How to Cook in the Great Outdoors: A Primer on Dutch and Reflector Ovens

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Outdoor cooking is part of the curriculum for Manliness 101. Anyone can cook on a range top or oven in the comfort of a kitchen. But whipping together a chocolate cake for a birthday and baking it in a Dutch oven…that’s impressive, and unforgettable for the birthday celebrant.

Ultra-light camping has its place; hiking 50 miles in 5 days carrying a 35 pound backpack necessarily means dehydrated food and going without some of the daily staples. Backpacking is awesome when you want to really get away from civilization and do something more rustic.

But with gas prices as they are, more people are choosing to camp close to home – out of a car, truck, or small trailer. Car camping is great for when you only have time for a short trip and are looking to do something less Spartan and more relaxing. What’s great about car camping is that it allows you a lot more variety in what you can make for your grub, which, as any camper knows, is one of the best parts of camping. Food just tastes better when it’s made and enjoyed while you’re out in nature.

There are essentially two ways to bake in the great outdoors: reflecting heat from a campfire into a reflector, creating an oven, and trapping heat in a cast-iron Dutch oven by applying heat in the form of coals directly to the surface of the oven. Both have advantages and disadvantages and today we’ll give you a primer on each method.

The Reflector Oven

Stand too close to a campfire and you’ll feel your shins toast a little. That’s radiant heat – the basis of reflective oven cooking. The basic idea here is simple: focus the heat where you want as evenly as possible.

A well-designed reflector focuses the heat evenly on the top and bottom of the pan holding your food. Otherwise, your oven will bake unevenly (horribly, actually), as if your oven at home lost one of the elements; you’ll get a burned top and a raw bottom.

A benefit of the reflector oven is its weight and compact size. A reflector oven doesn’t weigh very much, and when folded down flat, it takes up little space. So for those sensitive to weight and size, a reflector’s a good choice. Canoe campers can carry more than backpackers, so we who camp out of canoes love these.

For the best baking, I like to take well-burning logs and put them up on their ends, leaning against a support of some sort, often the inside of a fire ring if it’s large enough. To judge the temperature, hold your hand right in front of the oven and count rapidly… onetwothreefourfiveOUCH. The ouch at five means you’re at 350-375 degrees. An ouch at four is about 400-425 degrees. Three means charcoal for dinner. Despite the best intentions, there are hot spots, so use some tongs to rotate the pan periodically, or when you see a hot spot start to form.

You’ll notice I haven’t mentioned any specific foods. That’s because you can cook anything in the reflector oven. The longer you need to cook an item, the more you have to plan ahead for maintaining the fire to keep the heat relatively consistent. I’ve baked lasagna, broiled vegetables, and baked cinnamon rolls with a reflector oven.

The key to this is practice. Don’t expect to make a Baked Alaska your first time out. Start with simple baked goods. If we’re camping with the kids, we often use the frozen rolls in a tube so the kids can participate. The bake time is quick and the odor will often draw in other kids who want some too.

Dutch Ovens

Perhaps more familiar to the average person, the Dutch oven is ages old in one form or another. The cast iron flat-bottomed pot with small feet to elevate it off the hearth and the recessed lid for holding coals is iconic. Cast ironware was so valuable in the original 13 colonies that it was often listed specifically in a person’s will. The reason the Dutch oven has endured is because it works…and lasts. And lasts. And lasts.

Like a reflector oven, there’s nothing you can do in a regular oven that you can’t do in a Dutch oven. It will take practice and a few semi-burned dishes, but persist and you’ll make it. The trick to getting started is heat regulation. While expert chefs can cook with any fire source, beginners should start with charcoal briquettes.

Briquettes provide a very stable heat source. You can get a consistent heat of 350 degrees by using twice the briquettes as the diameter of the oven. In other words, if you have a 12-inch oven, you’ll want to use 24 briquettes. Instead of dividing the briquettes evenly on the top and bottom of the oven, place 2-3 more briquettes on the top, because that’s where you want a little more heat. So to get a good stable heat, a 12-inch oven will have 14-15 briquettes on top and 9-10 on the bottom.

You will have to replace briquettes as they burn down, of course, and a pair of tongs are critical to avoid burns and to keep control of your heat. You will also want a pair of big pliers as well as a lid lifter. I also use a pair of welding gloves and a small trowel if I’m cooking with coals from a fire rather than briquettes.

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