Dutch ovens are a cast-iron symbol of a pioneer past still especially cherished in the American West. But Dutch oven cooking is more than a bit of delicious nostalgia. Aficionados across North America are cooking — and creating — in this sturdy pot, even if their ranch is no bigger than an apartment balcony.
“Dutch oven cooking is always at the crossroads of retro and what’s next,” says Mark Hansen, who has written a number of Dutch oven cookbooks and lives in Eagle Mountain, Utah. “Retro, of course, because of the history, the cowboys, we’ve got that rich tradition. But you can cook far beyond beans and biscuits, you know.”
Believe it. Dutch oven fans cook nearly everything and anything in these sturdy covered pots, from holiday turkeys to vegetable casseroles to cakes and pies and breads. It’s that can-do utility that made these pots so essential to pioneers and others who found themselves out on the land — and so useful to modern cooks looking to spark up the backyard cookout.
Now, don’t go thinking there was some chuck wagon rolling around in the 1880s tricked out with a nest of Dutch ovens robed in the brightly colored enamels of today.
The pots the pioneers used — and outdoor cooking aficionados still swear by — were rugged cooking vessels mounted on legs so they could stand over burning charcoal or wood. The lids were flat and rimmed so hot coals could be placed on top and whatever was inside was cooked from two directions — just like foods in a modern oven.
But the neat thing about Dutch oven cooking is that you can adapt both the pot and the cooking method to what you already have. Smooth-bottomed Dutch ovens bought for the kitchen can cook up delicious food equally well on a grill or, with a trivet or some form of support, over a campfire.
“I’ve become a big fan of using a Dutch oven or related accessories, even a cast-iron skillet or simple griddle,” says Jamie Purviance, author of many outdoor cooking books.
“You can vary the meal that way. Not everything off the grill has to be charred in the strictest sense,” adds Purviance, a resident of El Dorado Hills, Calif. “You can have someone making a jambalaya in a Dutch oven on one side of the grill and grilling a whole fish on the other side.”
Dutch ovens are made in a variety of metals, but none garner the enthusiasm of fans like cast iron, a material so old-fashioned it’s the rage again.
Michele Pika Nielson, the Salt Lake City author of “Dutch Oven Cookout: Step by Step,” says cast-iron pots also create a natural nonstick coating. That counts, she says, for people wary of cooking pots made from other metals or sporting an artificially applied nonstick coating.
The famously heavy lid keeps the food’s essential oils and aroma in the Dutch oven, which results in better flavor, says Bruce Tracy, author of 2013’s “Dutch Oven Baking.”
But don’t go buying a legged Dutch oven for outdoor use unless you’re really sure you’re going to use it, cautions Matt Pelton, author of the new book, “Dutch Oven Pies: Sweet & Savory” (Hobble Creek, $12.99). He recommends that newbies begin with a model meant for the indoors: “They will get more use out of it.”
SOUTHWESTERN BAKED CHICKEN
Prep: 15 minutes
Marinate: 2 hours
Cook: 1 hour
Makes: 4 servings
This recipe from George and Carolyn Dumler’s “Southwest Dutch Oven” (Gibbs Smith, $15.99) is made in a 10-inch Dutch oven. If cooking over charcoal, you’ll need 10 to 12 hot coals to place under the oven and 12 to 14 coals for the top. That will maintain a temperature of around 350 degrees for most of the cooking, about 45 to 50 minutes.
Then, add additional coals for a final 15 minutes of cooking at 400 degrees. (For an indoor oven, start the chicken at 350 and bake for 45 to 50 minutes, then raise the temperature to 400 degrees for 15 minutes.)
8 boneless, skinless chicken thighs
2 cups buttermilk
2 cups panko breadcrumbs
1 teaspoon each: salt, paprika, seasoned salt
1⁄2 teaspoon black pepper
2 teaspoons chili powder
1 teaspoon each, toasted and ground: cumin seeds, coriander seeds
2 tablespoons melted butter
Place chicken in a container; pour the buttermilk over the chicken to cover it. Refrigerate, at least 2 hours or overnight.
Thoroughly butter the inside of a Dutch oven; set aside. Mix the breadcrumbs with the spices in a small bowl. Dip each chicken thigh in the breadcrumb mixture to coat evenly; place in Dutch oven.
Cover; settle the Dutch oven into a fire pit or charcoal grill; cook, using 10 to 12 coals underneath pot and 12 to 14 coals on the lid, 45-50 minutes. Remove lid; brush chicken with butter.
Return lid to pot; increase temperature by heaping 10 more coals on the lid. Bake until the tops are crisp and browned and the chicken is tender, about 15 minutes.
Nutrition information per serving: 613 calories, 25 g fat, 9 g saturated fat, 328 mg cholesterol, 31 g carbohydrates, 60 g protein, 1,222 mg sodium, 2 g fiber
Prep: 30 minutes
Cook: 40 minutes
Makes: 8 servings
Matt Pelton’s recipe from “Dutch Oven Pies: Sweet & Savory” (Hobble Creek Press, $12.99) can be made in a 10-inch Dutch oven or cast-iron skillet. If cooking over charcoal, place 11 coals in a checkered pattern on the lid and 10 coals under the pot in a ring sticking halfway out from the pan to maintain a 375-degree temperature for 30 to 40 minutes. (If baking the pie in an indoor oven, use that temperature and time too).
Pelton recommends using parchment paper strips to lift the cooked pie out of the Dutch oven. Cut two parchment paper strips, 12 inches long by 4 inches wide, fold in half, and set in the bottom of the pot. Cut a parchment paper round slightly smaller than the pot’s diameter and set in the bottom atop the two strips, he writes.
Build the pie over the parchment paper. When you cover the pot, make sure the strips are between the lid and the pan before baking. When done, carefully lift the strips to remove the pie.
1 double-crust pie dough recipe, divided in two and rolled out, see recipe (or use your favorite recipe)
5 cups peaches, skinned, sliced, (see note)
11⁄2 cups sugar
1⁄4 cup flour
1 teaspoon cinnamon
Heat the oven to 375 degrees. Fold one of the prepared crusts into quarters; lift into the bottom of the Dutch oven. Unfold the crust, smoothing the pastry over the bottom and up the sides of the pot. Leave the edges long. Mix the remaining ingredients together; put them in the pie shell immediately. Flatten them out as best you can.
If you are making a full shell pie, carefully place the remaining crust on top of the filling. Crimp the edges of the top and bottom crust together to seal, trimming off any excess. (Be careful not to mold the crust to the sides of the pot.)
Slice 2 to 3 vent lines in the pastry lid. If you choose a lattice top, cut the lattice into strips; lay them in your preferred pattern, crimping the edges to seal as before.
Brush the top of the shell with an egg wash (1 egg and a splash of milk, mixed well). Cover. Bake until the crust is golden brown, 30-40 minutes. (If baking in the oven, you may need to remove the lid to brown the top crust.) Let the pie rest for several minutes before serving.
Note: To remove the skin from the peaches, blanch the fruit in boiling water for 2 minutes. Nutrition information per serving: 598 calories, 25 g fat, 6 g saturated fat, 23 mg cholesterol, 86 g carbohydrates, 7 g protein, 301 mg sodium, 3 g fiber
MATT’S FAVORITE PIE CRUST
Prep: 15 minutes, plus resting
Makes: enough dough for a double-crust pie
3 cups sifted flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 to 11⁄2 cups butter-flavored shortening, chilled
1 egg, whipped
5 tablespoons cold water
1 tablespoon white vinegar
Sift the flour and salt together in a shallow bowl. Cut the shortening into the flour with a pastry cutter until the pieces are slightly larger than peas. In a separate bowl, whip the egg, water and vinegar together.
Create a well in the center of the flour-shortening mix. Pour the liquid in slowly; fold in the flour. Press and gently fold the mix together until it holds its shape. Divide dough into two equal balls. Wrap each in plastic wrap; allow to rest 15-20 minutes.
Be sure to use plenty of flour on the surface as you work it or this mix will stick. After dough has rested, roll out each piece until the dough is about 1⁄8-inch thick and fairly round in shape.
Nutrition information per serving (for 8 servings): 400 calories, 25 g fat, 6 g saturated fat, 23 mg cholesterol, 36 g carbohydrates, 6 g protein, 300 mg sodium, 1 g fiber
About this recipe: In his peach pie recipe, Matt Pelton describes making a double-crust pie in a Dutch oven. We opted for a simpler approach, one that can be dished out of the pot, instead of Pelton’s more precarious idea.
Our dessert was more like a cobbler but with pie dough instead. We skipped the bottom crust, pouring the pie filling directly into the Dutch oven. We then rolled out enough of the dough to create a top crust (rolling it out fairly thick, about 1⁄4 inch), cutting it into decorative triangles. Those pieces were baked separately, then placed on the baked filling. The pastry pieces could also be baked directly on the filling.