Dutch ovens provide a fantastic way to cook outdoors.
This article guides you through everything you need to know about camp dutch oven cooking, from selection to care and maintenance.
There are also some tasty recipes to try out!
Let’s jump in!
What is a camp Dutch oven?
A dutch oven that is designed for outdoor use, is commonly known as a camp dutch oven.
Put simply they are a cooking vessel, constructed of heavy, cast iron material, that allows you to cook efficiently over an open fire.
These ovens enable you to cook a wide variety of foods, from bread to more exotic main meals and will serve you well for your camp cooking needs.
This article explains what they do and how you can use them within bushcraft and other outdoor activities.
History of the Dutch oven
The dutch ovens of today owe their original design to Englishman, Abraham Darcy after he travelled to Holland to look for a better way to mould metals.
At the time, the Dutch were experts in casting brass pots using sand, which was a different method to that of loam and clay, which the Brits used.
He returned to England and decided to use cast iron instead of brass to make the pot, and the first incarnation of the cast-iron ‘dutch oven’ was born.
During the American colonial era, legs and a lid flange were added.
This version of Dutch ovens (legs or without) is what we know these days as a camp Dutch oven and were the cooking vessels favoured by the early American pioneers.
Often mentioned in peoples wills, as to who they should go to upon the owner’s death, they were an item of great importance and value.
They were the oven of choice for the famous Lewis and Clark Expedition of 1804 – 1806, as they travelled and mapped the waterways from Pittsburgh in the East, to the Pacific coast out West.
These days, dutch oven cooking is very much alive and well, with a multitude of organisations around the world, such as the International Dutch Oven Society, still practising this fun, tasty and authentic way of cooking.
Design and features
Most ovens are made of cast iron and black in colour (unless rusty) – and have a pot and lid section.
There are some aluminium dutch oven designs out there, such as the GSI version, but these are not so common.
Most designs usually have a large carrying handle, which also allows the oven to be suspended over a fire, using a purpose-made tripod or pot hanger.
As above, most camp-style ovens also have 3 legs on the bottom, which are designed to let the oven sit directly in the fire’s embers, whilst providing stability and keeping the main pot raised above the coals.
Some users prefer not to have these legs though, which we will get into later.
As a large part of the camp Dutch oven cooking process comes from the heat above it, they all include a lid that is designed to have embers placed on top of them.
This allows heat to come from above and below.
This lid features a lip around its edge that stops the embers from falling into the pot when the lid is lifted – and into your food!
Due to their cast iron construction, they are heavy, so are not really suited to any hiking activities!
However, if you have a vehicle to transport it in, such as a car, 4wd or canoe, they are an excellent option for your campfire cooking, especially if you are staying put for a while.
Why do some Dutch ovens have legs?
As above, you can buy a camp-style dutch oven with legs, or without legs.
The rest of the oven is generally identical.
What you go for will depend on how you intend to use the oven and your needs.
Indeed Ray Mears comments in the video below that he prefers a dutch oven without legs, due to the possibility of them breaking when being stored and transported in vehicles.
Take a look at Ray baking some bread below to see what I mean – it’s also a good recipe!
As you can see, he’s opting for no legs, due to the portability factor.
We would argue that the legs are very robust, and do not get damaged with normal use and transportation.
You should be storing your oven in a better manner if that’s a problem, but everyone has their views, and they do indeed have the potential to catch on things.
If you are solely going to cook on a tripod with your oven, above a fire, then the legs may not be necessary for you and it may be best to go for a simple legless pot.
If however, you are only going to buy one oven, and want to be able to use it straight on top of embers, with the added functionality of still being able to use it on a tripod, we would opt for the legged variety, as it allows you to comfortably do both.
Of course, the best thing is to have two ovens, one with legs, one without and you can then choose which one is best suited to your trip – or take both.
How to season a cast iron Dutch oven
As with all cast iron cookware, a dutch oven will need to be seasoned before it can be used.
Many ovens now come pre-seasoned, so you can technically cook on them straight away.
However, this factory seasoning can almost always be improved on, so it would be wise to season the oven yourself before use regardless.
This is an essential process to get your oven off to a good start.
Does a Dutch oven need to be seasoned?
Cast iron in its raw state, will rust and is not non-stick.
In order to make it non-stick, we must first correctly season the iron.
This seasoning process applies a very thin layer of oil to the metal surface of the oven, which is then placed inside a larger oven or stovetop and heated to a very high temperature.
This process ‘bakes’ the fat onto the metal, to form a hard and protective layer on the oven surface, known as seasoning.
This technical name for this is polymerization.
This ‘baked-on’ layer (which is actually a chemical reaction between the hot iron and the fat), stops the oven from oxidizing, keeping rust at bay.
Done correctly, this now provides a natural, non-stick coating to the surface.
This aids the cooking process and obviously helps prevent food from sticking to your pot.
With care, as you use your oven in the future, this protective layer will build and improve further.
How to season a cast iron Dutch oven and lid
If your dutch oven comes with a yellow waxy coating on it (which is a rarity these days) this will need to be completely removed before starting.
This waxy coating has been placed on by the manufacturer to protect the oven from rust during transportation and storage.
Wax fully removed, start by cleaning away any surface residue from the cast iron.
You need to get down to the bare metal.
To do this, use a scouring pad or some steel wool with hot soapy water, and scrub well, all over the pot and lid.
Rinse all surfaces well with clean water.
Tip – If you have a used, rusty pan, follow this process also, until all the surface rust is removed and you are back down to the bare metal again.
Dry thoroughly with a tea towel, ideally lint-free.
Once towel dry, let the oven air dry, or even better place in another low-temperature oven, so that any moisture is completely removed from the surface.
You can also place the oven on a burner and watch the surface change colour from the bottom upwards, as the water evaporates.
This ensures the metal is completely dry.
Now leave to cool.
With the oven now completely clean and dry – apply a thin layer of vegetable oil to all of its surfaces – inside and out, on both the pot and lid sections.
Wipe off the excess oil, so that it looks like the oven is almost dry again.
Don’t worry, there will still be a very thin layer of oil on the surface, which is what you want.
The best oils for seasoning cast iron
It’s best to use vegetable oil – which can be made from soybean, canola (rapeseed) or sunflower oil.
However, all cooking oils and fats can be used for the seasoning process.
100% pure flaxseed oil is very good, although this can be expensive.
Alternatively, you can also use melted shortening.
You ideally want a ‘drying oil’, that hardens as it heats and doesn’t leave an oily residue.
I keep it simple and use standard vegetable oil.
In the UK is usually either rapeseed oil or sunflower oil.
This currently works well for me.
You now need to get the dutch oven very hot in order to seal it.
You will need to use your kitchen oven if your camp oven will fit inside.
Alternatively, you can use a kettle type BBQ so that the lid creates an oven in itself.
As the dutch oven now has a thin layer of oil on it, this process can cause some smoke, as the oil heats up.
Therefore, this process is best done outside if you can, but if you have to do this inside, prepare accordingly by ensuring good ventilation.
As with most things like this, it’s best to follow the manufacturer’s guidelines for your particular dutch oven.
As a general guideline, you will want to get your oven up to around 205 ℃ / 400 F for the seasoning process to work correctly.
Once complete, this process seals the oven, protecting it from rust and giving the oven its natural non-stick coating.
If you are looking for a perfect finish, this process may need to be repeated a few times (4-6) to get the desired result.
With careful use, cleaning and storage, the oven should not need seasoning again and the seasoned layer will actually improve over time.
If it does need doing again, and your pan starts to rust, or the seasoned layer is just not up to standard anymore, simply follow the steps above to restore it back to its full glory.
The short Lodge video below also goes through a similar process.
Fuel for Dutch ovens
You can use a variety of fuels with your oven.
If out in the woods, you may have some decent dry firewood available to you.
If using this, you want a type that produces a good bed of embers when it burns down, as these are what provides the majority of heat for your oven.
Go for hardwoods like Oak and Ash if you can, as these will produce a good bed of embers.
Softwoods will burn quickly and will work, but will not produce as good a bed of embers like the above hardwoods will.
How to use a Dutch oven with charcoal
You can also use charcoal, which is a popular choice, which you can bring with you.
This generally comes in either lump wood or briquette form.
Either is good, but the briquettes seem to hold the heat for the longest time and give a good steady burn.
Tip – If using charcoal, an easy way to get your coals going is to use a chimney starter, such as the Weber version pictured below.
How many coals do I need for a camp oven?
If using wood, it’s a bit more of a guess as to the number of embers that you need.
It depends on the wood used and oven size.
Experience will help you get a good idea of cooking times and temperature for your oven, so get cooking and find out what works.
If using charcoal, the rough rule of thumb is to use twice the amount of coals as to your oven size.
So, if you have a 12″ oven, then you need 24 coals.
This is quite simplistic but is a good rough guide.
For a more exact heat and coal number, including the amount that should be placed above and below – the table below shows the suggested amount.
Dutch oven coal temperature chart
Cleaning a camp oven
A good cleaning and maintenance regime will keep your oven in tip-top condition.
Clean your oven as below:
- Scrape all food residues to loosen them from the surface and remove.
- Pour in some hot water and scrub with a brush until all food residue is removed. Use some washing up liquid if necessary.
- Rinse out with fresh water and dry with a lint-free tea towel or similar and leave to air dry.
- Now place a small amount of vegetable oil in the pan, and wipe this around both sides of the pot and lid, so that all the surfaces are coated with a very thin layer of oil.
- Your oven is now clean and ready for its next use.
Can you use soap to clean a dutch oven?
The short answer is yes. There is no issue using a mild detergent, such as washing up liquid to clean a dutch oven.
There is a common misconception that the soap will remove the seasoned layer, as soap breaks down fat and it is this fat that forms the seasoning.
However, the fat has gone through a chemical process when the oven was seasoned and is chemically bonded to the metal through this heat process.
It will therefore not be removed with soap, so feel free to use it if required.
How to store your cast iron Dutch oven
Store your oven in a clean, dry, well-ventilated area.
Your oven should have a very thin layer of oil on all of its surfaces to protect it during storage.
Do not use lard or similar, as this can go rancid if left for a long period.
Use vegetable oil and wipe off any excess.
If storing the pot and lid together, leave a small gap by placing a folded up tea towel or similar between the pot and the lid.
This will allow fresh air to circulate inside the oven, allowing any moisture to escape and help prevent any rust from forming.
What utensils do you use with a Dutch oven?
You can use all normal cooking utensils in your oven, both wood and metal, without them damaging the seasoned layer.
Just use them with care though and don’t be too rough.
How long will a camp dutch oven last for?
Properly cared for, your oven should easily outlast you and can be handed down to the next generation.
They should easily last 100 years or more and there is no reason why they can’t last for a few hundred years.
There is something deeply satisfying about owning and using something that you know will still be able to be used by your family, long after you have gone.
Not the dying bit though!!!
Purchasing one should definitely be considered an investment and is why I would recommend purchasing a good quality one from the outset – and looking after it.
What size dutch oven should I buy for camping?
The 8-quart (12 inch) is a good size for cooking larger meals, for multiple persons, but is also fine for smaller meals too.
We have this size, as it is a good all-rounder, whatever you decide to cook.
We’re also gluttons when it comes to food like this, so having some extra available is no bad thing in our opinion – it will all disappear 🙂
There are different sizes available to suit your needs, so go with what you feel is best for you.
A smaller size will do if you generally only cook for 1-2 people.
What is the best camp oven to buy?
As with most things in life, you get what you pay for.
There are multiple brands of camp dutch ovens on the market, with the cheaper ovens often being made in China.
These are often of a much lower quality than the USA or European brands – that’s just a fact.
If that’s all you can afford, or just want to dip your toe in and try dutch oven cooking, then these will certainly have their uses – you may end up disappointed though.
We always strongly recommend going for the best kit you can afford – it usually works out cheaper in the long run.
If you go for one of the decent makes, and your dutch oven ends up lasting you 100 years or more, that initial investment will seem quite insignificant, given the years of use and enjoyment that you and your family get out of it.
With that in mind, we would recommend either Lodge or Petromax dutch ovens.
Is Lodge a good Dutch oven brand?
Yes. They are considered the best brand out there.
We personally own and currently use the Lodge 8-quart 12 inch – deep camp dutch oven.
We went for this as Lodge, in our opinion, make the best ovens and have a great pedigree.
They are made in Lodge’s USA factory, to a very high standard.
They are pricey, especially in Europe, but as above, we view it as an investment and see it as great value considering what you are getting in return.
No-nonsense and great looking, these will last you and your family a very long time indeed.
Petromax Dutch ovens
A good alternative to the Lodge is the Petromax oven.
They also produce camp dutch ovens with leg and non-leg options.
The lid on these is a bit more elaborate than the Lodge’s and are a bit harder to keep clean, but is not so much of an issue that it should stop you from buying one.
Where are petromax Dutch ovens made?
Petromax are made in Germany, not China like so many other brands – so this gives you some peace of mind over their build quality
They certainly look nice and are a great alternative to the Lodge.
Camp dutch oven inspections
When you receive your dutch oven, new or otherwise, take a few moments to check its build quality.
- Place the lid on the oven and make sure that it’s a tight fit all around.
- Make sure that the lid does not rock and sits flat on all sides.
- Spin the lid to make sure that it easily rotates and is circular.
- Check the oven sidewalls to make sure they are of equal thickness all around.
- Inspect all surfaces, inside and out, for any notable cracks or blemishes on the metal’s surface.
- Ensure that the bail arm is secured to each side of the oven, at opposite sides to each other. These alternate fixing points prevent the handle falling off if the oven tips to one side when carrying the oven.
Camp dutch oven accessories
You don’t necessarily need any special accessories to use your oven, you can use what you have in the kitchen – even a stick to lift the lid if necessary.
If you want the correct kit, however, you may want to take a look at the below.
Camp Dutch Oven Lid lifter
One item that you will need when cooking with these ovens is some form of lid-lifter.
You can use a claw hammer or a strong stick, but a proper tool for the job is a purpose-made device such as the one made by Petromax below.
This has the added advantage of being able to be used as a poker for the embers of your fire.
Campfire Dutch Oven Tripod
If you want to raise your dutch oven above the embers and also have somewhere to hang your camp kettle, a tripod may be a handy addition to your camp set up.
The Lodge version features an adjustable chain so that you can vary the height and therefore the temperature of your cooking.
How do you make a camp oven tripod?
Want to make your own? Here’s a great DIY option from Mr Mears…
Cast Iron Chainmail Cleaner
To keep your oven in tip-top condition, a chain mail cleaner, such as the Petromax one above is a good addition to your kit.
As mentioned previously, a good maintenance regime will keep your oven in tip-top condition for many years to come.
These are therefore a worthwhile investment.
Camp Dutch ovens are a fantastic time-tested cooking vessel.
Large and heavy they may be, but if you are staying at camp for a while, they are usually worth the effort of transporting and setting up.
They create delicious meals and are a joy to cook on.
If you haven’t tried one yet, I hope this article has at least spiked your interest to do so.
It might even be the start of a lifelong obsession!
As ever, thanks for reading.