best cast iron dutch oven for camping

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Cast Iron Dutch Oven

Choosing the best cast iron dutch oven for camping

When it comes to purchasing a Dutch oven, you will find that you have many options to choose from. The choices may seem overwhelming. No matter what brands and price points you care to consider, there are some basic features to pay attention to when it comes to choosing your Dutch oven. 

The first is size. A good size for a Dutch oven to take camping is 12-16 inches. Anything smaller than that may not allow you enough space to cook entire meals for multiple people. However, if you are a solo or couples-only camper, you may be able to get away with a smaller model. A 12-inch Dutch oven offers you enough room to prepare medium-sized meals. It fits in nicely at most campsite heat sources and is not so large and heavy that it becomes overly cumbersome to transport.

The next feature you want to look at when choosing a Dutch oven is the type of lid you prefer. Many manufacturers of Dutch ovens assume that they will be used primarily in the home and therefore can be missing some of the necessary features that you may need for cooking at your campsite. When choosing your Dutch oven, pick one that is not only tight fitting, but also has a bit of a concave curve to it, as well as at least a small rim around the edge. This will provide a stable surface for placing hot coals on top of your oven. Also, make sure that the lid has a solid handle that is large enough to be lifted with a lid lifter device.

Finally, choose a Dutch oven with good legs. It should have three evenly spaced legs that raise the oven at least an inch off of the ground. Good legs provide a stable cooking surface that allows plenty of room for hot coals to be placed underneath.

Types of Dutch Ovens that can be used when camping

Cast iron

This is what most people have in mind when they think of the Dutch oven. It keeps heat well and is so durable it lasts for decades. However, it can be very heavy and a burden to carry on outdoor trips. If the pot isn’t lined with enamel, it may need to be seasoned to prevent rusting, and iron from leeching into the food. Nowadays, most cast iron cookware has already been pre-seasoned by the manufacturer.

Aluminum

This doesn’t rust and is lighter in weight than cast iron. It’s easy to clean and doesn’t need seasoning. Aluminum heats up faster than cast iron, but it’s not as durable.

Camp or Outdoor

Just like the ones that the pioneers and explorers used, this pot has a flat lid and three legs, according to Paul Revere’s specifications. Coals can be placed on the lid for baking. Additionally, the lid can also be used like a frying pan or grill.

Enameled

This version is non-reactive with acidic ingredients and doesn’t require seasoning. However, it isn’t non-stick, it chips, and it doesn’t hold flavors.

Cast Iron Dutch Oven How-To

Cooking with cast iron requires a few extra steps for maintenance, but there’s no doubt that the results are worth it! Here are a few pieces of advice concerning care, upkeep, and use of your cast iron Dutch oven.

Seasoning your cast iron cookware

The first thing you need to know about cast iron care is seasoning. Seasoning is the process of applying oil to your cast iron, initially to remove contaminants, and then to prevent rust, corrosion, and baked-on food particles from degrading your cookware. The only time you ever need to use dish detergent on your cast iron is the first time you season it. To do that, scrub the inside and the outside of the oven with a hot, soapy mixture. Dry it thoroughly with a cloth, and then place it on a very hot heat source to finish drying the surface. Once it is completely dry, rub oil or fat (not butter) into the surface, both inside and out. Once the oven has been coated, take another cloth and continue to rub and polish the oven until it appears that there is no oily residue left. Place the oven back on the heat source for about an hour, flipping it over halfway through. Remove from the heat and let cool before handling. Depending on the oven, you may want to repeat this process several times before using it for the first time; repeated seasonings help to condition the cast iron and provide an attractive surface sheen. Season the oven again periodically throughout its life as you see fit.

Cleaning

Cleaning cast iron is a little different from cleaning other cookware. After using your Dutch oven, remove as much food from it as you can. While it’s still warm, add about an inch or more of water and let it sit with the lid on. After 15–20 minutes, remove the lid and scrape off any remaining food bits. Discard the dirty water and repeat the process with clean water until the oven is free of food residue. Dry the inside thoroughly with a cloth and place the oven back on the warm coals to help drive off the remaining moisture. Once the oven is dry and cool, apply a very light layer of vegetable oil to the surface inside and out.

Cooking with a Cast Iron Dutch Oven at the Campsite

When using a cast iron Dutch oven at your campsite, you will usually be applying heat to both the top and the bottom by means of charcoal briquettes.  In order to achieve this, you will use briquettes in numbers that are proportional to the size of your oven. A general rule is to use at least twice as many briquettes as the diameter of your oven. For example, if you have a 12-inch oven, you will use 24 pieces of charcoal. A 16-inch oven would require approximately 32. This, however, is a very generalized rule that should only serve as a guideline and will also depends on the temperature you want to cook your food as you will see in the table below. Always use a thermometer when you are learning to gauge the temperature of your oven, especially if you are using wood rather than coals.

Here is a table that gives you a general idea of the number of hot coals you will need according to the size of your cast iron Dutch oven and the desired cooking temperature.

Dutch Oven Temperature Chart

Number of Charcoal Briquettes Required

Temp.→

Oven Size ↓

325⁰F

163⁰C

350⁰F

177⁰C

375⁰F

191⁰C

400⁰F

204⁰C

425⁰F

218⁰C

450⁰F

232⁰C

8 inches

Top: 10 Bottom: 5

Total: 15

Top: 11 Bottom: 5

Total: 16

Top: 11 Bottom: 6

Total: 17

Top: 12 Bottom: 6

Total: 18

Top: 13 Bottom: 6

Total: 19

Top: 14 Bottom: 6

Total: 20

10 inches

Top: 13 Bottom: 6

Total: 19

Top: 14 Bottom: 7

Total: 21

Top: 16 Bottom: 7

Total: 23

Top: 17 Bottom: 8

Total: 25

Top: 18 Bottom: 9

Total: 27

Top: 19 Bottom: 10

Total: 29

12 inches

Top: 16 Bottom: 7

Total: 23

Top: 17 Bottom: 8

Total: 25

Top: 18 Bottom: 9

Total: 27

Top: 19 Bottom: 10

Total: 29

Top: 21 Bottom: 10

Total: 31

Top: 22 Bottom: 11

Total: 33

14 inches

Top: 20 Bottom: 10

Total: 30

Top: 21 Bottom: 11

Total: 32

Top: 22 Bottom: 12

Total: 34

Top: 24 Bottom: 12

Total: 36

Top: 25 Bottom: 13

Total: 38

Top: 26 Bottom: 14

Total: 40

16 inches

Top: 25 Bottom: 12

Total: 37

Top: 26 Bottom: 13

Total: 39

Top: 27 Bottom: 14

Total: 41

Top: 28 Bottom: 15

Total: 43

Top: 29 Bottom: 16

Total: 45

Top: 30 Bottom: 17

Total: 47

By no mean is this chart an exact science! But it gives a good indication of the cooking temperature according to the size of cast iron Dutch oven you are using and the number of coals you will approximately need. Remember to replenish as the coals cool down, especially if you are preparing a dish that requires several hours of cooking.

With wind, more oxygen is added to the cooking environment, which causes coal to emit more heat at once, shortening its burning time. Wind can also blow away the heat, so it’d be wise to block the wind around the Dutch oven when it’s windy. This can be done with aluminum foil, rocks, logs, there are even stove windscreens and camping tables tailored for this purpose, among others.

The ground is another factor to keep in mind. Moist cold ground takes heat away and can even extinguish the charcoal. Setting up a dry surface below the charcoal to keep it unaffected by the ground is the way to go.

The colder the air is, it’s more difficult to heat the Dutch oven. It’s the same with higher elevation (due to air density) and humidity. More sunlight means more to be absorbed and turned into heat, especially when the cast iron Dutch oven is black due to the color’s properties. When it’s really warm, the sunlight can even be too much, so covering it with a camping canopy is a good idea, and it can also serve from guarding the charcoal against the rain. When it’s too humid to light the charcoal briquettes, you may need to use a chimney starter.

While the above table is for the cast iron Dutch oven, both it and the aluminum version have their advantages and disadvantages. Aluminum Dutch ovens are a third of the weight of the cast iron ones. They also do not rust, are easy to clean and heat up more quickly, requiring about ¾ as much coal than their cast iron counterparts. Cast iron Dutch ovens, on the other side, retain heat longer and distribute it more evenly, which is often desired for preparing food.

Placement of the coals on the bottom and/or lid

Where you place the coals, and in what numbers, also depends on the method of cooking. Different quantities and configurations can help distribute the heat properly or concentrate it to a critical area. For sautéing, boiling, frying, or open lid cooking, you will place all of the coals underneath the oven. For methods of cooking that require both a top and bottom heat source, distribute the coals between the bottom and the top of the lid. Depending on the proportion of heat that you need from each heat source, you can divide them up with half on top and half on the bottom, or ¾ on the bottom and ¼ on top. Give yourself a little time to practice adjusting the heat on your Dutch oven before creating more involved meals. Here is a general guideline depending on the cooking method you are using.

  1. For roasting, coal in the Dutch oven should be split evenly between top and bottom.
  2. For baking, ¾ should be on top and ¼ on the bottom.
  3. For simmering and stewing, 4/5 should be on top, and 1/5 on the bottom.
  4. For frying and boiling, all coals should be on the bottom part.

To check the temperature of the food, use an instant-read meat thermometer easily available online and in kitchen supply stores. If you happen to forget a thermometer or just don’t want to use one, you can also rely on your sense of smell. Generally speaking, if the food doesn’t emit anything that you can smell, it is not done, and if it smells burnt, it is burning or starting to, time to take it off the heat and hope it’s not all burned. If it smells really good and profusely, it’s probably done or nearly so.

Cooking with your Dutch oven outside is a little different from using it indoors, and it requires a few pieces of additional equipment. First of all, you definitely want a good, reliable lid lifting device. Cast iron can get very hot, especially if you have hot coals placed on the lid. To protect yourself from burns, use a heat protective glove or mitt along with a lid lifting device to remove the lid. A lid stand is also a good idea. This will provide a heat-proof resting place for your lid so you won’t have to set it down on the dirty ground. You may also find a long pair of tongs helpful for moving hot coal briquettes. If you spend a great deal of time cooking in the great outdoors, at some point you may wish to invest in either a tripod or a Dutch oven cooking table. These devices are a little more cumbersome than the Dutch oven alone, but they provide a more stable, safer cooking environment.