The Amazing Cast Iron Dutch Oven

A cast iron Dutch oven can become a versatile and hardworking addition to your camp mess kit.

| September/October 1980

With the autumn leaves—in many parts of the United States—showing off their most dramatic colors (and with midsummer's insects and crowds already things of the past) a good many folks will be heading to the great outdoors for camping or hunting trips. Now there are few better ways to work up a hearty appetite than tramping around in the fresh fall air, but all too often the hungry outdoorsman or -woman can expect no more enticing fare than the usual pan-warmed, freeze-dried backpacker's foods.

Imagine, instead, walking into a campsite that's filled with the savory odors of a tasty slow-cooked supper! Well, such a scenario is actually quite possible if you take a cast iron Dutch oven along on your next wilderness excursion. Since the hefty kettles warm slowly and then retain the heat in their thick walls, they can cook food steadily and evenly all day long (while you're out in the woods). Your meal will simmer unattended for hours ... and—when dinnertime rolls around—you'll have only to lift the lid and dish out a steaming trailside feast!

The sturdy iron utensils are practically maintenance-free, easy to work with, and amazingly versatile, too. You can use a Dutch oven—with only a few alterations in cooking procedures—to fry fish, make soups and stews, broil meat, or bake bread. And depending on the kind of dish you're preparing, the pot may be hung over an open fire, set on top a bed of hot coals, or buried in an ember-bottomed pit.

Accept No Substitutes

The Dutch oven's adaptability is due mainly to its simplicity of design. In fact, when choosing such a kettle, your only real concern will be that you select a "wild" (or outdoor) rather than a "tame" (or indoor) model. Although it's easy to confuse the sturdier trail units with the home versions (which are designed for kitchen range cooking only), several details distinguish the two types.

The "real thing"—or outdoor cooker—is a heavy, thick-walled pot with a flat bottom and three stubby legs ... which save the vessel from being scorched by the fire and anchor it steadily among the coals. The camping Dutch oven's almost flat lid has a raised lip around the edge (which helps contain the coals that are sometimes heaped on top of it) and a small, curved handle in the center. The utensil will also be fitted with a bail handle, so you can easily lift the whole assembly.

You'll find that the kettles are available in a wide range of sizes, measuring from 8 to 16 inches in diameter and weighing anywhere from 7 to 30 pounds. The Dutch oven's bulky weight—which makes the utensil an awkward item to carry for any distance in a backpack—seems to be its only disadvantage. The hefty pots can be conveniently used, however, on outings that involve driving to a "base" campsite ... on horse or mule pack trips ... for backyard cooking ... or even in your fireplace (or on your woodstove ) at home.

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