I was trying out a new recipe for our river trips earlier this morning, which made me think about a little article my dad, Bill Bernt, owner of Aggipah River Trips, wrote in the 80s about Dutch ovens. He had several articles published in a magazine called Northwest Living. He wrote all sorts of interesting pieces about things you wouldn’t think are all that important, like pliers, but to a Salmon River boatman, are indispensable. The following is an excerpt from Bill’s article entitled, “Those Amazing Dutch Ovens.” This is part one, how to prep and season your new Dutch oven. Actually baking and cooking with them will be in part two, along with a recipe or two.
Camp meals can be something to be put up with, like mosquitoes, or they can be a high point of the trip. A skillfully used Dutch oven is often an important part of the difference.
With a Dutch oven you can bake biscuits, cakes, cobblers and cornbread. You can roast meats, deep-fry fish or scones, or simmer a mess of ribs in a sauce before you brown them over coals. If you’re cooking for a large camp, you can deep-fry several pounds of bacon at once, rather than turning each strip on a griddle. Stews, sauces and gravies are easier to do in a Dutch oven than in thin-walled pans.
Potatoes can be baked with more assurance in a Dutch oven than foiled wrapped in the coals. You can use a Dutch as a warming oven to hold foods until serving time.
Dutch ovens have traditionally been made of cast iron, but oven of cast aluminum are also available. Aluminum ovens are much lighter, but require a little more care in use. They heat-and cool-more rapidly than iron, don’t distribute heat as well, and are a little more inclined to stick. Aluminum will not take a seasoning, or rust. Aluminum can warp or melt over a very hot fire. I prefer to use iron, but when weight is a factor, as in canoeing or horse-packing, aluminum has the advantage. My 10-inch aluminum oven weighs 4 1/2 pounds. My 12-inch aluminum oven is 7 1/4 pounds, while a 12-inch iron oven is 17 1/2 pounds. A 14-inch iron oven is 24 pounds.
Twelve-inch diameter ovens are large enough for most people. If I’m cooking for more than 10-12 people, I use 14-inch ovens. Be sure to get a ‘camp’ oven, with a flange around the edge of the lid to hold coals on the lid. A dome-topped household is not suitable for open-fire baking.
New Dutch ovens need some preparation. The inside of cast ovens are rough from the mold. If you smooth the bottom with a sanding disc on an electric drill, the oven will be easier to clean and food will be less likely to stick. Iron ovens come with a protective waxy coating to prevent rust in shipment. This must be removed, by scrubbing or just burn it out in a fire. Iron ovens usually have three legs. I cut the off with a hacksaw, then file the nubs smooth. Legs make the oven hard to pack, and I haven’t found any useful function for them in camp cooking.
New iron ovens need to be seasoned, preferably before a trip. I usually heat them on the kitchen stove for several hours, covering the bottom with cooking oil, wiping the sides occasionally. The oil should be warm, but not smoking hot. If it gets too hot, it will form a scum that is difficult to remove. After a few uses, an iron oven will turn black on the inside. Until an oven is well-seasoned, I avoid using it for sugary, sticky foods, such as sausage or barbecue sauce. Popcorn is a good way to season an oven. The oil soaks in to the iron, and after use it can be cleaned by just wiping it with a paper towel.
A well-seasoned iron is easy to clean. If the oven has been used for sweet, sticking-type foods, such as bacon or barbecue sauce, it should be scraped and rinsed while warm with hot water to remove any residue. Sometimes a second rinse is necessary. Soap or detergent tends to remove the seasoning from cast iron, so I do not put my iron ovens in the dish water. I carry a wide-bladed putty knife, with one corner rounded to match the curve where the bottom meets the side, to scrape stubborn spots off. You can use a spatula, but you’ll eventually break it. You can easily push a wadded, dry paper towel across the bottom of a clean oven; if it drags, wipe the oven out again with hot water. After it’s dry, wipe it with a paper towel moistened with cooking oil to prevent rust. Don’t worry about the outside of the oven-just carry it in a sack to keep the soot off other items.