Camp chefs who can take the heat get out of the kitchen and head outdoors to cook up coal-fired cuisine in sturdy Dutch ovens.
Teams of cooks new to Dutch oven cookery gathered on a chilly autumn Saturday at the J.B. and Johnelle Hunt Family Ozark Highlands Nature Center in Springdale. Dutch ovens were set out on tables before them, along with a recipe and ingredients to cook their first Dutch oven dish.
Their teachers were nature center staff and volunteers who coached the cooks every step of the way, from mixing ingredients to firing up charcoal briquettes that brought the heat.
Charcoal briquettes are the ticket to turn out perfectly done Dutch oven treats. Briquettes are used on the bottom and on the lid of these heavy-duty cast iron cooking devices that look like big round pots with lids. Many recipes tell exactly how many briquettes to use on the bottom and on the lid to regulate temperature and cooking time.
Not all Dutch ovens are equal.
“You may see Dutch ovens that are designed for kitchen use, but a camping Dutch oven has three legs on the bottom and a lip around the outside of the lid so the charcoal doesn’t fall off,”; explained Schelly Corry, director of the nature center.
Legs hold the pot above the hot charcoal and let air circulate. Camp-style Dutch ovens have a swinging handle for lifting the oven off the coals. They come in all sizes. Ovens with a 10- or 12-inch diameter suit most cooks.
The nature center Dutch oven chefs couldn’t wait to taste their first treats even as they mixed ingredients. Lily Price and her mom, Mary Price, were busy at their table stirring up chocolate chip banana nut bread.
“This is our first time,” Mary said. “We have no idea what we’re doing.”
The cooking teams headed outside on a patio to start cooking.
Marisol Alcaraz with the nature center staff showed how to start charcoal using a charcoal chimney. It’s a round cylinder that looks like a steel pitcher. Charcoal is placed inside and a wad of paper gets lit under the charcoal. In a few minutes the briquettes are white hot and ready to go.
Always use briquettes, not lump charcoal, she added.
Chefs visited and waited anxiously while their recipes cooked sight unseen in the Dutch ovens. Soon the moment of truth arrived. These first-timers lifted their Dutch oven lids, much to the delight of their noses and eyeballs. Every dish turned out delightfully well.
Mom and daughter gazed at their masterpiece chocolate chip banana nut bread. The whole gang couldn’t wait to dig in to the mountain man breakfast, with potatoes, eggs, melted cheddar cheese and veggies that Heather Cook and her husband, Tony Cook, fixed for the first time.
Feasting may have been the best part of the class for these now experienced Dutch oven cooks. With plates in hand, they browsed the buffet of dishes still hot in the cast iron pots. Cooks and their teachers sat down together for a delicious lunch they’d prepared themselves.
Each left with a new cooking skill and recipes to take home, perhaps with a stop to shop for their own Dutch oven.
One versatile oven
Regardless of the name, a Dutch oven can be used many ways. With the lid on, it’s an oven. Food can be baked, braised, stewed or roasted. Without the lid, it becomes a kettle for boiling, deep frying or heating food quickly over an open fire. The lid can be used as a griddle.