right the first time. Seasoning can be done at any time during ownership.
Not to tell tales, but one time my husband brought our dutch oven home from a Boy Scout camping trip and plopped it in my kitchen. I assumed he had cleaned it out, and he assumed I had. The poor oven sat on a shelf for months without being cleaned. Needless to say, when it was finally cleaned, it nearly took a jackhammer to get all of the gook out. But once it was cleaned, we re-seasoned it, and it was as good as new.
Cleaning dutch ovens requires a degree in Western Living. Okay, so that is not quite true, but at times that is how you will feel. In actuality, it is not that difficult. You will, however, get a lot of different opinions regarding the proper method of cleaning. Ladies, if you are smart, you will NEVER learn to properly clean a dutch oven. If you don't learn, then anytime you use the dutch oven, your husband will have to do the clean up. But he will be so proud of his handling of the oven, that he won't mind cleaning it out. One of the main reasons I love dutch oven cooking is because my husband cleans the pans!!
To clean a dutch oven, simply scrape the scraps of food out of it with a spatula or spoon. Then place the oven in the campfire for a few minutes to warm it well. If you are using your dutch oven at home, you can warm it in your home oven. When it is nicely warmed, place it on a firm surface such as a picnic table. Sprinkle table salt into it, pour a little oil in and use paper towels to rub the oil and salt around the inside of the oven. The salt is an abrasive, and the oil the lubricant. If your oven was well seasoned to being with, the food will come right out. Clean out the salt with more paper towels. Your oven should be clean.
While many people are very picky about the cleaning of their dutch ovens, others are not so worried. Most people will tell you to NEVER wash the oven with dish soap and water. But I know one couple who always washes theirs with soap and water. They simply rub it with a very light coat of oil after cleaning. Once the oven is clean, place a paper towel in the bottom of the oven to absorb any moisture that might try to sneak in and rust the oven.
A dutch oven can be used for anything that a conventional home oven can be used for. Of course, baking cookies in one would not be practical, but it could be done. Cakes, stews, casseroles, cobblers, and even bread can be baked successfully in a dutch oven. This makes it a wonderful item to be used on campouts, but also a great item to be used in case of emergency, and loss of traditional power.
The most efficient way to use dutch ovens, is to stack them. This way you can make a main dish, vegetable, and desert all at one time. Same size ovens can be stacked, and smaller ovens can be stacked on top of bigger ones. For example, barbecued chicken can be cooked in a 14 inch oven, with potatoes stacked on top of that in a 12 inch oven, and a terrific cobbler stacked on top of that in a 10 inch oven. I recently saw a meal prepared for about 50 people using about nine 14 inch dutch ovens. Three 14 inch ovens were stacked in a set, and there were three sets. This year when we had our big family campout, I cooked a sausage and egg casserole in two 12 inch ovens, and dutch oven potatoes in a 14 inch oven and a 10 inch oven. I served 25 people. Because dutch ovens are large, you can cook for small armies with ease.
The general rule of thumb is to use twice as many briquettes as the oven is in diameter. For example, if the oven is a 14 inch oven, you would use 28 briquettes. Most people will put half on top of the oven (right on the lid), and half underneath the oven. Some people say it should be 2/3 of the briquettes on top of the oven, and 1/3 underneath. In my opinion, it is important not to get too carried away by technicalities here! When stacking the ovens, use briquettes between each layer.
If you have a campfire, you can also use wood coals from the fire. Of course, it is not quite as scientific as using briquettes, but it works just as well. Just place some coals on top of the oven, and place some underneath. Whether you are using charcoal briquettes, or wood coals from the campfire, it is a good idea to check and stir your food often. You can, of course, also use your dutch oven in your regular home oven.
There are a couple of
that are pretty much essential when using dutch ovens. Good oven
mitts are at the top of the list. When
using the ovens in a campfire, a shovel is a good idea as well.
places that sell dutch ovens also sell nifty lid lifters that hold the
lids steady as you lift the lid to stir the food. This prevents
from getting into your food.
Now that I have told you all of the details of the care and feeding of a dutch oven, I hope I haven't scared you away. The very best part of the usage of dutch ovens is the taste of the food you cook in them. It is delicious. I have never had a bad meal cooked in a dutch oven. Here in the west, dutch oven meals are discussed whenever large groups of people gather. Techniques are discussed, favorite recipes traded. Some dutch oven meals have become legends in their own time. As for me...well...this midwestern transplant loves a good dutch oven meal. And I love to watch my husband clean out the dutch oven even more!