Some many years ago I bought a 12 inch Lodge Dutch Oven. I had ideas of taking the whole family out camping. Cooking family dinners in the woods and trees. Me, wife and kids, our “camping friend” who knows all the good places, and likely a friend or two of the kids. The idea was I’d run the camp and make a big dinner for 6 or 8 folks while they all ran around the hills.
The reality was that we went camping all of twice. Only one of the times with the spouse. I didn’t get to use the Dutch Oven, and it mostly sat in the garage for a couple of decades.
Now I’m wanting a “Patio Oven”. Why? Because I’ve gotten good at baking bread, and don’t like paying $3.00 for a worse product; but at the same time my All Electric Kitchen (AEK) has started to have ‘expense issues’. When we bought the place, electricity was about a nickle or 8 cents / kW-hr. Even when it got up to a dime / kW-hr it was relatively cheap. Now we’ve gone to a highly flexible ‘tier’ system where no two neighborhoods pay the same prices and your “baseline” is set based on neighbors in similar sized homes. That way folks in monster houses in rich areas are only compared to each other and get a bigger ‘baseline’… I, however, live in a very small house, so get compared to ‘similar sized homes’ that are mostly condos and apartments… and likely don’t do their own washer / dryer / baking / nor have 4 exterior walls to heat. So I’m regularly leaving our “baseline” and even our “first tier” rates. It is about 23 cents / kW-hr for most, then a few kW-hrs bump over into the 29 cents / kW-hr rate (IIRC my bills and the tariff system, that seems to mutate rapidly…) Already in the approval cycle is moving that top tier to 50 cents / kW-hr. That’s just insanity as I can make my own “services” for less cost than that. First, largest, and most easily replaced is the AEK. So I want an oven that uses fuel…
The kitchen built in is in a place no flue could ever reach, under wooden cupboards that we need to keep. So any ‘gas oven’ or similar has to be outside on the patio. I could buy a patio propane grill / oven thing, but aside from using a lot of fuel to heat a tin roof / lid, what’s the fun in throwing money at a problem? I want something a bit more frugal, and preferably one that can use wood or “found fuel” in a SHTF moment.
On the way to designing one, I’ve run a few experiments. Wanting to learn “oven design” prior to committing to a fuel and method. Somewhere along the line I remembered the Old Dutch Oven… you can make bread in those things…
The result is that I dug it out of the garage. It had a couple of rust spots and a lot of dust. So it got a bath and a scrub. Cast Iron is marvelous stuff. Heavy as hell, but you practically can’t kill it. To ‘re-season it’, you sand off any particularly horrid parts or, for little stuff like I had, scrub it down. Dry it. Rub with polyunsaturated cooking oil. Put it in a 375 F to 400 F oven for a few hours, and open all the windows and doors. Unsaturated oils are bad for high temperature cooking. They break down and form crosslinked polymers and smoke. Yet that makes them great for putting a polymer “seasoning” coating on pots. It also means you are at or above the “smoke point” and will get plenty of smoke out of the oven when you open the door. That’s OK, just make sure the smoke detector is not nearby and all the windows and doors are open ;-) (You can season at 325 F but it takes longer, and what’s the fun in that?…)
OK, next day, I take my Pile Of Bricks BBQ down to the base layer of bricks. Start a “Weber charcoal starter” about 3/4 full of briquettes and get ready to ‘take the plunge’ into Dutch Oven Baking. I’d always been inclined to use it for ‘wet cooking’ like stews or treat it like a large deep frying pan. When it comes to baking, I’m much more picky about temperature control and just figured it would be too hard or a mess or just, well, not good. I was wrong. Temperature control is fairly easy and pretty good. More on that later.
For now, here’s a picture of the Dutch Oven on the brick base with the coals applied. I have a layer around the edge of the bottom (with a couple of ‘strays’ under the bottom middle – note this Dutch Oven has legs…) A continuous layer around the rim gives a ‘moderate oven’ of about 325 F to 350 F. A temperature range useable for just about everything. I use it for bread, chicken, ham, just about everything but pizza and dinner rolls. (Under 20 minutes you need a higher temperature to get good browning. For long slow wet BBQ, you need a lower temperature like 275 F to keep things tender and slow and not browned / dried out.) Double or half the coals pretty much gives you the two ends. In between those is fine tuning.
My patio spot with a raised flagstone shelf is conveniently located where the predominant wind hits the side of the house and comes roaring right at it. Past the patio itself that is sheltered by the garage… and into the bricks. It was a bit breezy and all the things I’ve read said to turn the pot 90 degrees ever 15 minutes. As this was about 30 pounds of “stuff” I decided to ‘pass on it’. I also figured the only reason for turning was to even heat from wind issues. So instead I put up a brick 1/2 wall on the windward side. This is still a bit leaky as it’s just a pile of bricks and there are small gaps. That lets the coals get plenty of air, but stay out of the wind. I started with a 1/4 surround, but built it up to 1/2 way as things progressed. Here’s a picture at about the 40 minute point. I’ve added two new briquettes (the black ones) to test ‘relight’ time for added fuel – should it be needed.
At one point I made a stack of bricks on the backside (photo right side) and perched that old BBQ “tin lid” over the whole thing. It kept on working just fine. I did this to test a ‘rain hat’. It had been sprinkling earlier in the day, and was heavy clouds and a bit of wind as I was cooking, so figuring that rain on red hot coals and hot iron was likely a “bad thing” wanted a “fix” before any rain. No rain came, but I was prepared.
I added about another 1/2 dozen briquettes and they eventually lit. Just about in time for the bulk of the existing briquettes to be 1/2 gone and temperature to be down toward an estimated 300 F inside. In the end, I had about 3 pints of charcoals left not burned at the 1:15 point when I called it done. Most of it those added briquettes that had finally got going well. IMHO it is likely that with a wind screen / surround the added fuel was not needed. Just a “jump up browning start” and a long slow slide down to “slow cooker finish”. I’ll test that theory on the next bird. In this case, I had fuel left, and the bird was quite cooked.
Here’s a picture of the bird in the pot. You can see it is ‘falling off the bone’ of the breastbone. It was all tender and moist. All I’d done for seasoning was to sprinkle on some salt and pepper. (Being a first test I didn’t want spices coloring my assessment). There is something special about the bird as cooked in the Dutch Oven. I think it is the fat spattering onto the hot iron making a bit of smoke flavor. Also the part resting on the bottom caramelizes a bit (rather like the bits in a good fried chicken that sit on the bottom of the pan, but not as crusty … perhaps with more briquettes underneath it would be crusty, but this was quite good and not dried out. Just “richer” flavored.) The early stage of cooking had “spatter and sizzle” on the bottom. I looked ;-) but you need one of those special ‘lid lifter’ tools as the red hot coals make a cloth pot holder, er, risky… you can sort of see one in the bottom right laying on the white tile. About 1/2 way through, cooking shifts over to ‘wet juices accumulating’. Again, likely something you can control if desired; but I like the pan drippings for stewing / soup making… and in this case they made an excellent “au jus dip” for the white meat. ( I find white meat a bit drab and dull. This gave it more life.)
I’d thought of putting a couple of potatoes in skins in the pot to have baked potatoes too, but they would likely have been a bit more stewed. P.G. Sharrow’s idea of putting in smaller potatoes with carrots and celery for ‘roast stewed vegetables’ ought to be great. (Guess what I’m trying with Chicken #2? ;-) Had I kept full coals on the top to the end, I could have had a more browned top, but I think this was fine. It was ‘browned enough’ and nothing had dried out. ( I hate dried out white meat…) Even without any barding or larding. For Turkey I’ll slip butter under the skin. Sometimes for chickens too. It keeps the white meat moist and tasty. Chopped herbs in the butter add flavor. (Sage and parsley and thyme… rosemary is a bit stiff for fresh use that way.)
But this chicken was “au natural”. And the flavor was very very good. Better than my usual AEK in a pot chicken. Better even than the “Lemon Pepper” version where I drizzle the juice of a lemon in / over the bird and add cracked pepper. I suspect that with just a touch of soy sauce marinade, it would be spectacular. Or maybe just a standard herb and croutons stuffing… (In this case I left liver, gizzard and heart ‘loose’ inside and they were nicely done too. The liver a bit overdone, but liver is like that. It really want’s to be fished out as soon as it sets up.) So the chicken was nicely roasted and the flavor was great. The pan drippings made great sauce, so would also make great soup stock. Unfortunately, I don’t know that I have enough left … we kind of liked the au juice bit.
This site has a great treatise on how to know the temperature in your Dutch Oven:
In large part, these two bits gave me the courage to try roasting without a thermometer to guide me:
On the kitchen oven is a really cool dial. I turn it to 350 and trust that the oven will heat up to and remain at 350 degrees. I put in the food, set the timer, and go do something productive. When camp cooking in the outdoors, there’s a bit more hit-or-miss.
On my dutch oven, there’s no dial, nothing to tell me how hot the oven is. Since cooking food at a fairly consistent and known temperature is important for success, there are 3 ways I know of for estimating temperature. Depending on your skill level and how you’ll be cooking, one of them should work for you.
Also keep in mind that there are many environmental factors that will influence your oven temperature. Wind might blow heat away; colder air temperature, higher humidity and higher elevation reduce heat generated by coals; direct sunlight makes a black oven a bit hotter. You might consider making an aluminum foil wind shield to place around your oven, but if it is that windy, I would recommend you not have an open fire.
Nearly all dutch oven cooking will come out ok if your dutch oven is about 350 degrees. Some things should be cooked hotter and some cooler, but that’s the temperature for all recipes that fail to include a temperature suggestion.
Use your hand to feel the heat. Of course, every person has a different sensitivity to heat but this works well for me. Just remove the lid from the dutch oven and place your hand just above or just inside the oven. Count how many seconds you can keep your hand there before it gets too hot. It is about 50 degrees per second counting down from 550, so I just count – “550, and 500, and 450, and 400, and 350, and 300, …”.
This is my preferred method. It is consistent and detects temperature instead of estimating the amount of fuel. You do release heat so you need to do the check as quickly as you can.
Lots of dutch oven cookbooks tell you how many charcoal briquettes to put under and on top of the oven. This is the easiest way to cook since every coal is similar and consistent. If you are like me and use real wood for your outdoor camp cooking coals, it doesn’t help much. Also, different brands of charcoal give off different amounts of heat. But, let’s say you are going to use charcoal…
The normal formula is to use twice the number of briquettes as the diameter of the oven. For a 12 inch oven, you would use 24 briquettes. Depending on the type of cooking you are doing, you need to make the heat come more from the top or bottom of the oven. For example, too much heat on the bottom will burn bread.
To do this, you place more or less of the briquettes on the lid.
Here is a simple chart:Baking More heat from top so bottom does not burn. Place 3/4 coals on top and 1/4 underneath. Roasting Heat comes equally from top and bottom. Place 1/2 coals on top and 1/2 underneath. Stewing, Simmering Most heat from bottom. Place 1/4 coals on top and 3/4 underneath. Frying, Boiling All heat from bottom. Place all coals underneath.
Rings of Coals
As it turns out, the sizes of briquettes work out so that the recommended briquettes count above can be estimated easily. As an experiment, you can take a 12 inch dutch oven and 24 briquettes. On the lid, make a ring of briquettes all the way around the outer edge. How many did you use? I bet it was 15 or 16!
Now, see how many it takes to make a ring just under the oven. There should be 3 or 4 briquettes between each leg for a total of 9 to 12.
That is pretty close to the recommendation for a 350 degree roasting set up, isn’t it? It works pretty well for any size dutch oven and any size briquettes – smaller briquettes means you need more of them, but its about the same amount of burning mass to make a ring!
A ring around the top and the bottom is about 325 to 350 degrees.
Remove every other briquette underneath to make 300 degrees.
Add a second ring to the top to make 375 degrees.
There’s more at the link, and I expect to spend some time wandering around to see what else I can learn there. They even have a ‘briquette calculator’ on that page.
At Walmart they had a load of Dutch Ovens on line. These things are heavy, especially the larger ones. This is “Guy Cooking” unless you really are a woman who likes lifting weights. (Or just get him to move it and you do the fun parts ;-)
This 12 inch is just about ideal for a whole chicken and some stew vegetables. A larger “12 Quart” or 14 inch looks like it will do the smaller 1/3 hams they are selling now. (The middle third is cut out for ham steaks. Yes, they take out the best 1/3 of the ham and now the 1/2 a ham is not only smaller, but missing the best parts… Oh Well, it’s cheap, and it doesn’t take 3 weeks to finish eating it… to quote someone or other:
“Eternity: 2 people and a whole ham.”
They even sell little tiny ones. For things like butter melting. They had some cauldron shaped ones on Amazon that would be nice for soups and stews, but most of them were about 3 to 5 inch and looked like they were intended for “toy” uses. Some are embossed with the moon or pentagrams, so have “symbolic” uses. But cast iron doesn’t care why you made it. It would be fun to have a little cast iron cauldron with a pint of soup in it surrounded by 3 or 4 charcoals on the patio…
The one I have is listed as 21 pounds. Add a 4 pound chicken and some vegetables, some coals on top and an iron ‘lifter’, it can be pushing 30 pounds all up. And it is 350 F hot with red glowing coals on the lid. Full of scalding hot food. So realize that this is “heavy lifting cooking” and is best done over ceramic / masonry and with protective gloves and clothing. (Naturally I used none of that… but you ought to! ;-) Though I only carried the hot pot into the kitchen after I dumped the coals off the lid… In retrospect, I likely ought to have used a fireplace brush to brush them off… or a steel wire brush…
Clean up was easy, as it is for most cast iron, modulo the weight. Let it all cool down. Scrape off any ‘pan drippings’ bits with a spatula ( I use a plastic one so not to hurt the finish, but metals ones work fine in frying pans so ought to be fine here too). Put all the pan drippings in a jar in the fridge for making gravy or soup (if you didn’t already use them). Rinse off any ashes and then I gently wipe with a wet sponge in warm water with a bit of dish soap in the sponge. Just what is left over from normal use. Yes, I know, all the True Believers are aghast. You are never supposed to wash with soap. Well I don’t like grease in my sponge, so I use a bit of soap. It doesn’t seem to damage the seasoning and it all rinses off nicely. Then towel dry ( I use paper towels so any missed spots don’t put ‘color’ into the towels). Rub with a bit of regular cooking oil on any spots that look like the “seasoning” layer is a bit ‘thin’ or scraped, and set it aside. I do have to say, though, that after the one use on the charcoal, that pot has a very nice and very thick seasoning layer. Far better than the oven gives it.
All in all, I’m quite happy with my first effort at roasting with charcoal in a pot. Next time will be a loaf of bread in a bread pan since my family likes square bread that fits the toaster. As I’d started this quest looking for a bread oven, that seems like an important bit of completion. I’ll then wander into the various “camp bread” recipes for Dutch Ovens, since I can always eat them while the family makes toast. Things like “No knead beer bread” and “camp sourdough”.
Also I need to ‘cost out the fuel’. It runs about 33 cents a pound and has about 1/2 the energy density per pound as gasoline. Gasoline is presently running about 66 cents / pound. So about parity. It all comes down to efficiency at that point. Charcoal has a large ‘up front loss’ of heat in getting the coals started, and some can be lost at the end with ‘left overs’ that continue to burn (though I have a ‘snuff box’ to put them out via air starvation…) The Dutch Oven is also not very insulated (as the fire is on the outside). This leads me to think that adding a surround of some kind can get the costs down to ‘near gasoline’ (which is presently a very cheap way to cook here, cheaper than electricity.) If you have your own wood supply, the cost is essentially nil. Gathering 4 pounds of wood is not hard. But frankly, the way the food tastes has me not caring much about fuel costs. At some point I’ll try a dutch oven on a burner or under a gasoline broiler, but frankly, that’s a “someday questions”. Not really worth the time or money and ‘for a slow day’ when bored. I think that a brick surround and some flue / damper control, and that low cost of charcoal will make it the ‘Method of choice’ for my small batch baking.
The “future oven” plan will likely be mostly finding a way to put a dutch oven inside a ceramic insulated box that has heat from a gasoline source fire or a wood source fire flowing past. Perhaps as simple as a ‘pot skirt’ over a Rocket Stove. Not seeing a whole lot of reason to build a large rack filled thing if I can just chuck the food in a closed iron box and call it dinner. But we’ll see. That final design is, at this point, several chickens and a case of beer or two distant. I’ve got a solution that looks to work, and not seeing much motivation to fix what ain’t broken. At least for a while. Eventually I’ll get tired of moving 21 pounds to bake 1 pound; then I’ll be motivated. ;-)
Update 7 Mar 2013
For comparison, here is a picture of a raw ‘typical chicken’ in my usual (favorite) chicken pot:
For years I roasted chickens in a typical black enamel oval shaped “roasting pot”. One day, at a rural Walmart with a more Hispanic local population, I saw this pot. Yes, “Mexican colors” with some life in them. I had to have it. Just to encourage something more interesting than black, if nothing else. Sadly, that didn’t work. Last week at the same Walmart I could find nothing but ‘basic black’ with speckles. (Guess it’s off to the web site for more ‘interesting’ colors…). It was cheap. It was fun. I cooked a chicken in it. So for years I’d had “issues” with the chicken sticking to the sides of the oval pot. With things being a bit “not right”, but I didn’t care enough to think about it. Chickens were cooked in oval pots. Always had been… After I put the chicken in the round pot, it just ‘fit right’. A commercial chicken is not long and skinny like a wild pheasant of 1700… it is plump and round. Ever since, this has been my favorite chicken pot.
So why does this matter to a posting about Dutch Ovens?
Notice that the picture of the the chicken in the Dutch Oven has an inch or two on all sides of the bird. That’s a 12 inch oven. The enamel pan is a more ‘snug’ fit. Just about exact. I just measured it. 9 1/2 inches, roughly. (Probably some round metric number… most likely 25 cm ). That means you could cut a lot of weight out of the typical “chicken in a Dutch Oven” by using a 10 inch in stead of a 12 inch. It would also reduce briquettes used by about 4 per chicken. About 16%. For folks looking for minimal cost, it would be worth doing that. It is also going to make things a bit more browned and where it touches the sides of the pot, a bit more “caramelized” (both of which I like ;-)
No, not a big deal. But as I’m going to be cooking chickens in my Dutch Oven a lot more “going forward”, worth recognizing. I have a 6 quart Dutch Oven on order, and the listing says it is 10 inches diameter (though outside, so what ‘inside’ will be, well, that will need checking). This implies that the smaller oven will likely be the ‘best for chicken’. In about two weeks I’ll give it a try and let you all know. So the 12 inch will likley be used for ‘chicken with stew / roast vegetables’ while the 10 inch for ‘just chicken’. The results will likly be different on ‘finish’ too. As the juices accumulate, they will evaporate less in the smaller pan, so make a deeper puddle. Less browned crisp skin, more soft stewed like bird with browned top. Depending on what you want in the effect, it may be ‘worth it’ to put the bird in a larger oven that does more drying / roasting and less wet BBQ / slow cook.