PARK CITY, UTAH -- Funny story here:
When I learned there would be a Dutch-oven cooking demonstration at this year's Association of Food Journalists conference, held last week in this mountainside ski town that's famous for hosting the Sundance Film Festival, my immediate thought was this: Big whoop. Who doesn't know how to cook in a Dutch oven?
Like millions of Americans, I reach for my trusted enameled Dutch oven (I love my Le Creuset) anytime I want to whip up a hearty casserole, soup or stew. The bright-orange cast-iron pot also is my go-to vessel for the long, slow cooking of roasts and baked beans made from scratch. In my mind, it doesn't get much easier than tossing all the ingredients for dinner into one big pot and then shoving in into the oven or, depending on the recipe, letting it bubble away on a burner.
So imagine my surprise when I crawled into bed a few night before this past Friday's marquee event with "Dutch Oven Baking" by Bruce Tracy, one of several new cookbooks devoted to Dutch-oven cooking that had recently come my way. I'd noticed the award-winning Mr. Tracy (he's won dozens of Dutch-oven-cooking competitions, including the International Dutch Oven Society's World Championship in 2004) was to be one of the presenters. Looking to be on top of my game, I figured it'd probably be a good idea to familiarize myself with its contents. Perusing a recipe for a awesome-looking apple-raisin upside-down cake, I noticed the list of ingredients called for something peculiar -- six to seven coals on the bottom and 12 to 14 coals on top.
"Why in the world would you put coals in the oven?" I asked my husband, whose response was to question my ability to read.
I reached for the next cookbook in the stack, "Dutch Oven Cajun and Creole." Same deal. Every recipe started with the number of coals on bottom and top. Unable to compute, I did what any normal American would do in those circumstances. I searched "Dutch oven cooking" on YouTube.
Turns out, Dutch-oven cooking refers not just to the pot you're preparing food in but a method of cooking that's been around for centuries. It's basically campfire cooking: All the ingredients go into a non-enameled cast-iron pot that is then heated by putting a certain number of hot coals under the pot and also on top of the tight-fitting lid.
The amount and placement of the hot charcoal briquettes depends on what you're cooking, as does the size of the oven. Shorter ovens spread heat to the center of the oven quicker than deeper ones, so they are good for cooking foods that need higher temperatures such as pies. (Yes, you can make a delicious fruit pie in a Dutch oven.) Taller ovens, conversely, are great for cooking foods at lower temperatures, such as roasts, hams or whole chickens, or where you want to control the amount of heat on top of the oven for even browning (rolls and bread).
And don't forget about the weather: You get less heat when it's cold, cloudy or humid outside, and more when it's hot and windy. Every cooking session, then, has to be fine-tuned.
Sound complicated? It kind of is, even when the number of coals required to cook the food to perfection is spelled out in the recipe,. That is probably why more people don't try their hand at it unless they're stuck in The Great Outdoors on a camping trip. On the plus side, writes 2013 IDOS world champion Matt Pelton in his new cookbook "The Cast Iron Gourmet," Dutch ovens usually are very forgiving. "It will still cook well with a large variance of temperature."
His basic rule of thumb is that one charcoal briquette, which should be gray at the edges, equals approximately 12 degrees of heat inside your Dutch oven. But you also can go by the "Rule of Three" for cooking at a standard 350 degrees: Double the size of the oven, and then put two-thirds of the coals on the lid and one-third underneath, just under the edge. For a 12-inch oven, that translates into eight coals on the bottom and 16 coals on top.
A little history
The term "Dutch oven" is something of a misnomer in that the pots are neither Dutch nor actual ovens. Rather, it refers to the casting process developed in Holland by which brass vessels were cast in dry-sand molds. In 1704, an Englishman by the name of Abraham Darby traveled to the Netherlands to observe how the thick-walled cast-iron pots were made, and eventually patented a similar process for use in England and its American colonies.
As food columnist Valerie Phillips explained at the Park City cooking demo, Dutch ovens played a big part in settling the American West. The cowboys, prospectors and miners (and their families) who migrated west to settle the new territories in the 18th and 19th centuries couldn't very well take their home ovens with them on horseback or in chuck wagons, so they had to learn how to cook entire meals in a single pot over a campfire. One of the earliest written references to this specialized style of cooking was in a 1803 letter by Meriwether Lewis, who used the cast-iron pot during his famous expedition into the newly acquired Louisiana Purchase territory, that noted a "portable soup," a type of dehydrated food made with meat boiled down to a concentrated gel.
Paul Revere is credited with adding the three little legs on the pot that allow for a ring of coals underneath, and he also created the flanged, flat lid so hot coals also could be piled on top and not slide off. (Dutch ovens without legs are called "bean pots.") Many also had "ears" on each side to allow for a steel bail handle for carrying and hanging. Varying sizes allowed them to be stacked one upon the other with coals between each layer.
By the 1900s, Dutch oven cooking had fallen out of favor, as indoor stoves and ranges became more affordable and popular. But the pots -- the best made by Erie-based Griswold, which during its heyday in the 1860s offered some 7,000 cast-iron products -- remained popular with outdoor types who cooked on the coals of an open fire. Somehow they spread the gospel: In 1985, a group of "black pot" activists started the International Dutch Oven Society (idos.com) in Utah with the goal of preserving and promoting this very American way of cooking. Today, there's nearly 30 chapters across the U.S., including two in Pennsylvania -- Valley Forge Black Pots (splatterdab.com) and Susquehanna Iron Masters (susquehannaironmasters.com).
Part of the reason Dutch-oven cooking appeals to a growing number of enthusiasts is because all the same cooking techniques apply -- you can stew, braise, roast, broil, fry and even bake all your favorite dishes in the cast-iron pots. As the cowboy hat-wearing Colleen Sloan, author of the "Log Cabin Grub" family of cookbooks, so charmingly exclaimed at the demo, "it's the most versatile pot in the world!"
And you get to do it outside, in the fresh air and sunshine.
There also are the health benefits of cooking with cast iron. Not only can you cook with less oil (a well-seasoned pan will be close to nonstick), Ms. Sloan pointed out, but also cooking with cast iron fortifies your food with iron. That, and it's oh-so-easy once you get the hang of it.
Mr. Pelton, who grew up in central Utah, started Dutch-oven cooking when he was just a boy. By the time he was 12, he was cooking dinner most nights for his parents, both of whom worked swing shifts, and five younger siblings. (Elk and deer meat were favorites.) It became such a part of his life that when he did a two-year mission for the Mormon church at age 19 in Boston, he packed a 10-inch Dutch oven in his suitcase.
The tradition of starting 'em young continues. Mr. Pelton's 13-year-old daughter, Megan, tested every single dish in his cookbook and even 7-year-old Braxton has mastered a few recipes, including one for ham-and-bean soup. It helps, of course, that his dad's cookbook includes illustrations of where the coals should be placed on both top and bottom, in addition to how to convert them to conventional range-top and oven cooking.
"And if you follow the recipe, you cannot mess up," he said.
Because there's a definite learning curve, Mr. Pelton suggests starting with something easy, such as his recipes for Chicken Parmesan (at post-gazette.com/food) and Roasted Pork Shoulder, which he demonstrated in less than an hour.
The last Griswold pieces rolled out of the factory in 1953. So unless you're lucky to find an old piece at a flea market or thrift store, the preferred brand today is Lodge Manufacturing (lodgemfg.com), which opened its first foundry in Pittsburg, Tenn., in 1896. Our group's experts also had only great things to say about newcomer Camp Chef (campchef.com), formed in 1990 to provide quality cookware to outdoorsmen. As far as charcoal, only one name was bandied about: Kingsford, because of its consistency.
While it's possible to cook directly on the ground, our experts advised using Dutch ovens with legs, especially if you're a newbie. If you really want to go all out, Camp Chef offers a whole line of Dutch-oven accessories, including tables, disposable liners, infrared thermometers and oven domes that insulate from bad weather.
I had every intention of testing the following recipes on coals last Saturday, but the weather didn't cooperate. (Honest!) So all were prepared in a conventional oven. I'm guessing I'm not the only one; recognizing most home cooks will prefer to cook inside, all of the cookbooks include directions for doing so. But if you're game, here are some additional tips:
• A chimney starter makes short work of heating coals (10 to 20 minutes, depending on wind conditions). Once the charcoal stops smoking -- it will be gray at the edges -- you're good to go.
• Be patient, and don't remove the lid. It helps the Dutch oven operate like a pressure cooker.
• Don't overfill the pot. Always leave a "moisture barrier" of at least 1 to 2 inches on top.
• If you're burning food, the coals are positioned wrong. Be sure to line the edges and not the middle of the pan.
• If the recipe calls for greasing the pan, use Pam. It's "God's gift to cast-iron" because it's made with canola oil, which has a much higher flash point.
• You'll know your dish is done when you start to smell it.
I cooked this simple shrimp dish on the stovetop in a Dutch oven. Next time, I'll probably use uncooked shrimp because it's extremely easy to overcook shellfish when you can't see it turn pink -- mine was a little rubbery (but still delicious).
3/4 cup chopped onion
3 cups thinly sliced celery
1 cup chopped green bell pepper
1/4 cup butter
16-ounce can chopped tomatoes
3 tablespoons brown sugar
2 bay leaves
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
3 tablespoons lemon juice
2 pounds cooked shrimp
Saute onion, celery and pepper in butter in Dutch oven over a bed of coals or on a small camp stove for 15 minutes.
Add tomatoes, brown sugar, bay leaves, salt and pepper; mix well. Cover and simmer, using 7 coals underneath the oven and 13 coals on top, for 30 minutes. Add lemon juice and shrimp. Simmer 6 to 10 minutes more or until shrimp are heated through. Discard bay leaves.
Serves 6 to 8.
-- "Dutch Oven Cajun and Creole" by Bill Ryan (Gibbs Smith,
Impossible Dutch Oven Zucchini Pie
This pie, made in a 10-inch Dutch oven, is an easy version of a quiche. Just pour the Bisquick batter over the top, and it makes its own crust during baking. It's so quick and easy, I was able to throw it together after work and still have time to make it to a high school volleyball game.
2 1/4 cups chopped zucchini
1 1/2 cups chopped tomatoes
3/4 cup chopped onions
1/2 cup grated hard parmesan cheese (I used about 3/4 cup)
1 1/2 cups milk
3/4 cup Bisquick baking mix
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
Grease Dutch oven. Put zucchini, tomatoes, onion and parmesan cheese in the oven.
Beat the remaining ingredients for 1 minute; pour into pan over top of the other ingredients.
Bake at 350 degrees until knife inserted in the center comes out clean, about 45 minutes. Cool 5 minutes and serve. To cook with coals in a Dutch oven, place 15 to 19 hot coals on top, in an evenly spaced ring around the rim of the lid, with 2 of those coals in the middle of the lid. On the bottom, place 10 to 12 coals in a ring around the outer edge of the pot.
Serves 6 to 8.
-- Ross and Angie Conlin, Cooking Dutch Enterprises, American Falls, Idaho)
Easy White Rolls
Yes, you can make a breads in a Dutch oven, and pretty good ones at that. But you may want to start slow with something easy like these white rolls.
Relatively speaking, that is: While not an Epic Fail, my rolls didn't look anything like the picture in the book -- they baked almost to the top of the Dutch oven, and didn't separate. (But they still tasted great.) Cookbook author Bruce Tracy told me it's because I let the dough rise too long (hours instead of minutes) and neglected to roll the dough balls in butter. "This fat layer should keep your rolls separated," he said.
1 cup warm water
1/4 cup honey
3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) butter, softened, divided
1 teaspoon salt
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
2 packages instant yeast
3 to 4 cups flour, divided
Kosher salt, to taste
In a large bowl, combine water and honey. Add 1/2 cup melted butter, salt and eggs. Mix yeast with 1 cup flour and then add to wet ingredients. Mix thoroughly for about 30 seconds. Slowly add more flour, 1 cup at a time, until dough pulls away from the sides of the bowl. Add more flour if it is too sticky.
Scoop dough with a small ice cream scoop, and form into tight 21/2-inch balls. Dip each ball into the remaining melted butter, and beginning in the middle, place each ball in Dutch oven that has been prepared with nonstick cooking spray. The balls should be just touching. Put the lid on and allow to rise approximately 30 minutes, or until double in size.
Bake, using 8 coals underneath the oven and 16 coals on top, for about 25 minutes until the rolls are golden brown. (If using oven, bake at 350 degrees) When bread is done, remove the coals, (or remove from oven) brush the tops with melted butter, and sprinkle with a little kosher salt, if desired. Turn out onto the lid. Serve warm or at room temperature.
Serves 10 to 12.
-- "Dutch Oven Baking" by Bruce Tracy (Gibbs Smith, April 2013, $15.99)
This tastes so much fresher than chicken parm made with red sauce. To cut down on the cooking time in the oven (the kids, apparently, were "starving"), I pounded the chicken breasts extra thin. I thought an entire pound of mozzarella was too much; an 8-ounce package would suffice.
For the pasta
1/2 cup olive oil
1 pound cherry tomatoes
4 garlic cloves, chopped
2 ounces fresh basil, chopped fine
1 teaspoon oregano
4 teaspoons sugar
1/2 cup white grape juice or white wine
1/2 pound brown mushrooms, chopped
12-ounce box pasta, cooked, or 2 pounds fresh pasta
1 lemon, zested and half squeezed
For the chicken
2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken breasts
2 cups flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
5 cups Italian-style bread crumbs (I used about 3 cups)
Oil (enough to fill a skillet 1/2 full)
1 large tomato, sliced thin
1 pound mozzarella cheese, sliced and grated
In a 12-inch Dutch oven, place olive oil, tomatoes, garlic, basil and oregano. Bake for 30 minutes. Add sugar, grape juice or wine, mushrooms and the cooked/fresh pasta. Stir it well and remove it from the heat.
Trim any fat from chicken and pound the breasts to same thickness (I pounded them to 1/2-inch-thick). Dust meat in flour and set on plate. In a bowl, mix salt, pepper, eggs and a little milk to moisten, and whip until frothy. Dump bread crumbs on plate. Dip breasts in eggs and then roll in bread crumbs; set on plate.
Heat some oil in a skillet. Fry breasts 1 at a time until lightly golden on both sides. Pat dry with a paper towel. Set chicken on top of pasta and top with tomato slices, followed by some mozzarella cheese. Sprinkle the remaining mozzarella on the top of the whole dish.
Bake for 30 to 40 minutes, 14 coals on top and 8 coals on the bottom, until chicken has an internal temperature of 165 degrees. If you're cooking in a traditional oven (my method), use a skillet on the stovetop turned to medium-high heat, and place the Dutch oven in a 350-degree oven with the lid on. (Because I pounded the chicken thin, I only had to bake it for about 25 minutes.)
When chicken is done, remove pot from heat or oven. Let rest for 10 minutes before serving.
Serves 6 to 8.
-- "The Cast Iron Gourmet" by Matt Pelton (Cedar Fort, March 2013, $18.99)
Gretchen McKay: email@example.com, 412-263-1419 or on Twitter @gtmckay. First Published September 26, 2013 4:00 AM