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Dutch oven: the old cowboy way
You haven't lived until you've eaten campfire peach cobbler.
To experience this singular pleasure, you need to get acquainted with the venerable dutch oven.
A cooking staple since long before the rangetop stove and certainly before the toaster or microwave oven, the cast iron “black pot” brings rich comfort foods and gourmet chow to the desert or woods, or even just the backyard.
Rick Rademacher brings his love of the dutch oven to the younger generation as the Ocotillo District commissioner for the Boy Scouts. Traditional outdoors cooking is big with the Scouts, and it's big in Rademacher's heart, too.
He has fond memories of family camping trips as a boy, with some of the best outings not about how many fish they reeled in or critters they bagged, but being at camp, playing cards and eating out of the dutch oven.
“It's always been there. I don't remember when it wasn't,” said Rademacher, now in his 50s. “My grandpa used to make fried apples in it.”
Richard Myers came into dutch oven cooking only a few years ago. As a young wildlife manager, or game warden, for the Yuma district at the Arizona Game & Fish Department, he watched his older colleagues make feasts in the field during their campouts. Before the veterans retired, they taught him the traditions.
He was a sharp student. “My skills get called on by other regions around the state.”
Just about anything can be cooked in a dutch oven. It can be used for soups, chili and stews, for casseroles, for macaroni and cheese and lasagna, for pizzas, for biscuits and cornbread, for spare ribs, for pies, for beverages like hot apple cider. With a foil divider, you can cook two items at once.
The camp chef needs hot coals (many prefer charcoal briquettes), not just open flame. The coals cook from underneath and directly atop the oven.
Cooking with coals is a science — how many, how long, how hot (they're at their hottest when they've turned white and are burning without flame, Rademacher said). There's even a phone app — the free Dutch Oven Calculator for Androids, which asks you the size of your pot, your target cooking temperature and the desired cooking method (bake, roast or fry), then tells you how many briquettes to use.
DRAWN TO THE COOK
Watch an old Western movie and notice how heavy that cook wagon looks. It's heavy because it's hauling a dozen dutch ovens.
Dutch ovens can be made of aluminum, but the best ones (which purists swear by) are made of cast iron, the better for retaining and distributing heat. They're not for backpacking — a smaller cast iron oven, at 10 inches in diameter, weighs about 20 pounds when empty.
Myers waxes romantic about the dutch oven. Dutch ovens are sturdy, so maybe the very pot you're scooping from was used by a cowpoke during a mid-century roundup.
He finds that people are fascinated by the process, making camp cooking a pleasant social experience. He also enjoys showing kids the basics when he demonstrates at children's hunting clinics in the fall and winter.
“We're all used to microwaves and fast food,” Myers said.
Rademacher's Scouts make and sell dutch oven peach cobbler as their big (and popular) fundraiser at the Midnight at the Oasis car show every spring. He likes teaching them patience and planning through cooking. The relatively low-maintenance appliance also appeals to young cooks.
Dutch ovens have had a resurgence in the past 15 years or so, said Colleen Sloan, a Utah-based author of the “Log Cabin Cookbook” series and a well-traveled instructor that OutdoorCooking.com calls “The First Lady of Cast Iron Cooking.” Dutch ovens came down the generations in her family.
One of her many tips: Don't lift the lid until you can smell what's cooking.
A WELL-KEPT DUTCH OVEN
Rademacher's 10-inch oven is what he calls “experienced.” It's 30 years old and sheds a little dirt from its adventures, but it's far from tired.
Care for the dutch oven is minimal, but what care it does get is important.
“The cast iron dutch ovens, if you take care of them, will last forever,” Rademacher said. “There's nothing to wear out.”
Here are his tips for oven care:
• Use oil not just for cooking but for maintaining a non-stick surface.
“You don't want to ever, ever, ever wash it out with soap and water,” he said. Soap strips the protective coating.
To clean, rinse and wipe it out with paper towels. Toss the paper towels into the campfire.
• Remove burned-on food by scouring with sand or just cooking it off.
• In dry Yuma, there's no need to oil up your oven for storing because rust is unlikely here and the oil can go rancid, especially in a hot garage or shed.
• Scouring too hard can pit the surface, one of the ways to actually damage a dutch oven. You can also harm the oven by cooling it too fast or bumping or dropping it while it's still hot.
Myers has acquired about a half-dozen ovens, plus accessories like special lid-lifter tools and a starter pan for his briquettes. He said the hobby can be enjoyed on a budget if you shop garage sales and swap meets.
The charm of the enduring black pot, he said, is in “... the old cowboy way to make modern, delicious, decadent food.”
DIFFERENCE BETWEEN A DUTCH OVEN AND A COOK POT
A dutch oven has three short peg legs and a flat lid with a tall lip of about 1 inch. These features are for the coals — the legs keep the pot's bottom off the coals, and the styling of the lid keeps them on the top (and the ashes out of your food). The legs are also good for stacking pots.
A cook pot has no legs and it's topped with a domed lid with no lip. These are better used on your stove in your indoor kitchen.