Classics: The Dutch Oven

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, October 1994

Classics: The Dutch Oven
By Donovan Webster

These days, camp fashion demands equipment that glitters like NASA nuggets and weighs less than helium. Which is important if you're making a very classy through-hike of the Appalachian Trail, but not so for lesser journeys. In the spirit of high-tech heresy, it's time to remind that lightness isn't the sole qualifier of a piece of camping equipment.

If you've ever tried to cook a real feast on a tiny camp stove, you've missed the clunker on the linoleum back home. That's why I like to camp with the bruiser of the outdoor kitchen: the Dutch oven. This classic kettle--with its stubby legs and tight-fitting cover--is the unparalleled choice when compact lightness isn't a consideration. You set it on a bed of coals and then pile a layer of coals on the closed lid; the evenly-heated space bakes (cobblers), simmers (stews), boils (sweet corn), and even deep-fries (chicken).

The Dutch oven's origins are mysterious. "Far as we know, it's from Europe, and Columbus brought one to America," says Billie Hill of Lodge Manufacturing Company, the Tennessee foundry that's America's largest commercial Dutch oven maker. "But before that, the records don't exist." In any case, the name doesn't refer to the Netherlands. "Dutch is an Old West term that meant doing things in ways not normally done," explains Tony Dolle of Cabela's, the Nebraska equipment purveyor. "The mess cooks would hurry ahead of the herd, build a fire, and drop their ovens into the coals. It was an unusual--Dutch--cooking style."

Nonetheless, the "unusual" method became an old standby. "Dutch-oven cookery was a mainstay on the American frontier," says Charles Bennett, chief curator of the Palace of the Governors Museum in Santa Fe, New Mexico. "Settlers favored recipes that made large batches and required little tending, so the Dutch oven was perfect."

A good Dutch oven has a cast-iron kettle and lid, each in a solid, single-piece construction, with a tall, sturdy handle. Lightweight aluminum backpacking-oriented versions will do in a pinch, but after a while the heat from the coals will take them apart.

After purchasing a Dutch oven, give it a "curing," which entails slathering shortening on both the kettle and lid and baking the whole shebang. Then your cast-iron marvel is ready for the coals and the beef brisket.

Dutch ovens can be purchased from mail-order suppliers operations such as Larsen Foundry Supply (801-972-1111), Intermountain Farmers (801-972-3009), and Cabela's (800-237-4444), or through Lodge Manufacturing (Box 380, South Pittsburg, TN 37380; 615-837-7181). Prices begin at about $12 (for a five-inch-diameter kettle) and go up to about $150 (for a 16-inch model).

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