Around the evening campfire at hunting camp, visiting with some good friends that also enjoy camp cooking, the conversation naturally morphed into the ‘perfect’ or most useful cooking utensil for camp cooking. One fellow posed the question, “If you were to spend 3 months in the wilds with only one piece of cooking gear, what would that be?”
Our little group of veteran camp cooks began to stare off into the blackness of the surrounding woods, ‘mulling’ upon the question. After a bit of thought, we all replied with ‘A DUTCH KETTLE, of course! Our decision was a sound one for many reasons. Cast iron Dutch Kettles are, hands down, the most versatile of all outdoor cooking implements.
There are all sorts of pots that are referred to as ‘Dutch Kettles’ but we were all referencing the standard old ‘three legged’ heavy duty pot with a recessed lid made from cast iron. I recently saw an advertisement for an aluminum pot with a top that was rounded rather than recessed to hold coals and painted a brilliant yellow. This was no more a Dutch Kettle than I a NASA astronaut!
So, with all the different styles of cooking pots out there, why did we all concur that an ‘old school’ Dutch Kettle was best?
If limited to only one utensil, it was essential that we could use it for everything from brewing coffee to frying fish to baking biscuits; a Dutch Kettle can do this and, much more. We would be using wood as cooking fuel and obviously needed a Dutch Kettle with legs and recessed top to facilitate cooking with coals. I asked if we could include ‘two’ utensils in this imaginary remote camp. This would greatly simplify meal preparation. I often pack my 14 inch cast iron skillet with lid and Dutch Kettle on camping trips. While the Kettle is obviously the most versatile, the addition of the heavy skillet with lid allows tasks such as baking bread and cooking stews or frying fish to be done simultaneously. A camp cook with a good Dutch Kettle and cast iron skillet with lid and, a bit of experience, can prepare just about anything that can be made in a modern kitchen.
Getting started cooking with a Dutch Kettle is really pretty simple. Charcoal is easier for the beginner than using chunks of campfire coals. Dutch Kettles come in various sized, the 10 inch being the most popular. A good rule of thumb is to use 3 more charcoal briquettes on top of the pot than the diameter and 3 fewer briquettes under the pot. Since heat rises, it’s easy to see why more coals need to be placed on top of the pot than below. But this is only a starting place; there are few constants. There are many factors that come into play when cooking with wood or charcoal. I’ve baked cobblers outside during the winter when it was really cold and necessary to cover the entire top of the Dutch Kettle with coals in order to bring the pot and ingredients up to proper baking temperatures. But I’ve found the ‘three’ rule holds true when temperate are moderate, about fifty degrees and higher.
Chances are good you have heard all sorts of horror stories about cast iron rusting and rust is a factor that must be considered. Cast iron surfaces are not slick and smooth such as glass or steel but rather a bit rough and ragged in a microscopic sort of way. You can’t actually ‘feel’ the rough finish on a cast iron skillet or Dutch Kettle, but just try to fry and egg in an unseasoned cast iron skillet. The egg will stick to the irregular surface.
The trick to ‘seasoning’ a new cast iron implement is to allow cooking oil to permeate the minute recesses in the cooking surface. Cooking oil actually works better than butter, grease or animal fat for seasoning. My cast iron has been in use for decades and through much use, it has become as ‘not stick’ as any modern pot on the market. I like to break in a new cast iron implement by frying fish or anything that requires filling it with cooking oil and frying. The ‘seasoning’ process for cast iron usually entails rubbing the cooking surface with oil and baking it in an oven set at the highest temperature. But, I like to ‘season as I go’ by frying in my skillets.
Once well seasoned, cast iron actually becomes resistant to rust. When I use my old seasoned Dutch Kettle for making berry or peach cobblers, there is obviously lots of crumbs and juices sticking inside the pot. I fill it with warm water and add dishwashing soap and allow it to set for several hours and then, use a scouring pad and wipe it clean. It never shows any sign of rust. Just make sure and always coat the cooking surfaces of any cast iron cookware with a light coat of cooking oil after use. The older and more seasoned your cast iron skillet or kettle is the less you have to worry about rust but keep in mind that even the most seasoned cast iron will rust if left dry for extended periods.
While around that campfire a few weeks ago, one of my buddies posed the question as to why did we all still prefer cast iron rather than all the modern materials cooking utensils are constructed of today. The resounding answer was that cast iron simply holds heat and ‘cooks’ better than any other metal. I believe this to be true.
Contact outdoors writer Luke Clayton via email through his website www.catfishradio.org.