By: Justin Malloy
One of the many benefits of traveling in the backcountry on large rubber boats is the ability to bring an elaborate kitchen setup. Camp food doesn’t have to be dehydrated rations and peanut butter. On Holiday trips, we cook filet mignon, mashed potatoes, omelets, French toast, and many more unexpected dishes., but what most frequently surprises people is what we whip up in our Dutch ovens. Brownies, cakes, cinnamon rolls, blueberry muffins, and even lasagna are all possible to enjoy in the wilderness thanks to this versatile cooking tool. While it may look complicated, Dutch oven cooking in the backcountry is relatively easy once you learn the basics. In fact, it doesn’t vary all that much from baking at home, and you can more or less follow the same recipes.
Where’s the oven?
Deciding where to put the Dutch ovens while they bake should be a thoughtful decision. Choose a flat spot for your baking station, away from where people frequently walk or where games are being played. On the river, we bake on our elevated fire pan as often as possible. This keeps the heat and charcoal remnants off the sand while also limiting the likelihood of someone bumping into them. When the fire pan is not an option, we will use a stockpot lid elevated with some river stones. If it is especially windy, a good technique is to dig a hole and use it as a wind block.
The real science to baking in Dutch ovens is in the charcoal. Be careful when lighting your charcoal, and do not let them overcook before starting the baking process. They are ready when the majority of the corners of the square briquettes have turned from black to grey. But don’t let the whole coal turn grey! To best utilize your time, you can mix your batter or prep your ingredients while the coals are getting fired up. Remember, even with a well-maintained Dutch oven, applying a layer of oil or grease to the bottom and sides before baking will help keep things clean and prevent burning.
When the coals are ready to use, instead of just piling a bunch on the oven, decide on a specific amount and use layers; one layer underneath the Dutch oven, and one on top. This allows you to better control the temperature and ensure an even bake. The number of coals will vary from dish to dish and is an important consideration. Cinnamon rolls, for example, call for a low baking temperature and are best enjoyed while still soft, so we will use 10-12 coals per layer (equates to around 350 degrees).
Lasagna, however, will need to bake for a long time at around 450 degrees, so we will use 15-16 per layer. Cakes and brownies tend to fall somewhere in between, maybe 12-14 coals per layer. Wind and air temperature may also be considerations when deciding on amounts. If there is a strong breeze, you may need to add a couple extra coals on the top to compensate.
Placement is Everything
Begin by placing the amount of coals needed for a layer down on your fire pan or stockpot lid and spread them out evenly. Place your prepared Dutch oven on the layer, and then place the desired number of charcoal on the lid of the oven, spreading out evenly. If using more than one oven, place the next one on top of the first, and add the charcoal to the top of the second lid. You can continuing your stacking up to three ovens high.
Set a timer and try not to open the lid to check on it too often; each time you do, you are releasing heat and slowing the process. Keep in mind your food will continue cooking for some time after removing it from heat. When you are all done with the charcoal, they can be used to keep wash buckets warm. Alternately you could add them to a campfire to burn up. Or simply put them in a bucket of water to cool off before disposing of in the trash. Larger coals that did not burn down much can be reused after cooling.
Just like your cast iron at home, soap is not to be used with Dutch ovens. Cleaning them while still warm using a small brush with stiff bristles works great. You can season it afterward by heating it on the stove and brushing or wiping a small amount of your desired oil or grease to the bottom and sides for 1-2 minutes. Make sure to check the area you used as a baking station for any charcoal dust or hot sand that needs to be taken care of.
And there you have it: the basics to Dutch oven baking in the backcountry! By following these guidelines, you are ready to impress your fellow campers with any of your favorite baked dishes!
Originally from the suburbs near Cleveland, Ohio, Justin made his way to Utah after graduating from Ohio University with a degree in exploring and having fun… If not on the river or in the kitchen, you’ll find him wandering the mountains, drinking coffee, or writing down words he hopes will come across as sensical.