One of the best ways to cook a delicious meal while out camping is to use the traditional Dutch oven.

It seems everyone who has tried it is an absolute die-hard fan. However, campers that haven’t cooked a meal with one generally question if it’s worth the weight and bulk. I generally use my Dutch oven during winter camping trips. Packing it on the freight toboggan doesn’t seem so bad compared to a canoe pack. They’re great for kayak trips as well, or family trips at the campground. I’d leave it at home for backpacking, however. The extra weight just isn’t worth it.

The Dutch oven originated in Holland around the early 1700s and has been widely used around the world ever since. George Washington fed his troops with it and Lewis and Clark cooked up horse stew on their historic trek to the West Coast. It was used to bake beans during the cattle drives and sourdough bread during the Klondike gold rush. Military camps used it during The First World War and by the 1970s it had become one of the top choices for campers to cook a meal.

So why is it so popular? After all, it’s heavy and bulky. The answer is simple — whatever is cooked in it tastes fantastic; and it cooks just about everything.

The Dutch oven is also called a camp oven, outdoor oven, kitchen oven and bean pot. The bean pot and kitchen oven are basically the same design, equipped with a rounded lid, flat bottom and no legs. These are generally used at home and in the oven. The camp oven and outdoor oven are derived from a different style with a flanged lid, flat bottom with three legs and a steel bail handle for carrying. This is the style used for camping, with the flanged lid designed for holding hot coals and the legs used to hold the pot above the campfire embers.

Dutch ovens are commonly made from cast iron. The material distributes heat evenly and retains heat, which is why the oven is so effective. The solid lid seals the pot and steams the contents, keeps in the moisture and the food tender. Cast iron is also long-lasting and can literally be passed down from generation to generation.

To cut down in weight, there are aluminum Dutch ovens available. This is definitely an added bonus for anyone wanting to pack it along on an interior trip. Many traditionalists slam the use of the aluminum but the weight difference is significant — cast iron weighs in at 18 pounds and an aluminum model weighs a mere seven pounds. Aluminum also doesn’t rust and can be washed easily with soap and water. Some models come with a non-stick coating. Aluminum also doesn’t discolour the food like cast iron. The pot heats up quicker as well. This can be more of a disadvantage, however. The heat has a tendency to fluctuate, making it far easier to burn your meal in an aluminum oven than a cast iron one.

Whichever one you decide to purchase, make sure the lid fits snug to create a good seal but can be moved slightly from side to side. If it’s a cast iron model, then give it a good wash with soap, water and scrub brush. Most cast iron manufacturers place an edible protective wax coating to stop it from rusting during shipment. Right after you wash the Dutch oven, it’s time to season it with vegetable shortening. After this point, soap is never to be used while washing the Dutch oven. The oven must be continually seasoned. Cast iron is incredibly porous, like a sponge, and the cooking oil fills the fine holes of the stove. Aluminum ovens also benefit from the seasoning process. Even though aluminum doesn’t rust like iron, it does oxidize and a layer of oil will prevent that from happening.

Rub the shortening on the entire surface area of the cast iron oven. Then, heat it up in your kitchen oven or your outside barbecue or a campfire. The seasoning step is a stinky and smoky job (but an important process), so you’re best choosing the outside options. Oil is continually added throughout the use of the oven and eventually you’ll create a non-stick surface.

Try this Dutch oven recipe from my latest book, The New Trailside Cookbook

Breakfast Cornbread

Cooking up cornbread in a Dutch oven while sipping on morning coffee and stoking the wood stove inside a cozy canvas tent has to be one of the greatest moments while winter camping. Of course, you might have to substitute the pancake syrup with some dark rum if the cold temperature freezes the syrup. Egg powder doesn’t freeze solid like an egg at -20 degrees Celsius as well.

  • 2 tbsp granulated sugar
  • 1/4 tsp each ground ginger, cinnamon and nutmeg
  • 2 cups milk
  • 1/4 cup cornmeal
  • 1 egg
  • 1/4 cup pancake syrup

At Home: Combine sugar, ginger, cinnamon and nutmeg; store in a small sealed plastic bag.

At Camp: Heat milk in a saucepan. Stir in the cornmeal; reduce heat and simmer, stirring frequently until thickened. Remove from heat, combine oil and egg, stir into cornmeal mixture. Add sugar and spice mixture and syrup, spoon into an eight-inch (20 cm) lightly greased metal pan. Place in the Dutch oven. Cook for 40 minutes or until bread is lightly browned and firm to the touch.

Camping Tip: This bread will need to be cooked with coals both on top of and under the Dutch oven.

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