About 6 years ago I purchased a 12qt Dutch Oven from Lodge, along with a tripod for setting it up over the campfire and, as the title says, my perspective on camping and camping meals has never been the same. From stews to chili to lasagna and baked chicken, it's amazing how easy it is to cook a big hearty meal miles from the conveniences of home with the dutch oven.
The traditional way to use the dutch oven is to place a variable number of coals underneath it and on top and just let it sit, usually in a small hole dug just for the purpose. The cast iron heats amazingly well and disperses its heat evenly, allowing you to literally bake the contents inside instead of the usual campfire style of grilling, pan frying, cooking on a stick, etc. Change the number of coals and you can easily adjust the baking temperature. Now that you've got a portable oven to cook with, it's amazing the recipes that open up to you - cornbread, cobbler, pizza, baked casseroles, roast chicken, you name it. If you cook it in the oven at home, you can make it in the woods.
The tripod accessory throws the traditional baking method on its head, but it actually tends to be the way I use it the most. With the tripod you just hang the dutch oven right over the flames. So there's a good amount of direct heat on the bottom, but thanks to the cast iron and the tight lid you still generate a lot of indirect heat inside the oven.
The first meal I ever had from a dutch oven was a delicious stew, cooked using the tripod, and it's probably no coincidence that stews are also my 'old faithful' meal in the dutch oven. It's just so easy to throw a bunch of carrots, potatoes, celery, meat, and water into the oven, set it up over the fire and kick back and wait for the stew to be ready (for real simplicity just chop all the veggies before you head out and the meal is literally as easy as adding water or soup base).
The dutch oven even adds an extra layer of entertainment to sitting around the fire. Instead of just staring into the flames you get to also watch as the stew does its thing and do the occasional stirring (and tasting of course).
I'll never forget the first time I passed out a bunch of bowls to my brave camp mates and began dishing out ladles of warm stew or soup around the campfire. Picture any old Western you've seen and you'll probably remember a scene where a group of cowboys are sitting around a campfire dishing out servings of beans from a pot hanging over the campfire. It's easy to see why the dutch oven brings along an old fashioned feel to it. But, the moment your fellow campers realize you're serving up some garlic pesto chicken, baked ziti or blueberry cobbler instead of the usual hot dogs and buns, you'll erase any notions of the rustic cowboy scene in yours or anyone else's mind.
A dutch oven is certainly no piece of gear for a backpacker, but for those car camping trips where you can load up on the cold beers and good food, there's really no reason to go without it. And, take it from me, there's nothing like filling up on a bowl of delicious stew and then kicking back in your lightweight camping hammock and falling asleep gently under the stars.
Let me know if you already use a dutch oven and what you love to cook or, if this article inspires you to go out and get a dutch oven, be sure to report back and let me know how it's changed your culinary exploits around the fire.
If you've got some good recipes to share, please post them in the Outdoor Chefs Unite! section of our Forum. I'll definitely be posting some of my favorites soon...