One of the inherent joys of camping lies in the fact that even the smallest treat – a dash of Baileys in evening coffee, cotton pyjamas buried at the bottom of a backpack – carries with it anticipation, and then appreciation, on a scale beyond anything known at home.
Many outdoor indulgences are widely recognized: s'mores beside a fire, down booties in a cabin in winter. Others are more personal: pictures of loved ones tucked beside the sleeping bag, a music player loaded with songs from that special person.
Overlooked by most modern campers, yet capable of producing shockingly delectable treats, is the humble, fire-blackened, cast-iron pot known as a Dutch oven – or more colloquially, a D.O.
Once wildly popular across both the Old and New Worlds, Dutch ovens have slipped into obscurity (though it should be noted that Utah recently declared Dutch ovens the official cooking pot of the state, whatever that means).
The mostly likely place to find a Dutch oven today is at a riverside camp, anywhere from the Grand Canyon to the Arctic. Which is precisely where my love affair started. After university, I stumbled into the world of multiday river expeditions where spacious cargo holds allow comforts inconceivable to a backpacker. Stacks of camp chairs came along on every trip, as did crates of beer, cooking shelters the size of circus tents and coolers overflowing with fresh food. At the heart of every staggering meal produced by the senior guides were the D.O.s.
Simple and utilitarian, these sturdy pots have tight-fitting lids, typically made from cast iron, and can stew, boil and fry food. What sets them apart, though, is their ability to bake and roast. Yes, just a shovelful of coals and you can be baking in the middle of nowhere.
Use of these thick-walled cooking pots arose in the 17th century, when the Dutch system of casting was far superior to the English. (Holland's sand moulds produced markedly smoother surfaces, hence the name.) By the time settlers and pioneers began pressing across North America, the utility of Dutch ovens placed them among a family's most valued possessions, handed down from generation to generation.
Pause to imagine the implications for camping. No more chewy dehydrated rice meals. Instead, picture cinnamon buns for breakfast, enchiladas for lunch and lasagna with fresh bread for dinner. Or perhaps roast beef drowned in garden vegetables and sauce. Don't forget the cakes, brownies and shortbread for dessert. If you aren't already, make this the summer you become a Dutch oven believer. Here are a few hints for aspiring fireside bakers and chefs:
What to buy
The best D.O.s come with short legs (allowing coals to breathe underneath), a lip surrounding the lid (to contain more coals heaped on top) and a sturdy handle. Cast iron distributes heat more evenly, while aluminum units are lighter. A new pot requires seasoning (a good scrub with soap, water and wire pad, followed by coating all surfaces in shortening before baking for at least an hour at 350 F).
The secret to Dutch oven cooking is placing the majority of the heat on the lid, allowing food to bake from the top down. Only a sprinkling of coals should go underneath. Campfire embers are fine. Alder and other hardwoods produce the most consistent heat. Barbecue briquettes also work like a charm. Wind and outside temperature affect how much heat is needed, but the good news is no matter how much heat you add, it will probably work fine. A good starting place: 10 briquettes below, 18 on the lid. If you're cooking with several Dutch ovens, stack them one atop the other, with layers of coals in between.
Resist the temptation to peer in and check progress regularly. Opening the lid releases heat and invariably deposits ashes atop your meal. The best rule of thumb: Your food is ready the moment you can smell it.
Cleaning a well-seasoned Dutch oven is easy: Use water but no soap, dry immediately and, finally, apply a thin layer of oil.
Still not convinced?
It is rumoured that Lewis and Clark, on their two-year journey across America, dumped the bulk of the manufactured gear in favour of local implements. The only items from their initial kit that made the return journey to St. Louis? Guns and Dutch ovens. Such loyalty is understandable, for if there is any item capable of bringing a smile to a tired camper's face, it's the humble D.O.
Special to The Globe and Mail