_Cooking Techniques

Serves: 5



Some folks consider camp cookin' an art form of sorts. Most good cooks enjoy the creative process whether a dish is simple or elaborate. There is no denying art plays a part in the creation of a tasty dish that is pleasant to look at as well. The flip side of the creative coin centers on applying just the right amount of heat for the proper length of time. The most expensive ingredients exquisitely prepared will burn just as quickly as a can of store bought beef stew if the cook overloads the DO or gets distracted. With heat adjustments just a twist of the dial away, the stories of food burned at home would fill a small library, I'm sure. Now, take that number and multiply it by the number of variables the camp cook deals with, and you can easily visualize the 'burning potential'! As do most camp cooks, I use various propane or liquid-fueled camp stoves on occasion, but for the purpose of this discussion I'll talk about using charcoal briquettes and/or coals from a campfire for Dutch oven cooking.

Most folks of my generation first recall seeing their folks use charcoal to grill steaks and burgers in the back yard as an alternative to building a campfire. As time passed charcoal began to give way before progress in the form of 'gas grills.' Touted as less messy and more convenient these technological marvels got more people cooking outdoors. Now it seems some folks consider the gas grill part of their camp kit. In recent years I've noticed more and more folks headed to the woods for the weekend with their gas grill lashed down in the bed of the truck. I enjoy grilling stuff both at home and in camp, but I missed the gas grill train and use traditional methods in both locations.

I base my choice of charcoal for both DO cooking and grilling on two factors. First, here in the Intermountain West we have few hardwoods available, and because of that fact most campfires are fueled with coniferous woods, i.e. pine, fir, and/or spruce. The coals produced by these soft woods are adequate for cooking, but they don't get as hot nor do they last very long. Consequently, these two variables alone present problems to even experienced camp cooks. Like everything else in life we have choices and selecting charcoal is no exception. The Constitution tells us all men are created equal but I'm here to tell you all charcoal is not! There may be some regional brands out there I haven't tried, but I've found one national brand to be head and shoulders above the rest. Kingsford Brand® is all I use and Mr. Kingsford is not paying me to say so! Just like the big city chef, the camp cook needs a consistent steady source of heat and Kingsford Charcoal® is always consistent. With these preliminaries and explanations out of the way, let's start cooking.

Before we light our charcoal, though, it's best to figure out first where we're going to cook. Most of my cooking is done on commercially built firepans. These firepans were designed for use on western rivers where regulations prohibit fires built in 'traditional' rock fire rings. There are lots of alternatives to the commercial firepan available to the beginning DO cook. If you can find one, a metal garbage can lid works great. If it has an integral handle, set it up on 3-4 bricks. Also I've seen cooks who used hubcaps with a little sand in the bottom or a wheelbarrow with a layer of sand. In addition there are commercially built cooking tables with optional or detachable windbreaks available. I like the cooking tables and the type firepan I use because of their height. They save a lot of bending over.

Whereas the kitchen cook merely twists a dial to obtain the desired heat, a recipe calls for the camp cook to first figure out how many briquettes needed and then light them ahead of time. Your briquettes will be ready in 20-30 minutes. If it's windy at all, the briquettes will light faster but by the same token you'll have less usable cooking time. (More of those ugly variables the kitchen cook doesn't have to deal with!) In my experience good charcoal will give about 1 hour cooking time on a summer day with no wind. Most dishes will cook with one load of charcoal, but the wise cook will start extra charcoal to have on hand if the wind is blowing and for dishes which take longer. Keep in mind it will take several minutes for the Dutch to warm up enough to begin cooking. Time your recipes from when things begin to cook, not from when you place the DO in the firepan, allowing 5-10 minutes time for the Dutch to heat.

Just like at home you turn the burner on and adjust it to the desired temperature. In camp place some briquettes in your firepan and set the DO on top. I arrange my briquettes in a circular or checkerboard pattern to evenly distribute the heat. Using a 12" DO, 8-10 fresh briquettes should be sufficient. Of course you can add a few briquettes if you want to brown something quickly and subtract a few to lightly sauté.

The same technique is used as in frying. To start something boiling quickly, start with 15-20 briquettes underneath your Dutch. Once it starts boiling remove 5-10 of the briquettes with your metal tongs to gently simmer.

Baking requires heat both underneath and on top of the Dutch. Much has been written on the subject of, "How Many Briquettes Do I Use?" Many cooks use what I call the 'rule of two' or the 'rule of three' to calculate how many briquettes to use. It works like this. Take the diameter of the oven and subtract two for the number of briquettes to use underneath and add two to the diameter for the number of briquettes to place on top. The 'rule of three' works the same way. But, I do things a little differently. I'm not saying these two methods don't work, but what I'm saying is I do what works best for me. For instance, if I'm baking a batch of biscuits in a 12" DO, I find 4-5 fresh briquettes will provide all the heat I need underneath. For the lid I place approximately 18-20 briquettes around the outside edge of the Dutch and including a couple in the middle near the handle. With all other factors being equal, this combination will bake biscuits or cornbread in 20-25 minutes. My guess is that the oven is at 350-375 degrees. Part way through the baking process, I will lift the DO up and give it a quarter turn. This helps to evenly brown the bottom of the biscuits. Do what works best for you. It could be a combination will work best. It's just that I've found that using the rule of two or three gives me too much heat on the bottom, and a burned biscuit is more likely to result!

Braising in the oven utilizes a covered dish with a cooking liquid. Of course the liquid forms steam which helps cook the dish along with the heat from the oven itself. A moist cooking method if you wish. An engineer once told me a cast iron Dutch cooks with about 2-3 pounds of steam pressure due to the weight of the lid. If this is in fact true, it lends credence to what DO cooks already knew. A tough cut of meat cooked in a DO is tenderer than if done in a conventional oven. For braising and/or roasting I will use 10-12 briquettes underneath the Dutch and an equal number on the lid. If it's cool or windy, I may increase this by 2-3.

Rather than bore the reader with minutia and expound on all the vagaries of cooking with charcoal outdoors, I leave it to you to experiment on your own. Take what I've written here and use it as a starting point. Some authors I've read consider their formulas 'Gospel' and fervently believe their method is 'the one and only'! So be it, but to paraphrase an old cliché, "There is more than one way to load a Dutch!"

Spiced with More Tall Tales - Introduction

This _Cooking Techniques recipe is from the Cee Dub's Dutch Oven and Other Camp Cookin' Cookbook. Download this Cookbook today.

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