This is something I wrote a few years back for a now defunct forum with Camp Chef.
Why the name Dutch Oven?
There are different versions of why the name Dutch Oven. One is that it derives from the Pennsylvania Dutch who cooked in them. Another is that a Dutchman invented the casting method by which such ovens then became best known. A third is that the better ovens were imported from Holland and so you'd prefer a Dutch Oven over other similar ovens.
There is no definitive answer.
How do I season a cast iron dutch oven?
Generally the most asked question about cast iron is how to season it. Seasoning is a process of heating oil on the pot surfaces to the point the oil carbonizes leaving a protective coating behind.
Some thoughts on choosing an oil for seasoning your pot.
Use a fresh oil not a rancid one. Don't use butter or bacon grease as they contain salt which you don't want to leave in contact with the iron as it promotes rust. Shortening is a good choice as it resists going rancid more than the unsaturated oils. It also has a fairly high smoke point, as do canola and peanut oils. The high smoke point means the oil can get hotter than other oils such as olive oil before smoking. I believe this is beneficial as the hotter pot opens the pores more so you get a better coating of the iron than you might with a low smoke point oil. I have no absolute proof of this though.
If it's a pot you'll use frequently, the rancidity issue is not a problem as you'll be using it enough to keep fresh oil on it all the time. If the pot is going to sit in storage a while between uses, shortening is a better choice. The CampChef conditioner is based on naturally saturated coconut oils which resist rancidity well too. It works very well. I know a chef who uses straight coconut oil and insists it can not go rancid. I have found no proof that it won't go rancid but it is quite stable.
Most manufacturers recommend something along these lines:
Most users of the ovens find these instructions less than adequate to generate the good hard and slick black patina of a well seasoned oven. The first time you season cast iron according to these instructions usually yields a yellowish brown pot that's a bit sticky.
- Scrub the oven with steel wool to remove the protective wax coating.
- Dry it thoroughly and quickly so it doesn't rust.
- Heat the oven a bit until some shortening melts in the pan, but is still cool enough for you to handle it.
- Using a lint free cotton cloth, rub the melted shortening evenly all over the pot, inside and out. Paper towels work, but tend to abrade and fall apart leaving oily bits of paper towel all over the pot.
- Repeat the above steps for the lid.
- Heat the oven to 350.
- Put the pot in the oven upside down. Tilt the lid in alongside the pot, also upside down. Inverting the pot and lid allows excess shortening to drip out of the cast iron for reasons to be discussed later.
- Let the dutch oven heat for an hour and cool in the oven. During this time, the shortening heats up and bakes--while releasing smoke from the converting oil--into the dutch oven creating a protective layer over the iron. Do this outside if you can.
Some more effective seasoning methods are the Gas Grill and the high heat oven.
Gas Grill seasoning method
This method keeps all the smoke outside.
High Heat Oven. As burning the wax off in a home oven would not be good for the home or the oven, you need to scrub off the wax. The rest of the High Heat oven technique is the same as the manufacturer technique, but set the oven to 450-500 degrees. A second coating of oil as with the gas grill technique is good too.
- Check to see that the cast iron and lid fits in the grill and the lid will still close. If so, arrange the cast iron upside down so the wax, and later the oil, will drip out of the pot rather than pooling in the bottom of the pot. Same for the lid. You don't want the wax or oil to pool against the lip.
- Heat on high. Watch the grill. When the smoking stops, the wax is burned off and the iron is ready for oil (or shortening.)The pot will be exceedingly hot. Even with welding gloves, you can only handle the pots briefly.
- Using a lint free cotton cloth, rub oil or melted shortening evenly all over the pot, inside and out. Paper towels work, but tend to abrade and fall apart leaving oily bits of paper towel in the pot. If you don't have good gloves or hot pads, wait for the pot to cool some so you can handle it safely.
- Repeat the above steps for the lid.
- Place them back in the grill upside down. Heat on medium high again until the smoking stops. Re oil them and watch until the smoking stops, then turn off the grill and let the cast iron cool.
- Then wipe with a light coat of oil for storage.
Problems with seasoning
The most common problem is that the cast iron didn't get hot enough for long enough to fully convert the oil. What results is the yellow brown coating. This is oil that is partially plasticized. If the coat of oil is thick or the pot not inverted, it often pools and creates sticky blotches. You can burn this mistake layer off in a fire or grill. Even an oven, but the smoke from this can be more intense. If you season it properly, the oil carbonizes completely leaving a slick durable black patina.
Besides burning off mistakes, you can scrub it off with steel wool. Some advocate a soak in Coke or vinegar to accelerate the process. Both of these methods are also used to remove large amounts of rust from an oven in order to then reseason it.
If the problem is severe, in just a few minutes and for a modest amount of cash, you can have the troubled pot bead blasted. Look in the yellow pages in your area under sand blasting. I used this method on a 16 inch spider. I walked out 15 minutes later with a scrupulously cleaned pot.
Pre-seasoned cast iron prep
Lodge and Camp Chef are now only selling their cast iron in pre-seasoned form. These should be washed with warm water and dried thoroughly before their first use.
How do I season an aluminum oven?
An aluminum oven doesn't need to be seasoned. It should be washed with soap and water prior to its first use. Same for hard anodized aluminum ovens.
Aluminum ovens can be used as cast iron ovens, but clean as you would any normal pot.
How do I clean it?
As with all things dutch oven, there are fans of different methods. The main thing is to not let the food just sit in the oven while you eat. Scrape it gently to remove what you can but still preserve the seasoning. Clean it as soon as possible, ideally while still warm from cooking. Some add some water to the pot and let it simmer while they eat so it cleans easily. Don't let water sit in your oven overnight for cleaning the next day. It can loosen the patina and promotes rust in cast iron ovens
Salt. My brother scrubs the pan with salt and a little oil, then rinses, wipes it dry with a paper towel. I feel it's a bit too abrasive.
Burning A few people just invert the pot over a fire and burn out the mess. It works but may also burn off your seasoning layer.
Hot water and a teflon-safe scrubbie will clean most problems. The great majority would never use soap, but a SMALL amount of UNSCENTED dishwashing soap can help in troublesome situations. Rinse well afterwards.
For the no soap crowd, a gentle boil often loosens baked food.
In all cases wipe again with oil after thorough drying. Heating the oven briefly will dry it well and may help with getting protective oil into the pores of the iron.
Cool, dry, dark, good air flow is what is good for cast iron. Cool because heat accelerates the break down of the oil leading to rancidity. Dry to prevent rust. Dark, because light contributes to oil going rancid. And good air flow, usually achieved by storing with some rolled up newspaper or paper towel between the lid and pot as a closed environment promotes rancidity as well.
If you have the dutch oven storage bags, then you can store the lid on the bottom with the pot standing on the lid. This prevents the legs from poking through the bag and keeps air moving around everything while keeping dust from building up.
What's the best oven to buy?
There are a few issues to consider. How big an oven to get, what brands are available and country of origin if that's an issue for you.
What size should I get?
The most common rating of dutch ovens is diameter. Secondly, is by capacity in quarts. Dutch ovens come in 5,8, 10, 12, 14 and 16 inch diameters. You can also find deep varieties of the 10, 12 and 14 inch ovens. MACA has ovens in somewhat different sizings. 9,11, 13, 15, 17, 22 and oval sizes in 8x12, 10x14 and 12x16. They are all deeper than similar sized ovens from Lodge, Camp Chef, or Harbor Freight. I've seen a 22" at a store once. It weighs 160 pounds.
Byron's - Introduction To Dutch Ovens has a good chart showing size, capacity depth and weight.
You want to choose a pot that is big enough to cook the kinds of dishes you anticipate cooking. Also consider how many people a given pot size would feed on average.
Servings Per Dutch Oven- These are based on serving a main course. They are approximate and vary by appetites and even the particular dish being served.
Oven Size Persons Served
The 12 inch is the most common oven and is what most recipes are written for.
Which brand is best
Lodge, Camp Chef and MACA all make good ovens. Their castings and quality control are very good. Teksport and Kelty Ridgeway ovens are widely available and less expensive. They can be good, but you should carefully check the casting's smoothness and the fit of the lid. If you have a Harbor Freight in your area, they sell their own brand of cast iron cookware at modest prices. They are of more consistent quality than Teksport, but you should still check the product before buying to get the best possible casting.
In the final analysis, most cooks feel Lodge has the smoothest castings.
Lodge--www.lodgemfg.com-- is based in the US but is beginning to cast overseas in India.
Camp Chef--www.campchef.com-- is based in Utah and has always cast their ovens in China. They also have aluminum dutch ovens.
Maca--www.macaovens.com-- is based in Utah and has a few ovens cast overseas, or so I am told.
GSI--http://www.gsioutdoors.com--has a line of hard anodized aluminum dutch ovens. I assume they are cast overseas. I've only ever seen these in catalogs.
Harbor Freight--www.harborfreight.com I haven't been able to find out where they are based or made. Seems likely their DOs are cast overseas.
The other brands are all made overseas, probably by the lowest bidder.
Aluminum or Iron?
Iron is traditional. It's heavier.
Somewhat reactive. Can take short cooking times with red wine and tomatoes without off colors or flavors, but is susceptible in longer cooking times. How long varies with the depth and quality of seasoning of the iron.
Holds its heat better than aluminum.
Aluminum is somewhat packable, but still heavy.
It can take thermal shocks that cast iron can't, the usual example is cooking a cheesecake in the pot and immediately plunging the aluminum pot into ice to chill the cheesecake. Cast iron would crack. Aluminum could too, but is tougher in this regard.
however, careless cooks could heat the oven too much and melt the legs or such, usually happens when an inexperienced cook gets anxious and wants dinner NOW.
Doesn't require seasoning, but is more prone to sticking.
Aluminum heats and cools faster.
Can be washed with soap or in a dishwashwer (anodized shouldn't go in a dishwasher.)
Reactive with acids, wine, tomatoes and such. Changes color and taste of some foods.
Useful Tools for dutch oven cooking
In addition to the standard cooking equipment, some extra items are necessary.
What's the best charcoal to use?
- Lid Lifter Mair makes the best as you can hold the lid through all angles, useful for emptying ash off a hot lid. Other lifters have to keep the lid flat. In a pinch, pliers or the claws of a claw hammer work.
- Natural fiber whisk broom--not a synthetic, useful for cleaning the oven prior to serving or cleaning. Gets all the ash off. A synthetic fiber melts in these circumstances.
- Shovel or tongs for moving and placing coals.
- Useful but not required extras.
- Welding gloves or similar heavy gloves. Use in place of hot pads. Better control and better protection than standard hot pads offer.
- Cooking table, eliminates all the bending and stooping, plus you don't have to build a fire pit if a pit is not available.
- Lighting chimney, makes lighting charcoal easy and needs no lighter fluid.
- Lid stand, Gives you place to put a HOT lid with the coals still on it but keep the underside clean while you stir or otherwise work in the pot. Also useful for ovens without legs so you can cook over charcoal. Or if you invert your lid and use it as a griddle, this tool is handy then too.
Kingsford Charcoal is usually recommended. The reasoning is not what you might think though. Kingsford is widely available and of uniform size and quality. If you learn to cook with it you always know how long it takes to light, how hot it burns and how long it burns.
Cooking with coals from a wood fire is fun but tricky as their heat and burn rate vary by wood type and size. Lump charcoal also varies by type and size.
Being able to control your heat consistently is a key to dutch oven cooking and anything that helps you do so is for the better.
How do I control heat?
The various rules for figuring out how many coals to use and where to place them assume pleasant ambient temperatures and no wind. These guidelines are just starting points that land about 325-350. For every 25 degrees more you want, add 1 top and 1 bottom. Reverse the rule for every 25 fewer degrees you want.
rule of 3 or 3 up 3 down.
This rule is for the Lodge or most other dutch ovens as they share those general proportions. A different rule is needed for deeper overs. The Lodge rule is 3 up, 3 down. That is, take the diameter of the oven in inches, add three to that number. This is how many briquets are needed on top. For the bottom (down) subtract or go down three from the diameter. That is the number of coals for the bottom. This yields an approximate 325� temperature in ideal conditions.
3 up 6 up
For deeper style ovens, commonly produced by MACA the rule is slightly different. 3 up 6 up. Using the oven?s diameter in inches, add 6 for the briquet count on top and add three for the briquet count on the bottom. More charcoal is needed to heat the greater air volume and the taller oven. Again, this is for a 325� degree oven.
Rule of 4.
You?ll also see the rule of four, usually for Lodge style ovens. In this rule, add four to the diameter for the briquet amount for the top and subtract four for the briquet amount on the bottom. This rule uses the same total number of briquets as 3 up 3 down version but is said to give a 350� temperature. Most recipes work out ok plus or minus 25 degrees so it?s not a big deal. The temperature difference could be attributed to many variables and home ovens fluctuate that much or more too. Both work.
Some Heat Charts that show similar configurations as the rule of 3 and rule of 4 generate.
Tips and Techniques
Weather and Conditions adjustments
Gentle wind can actually increase the temperature in the oven by making the coals burn hotter, sort of like a Blacksmiths forge. However, stronger winds can steal heat.
You should keep some notes about your cooking conditions so you have a reference for what worked and what didn't.
- Working in direct sunlight raises temperatures. Working in overcast or shade can lower temperatures.
- Cooking in the hot summertime adds temperatures.
- High humidity conducts heat out of the oven.
- Cooking at high altitude lowers temperatures.
If you want to make a dish that requires exact heat, you?ll need a standard home oven thermometer. These are inexpensive and work well. If you choose this route, be sure and measure the temperature of different briquet combinations under different conditions and keep notes. These will be invaluable in guiding you in the future for precise heat control.
Even with these rules, you may end up with uneven cooking, hot spots and such. The best control for this is to turn the oven. Turn the bottom 1/4 turn every fifteen minutes. Turn the lid 1/4 turn the opposite direction every fifteen minutes. This evens out the cooking in the oven well.
You can, of course use coals from a wood fire for this purpose too. Try to use roughly the same size and total amount as you would the briquettes. Be warned, these coals tend to burn hotter and faster though so be prepared to adjust the coals as needed. You may also have to rotate more often.
Placing coals. The best placement is generally a ring around the outside edge of the oven. On 12 inch ovens and larger--particularly at higher temperatures--there may be enough coals for another ring more towards the middle. For baking, you don't want a coal in the center 2-3 inches at the bottom of the oven area. Coals in that area burn the food as even when you rotate the oven, that piece of charcoal stays in the same place under the oven and keeps it too hot.
Standard briquettes burn about an 45-60 minutes, sometimes a bit less. If your recipe is going to cook for an hour, you?ll have to watch your coals to make sure they are going to last that long. If not, get some more ready before the time is up.
For sauteing, frying, boiling and such, use all bottom heat. You'll have to add and subtract coals to get the intensity you desire, but it's not difficult to do.
You can stack same size or smaller dutch ovens on top of each other. There are problems with this approach. The top of ovens generally has lots of coals on top, often too much for bottom heat of the second oven. It makes the rotating process for even cooking more difficult. Or if you have to stir or otherwise get involved in an oven lower in the stack, there is a problem. It?s a good trick, but not always useful.
Cooking with charcoal has risks.
Always observe fire restrictions in the area. In dry conditions charcoal fires may be prohibited. Plan a different menu.
Light fires only in approved fire areas in public campgrounds and parks. Using charcoal on unprepared ground can sterilize the soil, killing roots and beneficial life in that soil. Or, it could cause the buried duff to ignite and lead to a forest or grass fire. In campgrounds, the state or Park takes care of cleaning out the fire pit so you can leave the ashes in the designated fire pits.
In areas that allow open camping, you should prepare the ground for safety and Leave No Trace principles of camping. Refer to Leave No Trace Training Georgia for some more information.
Where possible, use an existing fire ring. A DO table or fire pan as described in the Hints and Tricks section are good choices for leave no trace dutch oven cooking.
If you must build a fire or use charcoal, follow these rules.
Clear all combustible items in an area 10 feet in diameter around your fire/cooking zone.
With a shovel, cut out the topsoil and keep it intact. Place it in a shady spot and water it occasionally to keep the soil and contents alive if you'll be camping there a while.
Dig down to mineral soil. This is the safe level for making a fire. You shouldn't need to line it with rocks as that just scars the rocks for decades, but if you do, keep the down side of the rocks towards the fire. Make a map of where you gathered the rocks so you can return them when you're done. When you return the rocks, place the fire scorched side down so there are no visible signs of your fire pit. That's why you want that original down side of the rocks towards the fire. Don't use river rocks as they can explode when heated.
Fire pit design. For charcoal cooking a standard fire pit is fine. If you want to cook with coals from a wood fire, a keyhole fire pit is better. Dig the fire pit in a keyhole shape. Light the fire in the larger rounded area. Rake coals down into the narrow stem area for cooking.
Make the fire no larger than you need.
When finished, douse the fire out cold. You should be able to run your bare hands through the ashes and coals. Most campers aren't this careful, but YOU should be. Water is the surest method. Sand and dirt may just bank the fire protecting hot coals to start a forest fire later.
You should remove your ashes with you in these situations where possible.
One idea is a metal ash can. Some use a small metal garbage can and collect their ashes and coals there.
A better method is a metal ammo can. Again, the ashes and coals are collected in the can. But the ammo can has a water and air tight lid, thereby suffocating any live coals. A lesson learned though is that you need to drill a SMALL hole in the lid of the ammo box. The hole must be small so that the coals will consume the air inside, venting the hot smoke through the hole. If you don't vent it very slightly, when the coals go cold and the air cools down, it contracts, vacuum sealing the ammo can unless there is a small hole. You'll never get the lid back off the ammo can if you don't vent it. When fully cold, and ONLY when fully cold you can discard the ashes in a garbage can. You may have to pack it out to a garbage can.
If you use the ammo can method, you can take partially burned coals and smother them in the can. Then they are ready to be used completely at your next meal.
Don't just leave ashes in your fire pit for others to clean up.
When your camping is done, you return the rocks to their original locations. Return the soil to the pit and replace the duff you saved in the shade.
Converting standard recipes to the Dutch Oven
Most any recipe for the oven or stove top can be made in the dutch oven. In baked dishes, a specific size of bakeware is usually specified. This chart shows bakeware and DO sizes by area. Using a DO of most similar size works most of the time.
5" dutch oven . . . . . . . 19.63 square inches
8" round pan. . . . . . . . 50.26 square inches
8" dutch oven . . . . . . . 50.26 square inches
8 inch square pan . . . . . 64 square inches
9 inch round pan. . . . . . 63.62 square inches
10 inch round pan . . . . . 78.54 square inches
10 inch dutch oven. . . . . 78.54 square inches
12 inch dutch oven. . . . . 113.1 square inches
9 x 13 pan. . . . . . . . . 117 square inches
14 inch dutch oven. . . . . 153.94
16 inch dutch oven. . . . . 201.06 square inches
For example, a lasagna in the standard 9 x 13 inch pan fits comfortably in the 12 inch dutch oven. The noodles will need to be cut or torn to fit a round area, but it works with no real conversion of the recipe.
In the case of a cake or whatever baked in an 8 inch square or 9 inch round pan, the choice is not so clear. If you choose the 8 inch dutch oven, the batter will be thicker and take longer to cook to completion. If you choose a 10 inch dutch oven, the batter will be spread thinner and cook more quickly. However, you could just put the standard pan in a 12 inch dutch oven and cook it as is if you are so inclined.
Similarly, if you wish to double a recipe, look for a dutch oven of double the size. Doubling a 9x13 inch recipe is just a bit more than a 16 inch dutch oven. Spread over the whole area, it will be just a bit thicker and take only a few more minutes to cook, if at all.
Hints and Tricks
If you are baking bread, rolls or cake, remove the oven from the bottom coals after 2/3 of the cooking time. It will finish cooking from the top heat. This will keep the bottom from burning.
Trivets, such as cast iron ones, that are safe for cooking on allow you to elevate pie pans and such from the bottom of the oven, providing more even heating, or preventing stewing in the juices if you'd rather be roasting.
Aluminum foil is a touchy subject. Traditionalists hate it. Others love it. Some others think it's unhealthy. It can make clean up easy, but if it leaks at all, it tends to make cleanup worse as that spill burns to the pot. You can make dividers out of rolled up foil to cook separate items in the DO at the same time. Some just buy the disposable cooking pans for that purpose.
Bread/biscuit pans. In larger ovens, a loaf pan will fit inside. This makes a useful divider of foods too. Cast iron versions are available in loaf pan, biscuit/muffin pans and even a French bread pan.
You want your oven level when you cook in it, especially batters and such that will cook unevenly if thick on one side and thin on the other. Enough water to barely cover the bottom of the pan makes a good level. Or you can include a small level in your cook kit as they are also useful for leveling stoves. You can adjust the ground beneath your pot, or adjust the legs on your cooking table if you have one.
Instead of a cooking table, some people use a metal pan for draining oil--never used of course. They elevate this pan on some bricks, add some sand to disperse heat in the pan. Add coals and the oven and you have a good fire pan that won't scorch the ground or leave unsightly fire pits. There are also tables made from plow disks with leg attachments welded on. They hold only one oven at a time, but work well.
Cooking inverted with the lid as a griddle has been mentioned. However, cooking with the whole oven inverted is another trick. This is useful for pizzas, pies and such that might be hard to get out of the oven otherwise. You'll need a lid stand or two to hold the oven off the coals while upside down.