Fire to Plate: Cooking with the 3Campers
Welcome to July and the monthly 3Campers “Fire to Plate” Blog.
Thank you to Harmony Foods for sharing our adventures.
We haven’t headed back out with the camper yet in 2020, but we plan to pretty soon – and we will be employing sanitizing, hand washing, social distancing, masks and so forth to be safe and considerate of others.
This month’s focus is on our campfire cooking and specifically cast iron cooking. Kay and Ann plan most of the menus, I’m Karl and I just basically do a lot of the fire work and cooking. It works out great.
My cooking tool of choice – CAST IRON!! You can’t hurt it on a campfire, in fact if anything CAST IRON loves the heat!! Nothing better than well-seasoned cast iron and cleanup is a breeze. I use many of my cast iron pans all year round just to keep them seasoned and you can make some pretty tasty dishes in CAST IRON cookware.
There’s simple things we do in cast iron like morels, bacon, hash browns or eggs and then we do some more complicated things. Finally my favorite is the “Dutch Oven”.
Where did the term “Dutch Oven” come from? Let’s go back to the 17th century and follow the Englishman Abraham Darby as he travels to the Netherlands in search of better casting methods for brass cookware. After seeing brass cast in sand molds, Darby has the brilliant inspiration to adapt that process to cast iron to make more affordable cookware. Thus in 1707, with his assistant James Thomas, the method was created and the “Dutch Oven” was patented and the rest, as they say, is history. Along with the ovens, came the frying pans and other specialty cast iron cookware. There’s a lot of cast iron cookware out there but this month I’d like to focus on the Dutch oven.
There are several styles of Dutch Ovens. I basically have two – one with legs and one without. Both are 12 inch, one is shallow and one is deep. The Dutch Oven without legs can be used in an oven (gas or electric), or on a burner, or on a grill for cooking. The Dutch Oven with legs I place charcoal briquettes on top and underneath to establish my heat. Either could be suspended over an open fire too.
For baking in a Dutch oven, I like to use a charcoal chimney to start my coals and then place them on top and underneath. But, let’s set up the oven while the coals are heating up. I travel with a couple of simple 8” x 16” patio blocks – this is the surface I will place coals and my oven on. I find a suitable spot, usually next to the fire pit and place the two blocks side by side giving me a 16 x 16 cook area. I then level them (say What? YES Level them – heat rises straight up ; ) trust me on this one….. I then cover the blocks with some heavy aluminum foil – which reflects the heat up, nice neat appearance, or I’m just a little anal when it comes to some of this stuff….but it works. Then if it's windy, I have a simple wind break of 3 pieces of plywood precut and drilled with some screws that takes about 5 min to set up if I need it.
Now, I can already hear some of you asking how much charcoal? Well – the rule of thumb is 2x the diameter of the oven and place 75% on the lid and 25% underneath for a 350 degree oven. There are a lot of charts on line as well, this is a good starting point and you will have to experiment. Also – briquettes are good for about 45 min of heat so if you need 90 min to bake a whole chicken or a tenderloin roast start some more coals 30 min in. As the coals cook down blow the ash away to keep the coal hot, this also helps you see when to add more. Here is an example of what you can find online for heat charts – there are many out there and they all seem to be a good reference point.
We did a great lobster jambalaya on the fire in the dutch oven up at Hayes Lake State Park. The bonus on this one was that on our hike that day we stumbled onto some Lobster Mushrooms – was a great addition to the feast.
So this was in the pot over the fire, the trick here is not to burn the bottom of the. So I build charcoal and hardwood cook fires and keep my pieces small so I can regulate the heat and length of the fire. I like a good hot fire and always keep grill space that is off center of the heat. Another thing I carry camping are several grill grates for different fire rings plus some angle iron so that I can level my grate. Again it is very important to have your cooking surface level.
I was able to simmer the ingredients, cover and cook and never scorched the pot.
Another time found us cooking a beef tenderloin roast in the Dutch oven – this time using the legged oven with the charcoal briquettes.
Another favorite is a wholechicken in the Dutch oven.
I added a cast iron trivet to the inside of my Dutch Oven and its great because you don’t burn to the bottom and it gives some space for juices to accumulate which produces a much more moist and juicy end product.
Sometimes we just have to have a fresh hot desert – Dutch oven apple cobbler. In this recipe I used a parchment liner for easy serving and clean up. Note the cookbooks – “Lodges” Basic 101 and “Campfire Cuisine” Good tips and recipes.
I have a 12” oven so I use 24 briquettes to get it to 350 degrees. Here’s a little trick for you – start the campfire and preheat your Dutch oven, it takes a lot of life out of your coals if they have to preheat that oven and bake your dinner. 75% or 18 coals go on top and 6 coals go underneath in a circular pattern. I find I get about 45 – 60 minutes of consistent heat and usually I can add a handful of coals right with the other ones and they will light and get hot as the other ones cool, keeping the heat consistent and extending the cook time.
Cooking with cast iron is fun and rewarding and clean up is a breeze, a little water and a stiff brush or plastic scraper if needed and it only takes minutes, lightly oil and its ready to go again.
A couple of cast iron seasoning tip – cook up a pound or two of bacon – good eating and best seasoning you can do for the pan. Traditional seasoning is to heavily oil the pan with corn oil, heat at 350 or until it begins to smoke, flip the pan over in the oven and let it drip and cool down on its own (use a cookie sheet or pan under it ). When the pan is cool, lightly wipe with a paper towel and its ready to go.
Can’t wait to hit the road and heat up some iron!! Happy Cooking and Camping!!