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summer 2001 : dining

Black Pot Magic

Dutch Oven Cooking in the 
American West

by Daniella Chace

Despite our romantic vision of the old West, lives back then were rugged. Long days were spent in gold mines or stringing barbed wire across vast stretches of land. It was life lived entirely outdoors, and that included cooking over little more than wood coals. 

The cattle drivers, railroad workers and settlers of this country quickly figured out that cast-iron Dutch ovens could transform a meal into something more than that. They were prized for their simplicity and their ability to cook foods evenly. Everything from stews, to meats, to baked goods might come out of the pot on a given night. 

Over 150 years later, boatmen, horse outfitters and everyday campers are tapping into the mystique of Dutch oven cooking. 

D.O.s—and that’s what seasoned cooks call them—are fun, whether camping or just grilling on the patio with the family. Most recipes are simple and, with one pot cooking, there’s so little cleanup it’s easy. Meat becomes tender, juicy and infused with the flavors you throw in with it, desserts such as cakes and cobbler come out crispy and soups have a rich earthy taste. Best of all, pulling a D.O. off a bunch of coals—I’ll get to the double-top secret formula for coals in a minute—and revealing, say, a pineapple, upside-down cake will impress just about anyone.

First you need to get yourself a D.O., which can be made from either cast iron or aluminum. The lightweight aluminum pots are ideal for camping but the cast iron ones cook more evenly. They come in a range of sizes: A family should start with a 12-inch D.O., for larger groups the 14-inch will do. You’ll need a few accessories such as charcoal, long handled tongs for moving hot charcoal around, a small shovel to move large amounts of charcoal from a starter to a lid, and gloves.

First season your pot just as you would a cast iron skillet. Lightly oil it and heat it over a flame, then cook in it. Rinse it with water and scrub it out with soft brass brushes. Never use soap as this will remove the seasoning. If someone uses soap in your pot, don’t worry, you just need to re-season it. Use only plastic or wooden utensils to stir or serve food from them so you don’t scratch off the seasoning. Properly cared for, these pots will last several lifetimes.

The next step is to find or make a level spot for cooking. Place a piece of tin foil down—this will help reflect the heat of the coals. Which brings us to the double-top secret part. A crusty, old boatman once entrusted with me the all-important layout of the coals. Put five coals—heated to the color of an old Labrador’s chin—on the ground in the pattern of a pentagon. Load your ingredients—this is another secret piece of knowledge—into a pre-warmed D.O. and place it on the coals. Put the top on and then ring the edge of the top with coals. There should be no gaps between coals. Three coals go in the center of the top. Then—and this is critical—leave it alone. Cowboys and boatmen know it is done when the food’s aroma finally wafts over to the social circle around the fire.

Seasoned cooks recommend getting familiar with your D.O. before getting elaborate. Sandy and Duane Dinwiddie of the Lone Star Dutch Oven Society suggest starting simple. To make biscuits, for instance, “Use ready made biscuit dough from the store, the fresh dough in the round tubes that is refrigerated. Buy enough to fill the bottom of your oven, as they will cook better.” When you can smell the biscuits (about 10 minutes) they should be close to done (golden brown on top). Dinwiddie adds, “If you try this once out camping on a crisp fall morning, and have some butter and strawberry jam available, we guarantee that you will be hooked into black pot cooking forever.”

After you get familiar with controlling cooking temperature with simple biscuits you are ready to make meals. Meats come out so tender they will melt in your mouth. Stews, soups and baked beans are easy and the flavors are rich so they are good recipes to start with. Recipes with eggs such as breakfast casseroles, cobblers and corn bread all brown well and retain moisture in these pots. We have included a few fabulous recipes that are sure to be crowd pleasers, but don’t be afraid to adapt recipes for your own black pot magic.