Picking up where we left off a couple days ago on our Dutch oven discussion, we’ll now cover the actual act of baking. Again, this is an excerpt from Bill Bernt’s article in Northwest Living, entitled, “Those Amazing Dutch Ovens.”
Baking with a Dutch oven is just a matter of learning temperature control. The best place to learn is in the back yard, not on a trip where you’re depending on the results. The basic principle is to cook from the top down. The lid is heated, then coals are placed on the lid to retain the heat. Only a little heat is needed under the oven.
Charcoal is all right to bake with, but some open flame is needed to sufficiently pre-heat the lid of an iron Dutch. A shovel is essential for preparing a bed of coals to set the oven on, and for putting coals on the lid. A pair of long-handled pliers are best for handling the hot lid.
Baking biscuits is the easiest way to learn temperature control. You can get fancy later. Get a box of Bisquick and mix with water for a dough according to directions on the package. Wipe the bottom of the oven with cooking oil and spoon in egg-sized wads of dough until the bottom is covered, leaving a little space between each lump. You may warm the oven before you put in the dough, but it isn’t necessary. Spread a thin bed of coals beside the fire, put the heated lid on the oven, and shovel a layer of coals on the lid. Don’t heap coals in the middle of the lid, or you’ll have a hot spot in the center of the oven. I often leave an open spot in the center of the lid. If the heat is right, you’ll have biscuits browned top and bottom in ten minutes.
The two common mistakes are too much heat on the bottom, scorching the bottoms of the biscuits, and insufficient pre-heating of the lid. If the lid isn’t pre-heated enough, you cannot pile enough coals on it to bake properly. You might spend an hour and still have white-topped, doughy biscuits. You probably won’t be too proud of your first attempt. Take the lid off, throw it on the fire to re-heat, scrape the mess out of the oven into the garbage can, wipe out the oven with an oily paper towel, refill with dough, put on the lid and try again until you get acceptable biscuits.
You will not often pre-heat an iron lid too hot for biscuits. If you have a very hot fire, you could
melt an aluminum lid pre-heating it. I did on my first attempt, and have seen it happen since. If you’re baking a cake or cornbread, something that needs to bake longer, you can overheat the lid. It must be hot, but not too hot. Be more careful to avoid a hot spot in the center of the lid, and cut down the coals under the oven a little. A standard cake mix is just right for a 12-inch Dutch oven, and takes about a half-hour.
The oven will be cooler toward the end of the baking period, so time is not so critical. When baking a batter, be very careful to have the oven level–otherwise you’ll have a wedge-shaped cake.
A batter that is too deep can be tedious to bake all the way through. An inch or inch and a half of batter, rising to two and half or three inches, is plenty.
With a little practice you’ll develop a feel for temperature and time. Resist the temptation to check progress every two minutes–raising the lid slows the baking. Use your nose. You’ll learn to smell something scorching while you’re busy away from the fire preparing another dish. Remember that wind blowing over your coals will increase the heat, usually unevenly. When you remove the lid, be careful where you put it. If you put it on the ground, then back on the oven, you’ll season your biscuits with sand. I have buckets of dish water heating on my campfire, and usually put the lid on top of a bucket.
Once you learn basic temperature control, and learn to judge the heat of your coals, you can use any recipes. No camp kitchen is complete without at least one Dutch oven, except on a backpack–but everyone knows backpackers are masochists, anyway.