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Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Dutch Ovens

Every person needs to experience biscuits made using a dutch oven in a camp fire at least once in their lifetime.  If you never try to make anything else ever, or if you never try to make biscuits again in your life, this is one time that you should!  Nothing beats the smokey flavor imparted by using hardwood to heat your oven.  Cooking time is actually very similar to using a conventional oven and your family and friends will love them even if they don't come out perfect!

First thing you'll need to do is locate a good dutch oven.  If you don't ever buy another quality piece of cast iron cookware, this is the one time you will get what you pay for.  The thicker the better is the rule here.  The cast iron holds heat and cooks more evenly when it is thicker.  If you have a cheap, thin dutch oven it will warp, crack, let coals into the inside, and have severe hot spots that will leave parts uncooked and other parts burned.  As for size, the perfect, general use dutch oven is the 12 inch, six quart type.

The next necessity for a good cast iron dutch oven is that it has legs.  There are many out there that do not have legs, and they work great in a conventional oven.  They also work really well on a rack over a fire for frying and what-not.  They do not work well as an OVEN though.  The reason is that an oven needs to have steady, all over heat.  You achieve this by setting it into the coals of a waning fire and then shoveling a good heap onto the lid.  A flat bottomed oven will set on top of the coals and smother all that are below the bottom.  They also tend to not sit very flat.  The legs allow it to sit ever so slightly higher over the coals and allows the coals to breath.  You should also try to find the three legged variety as these will sit level and without rocking on any surface.  If you can only find the flat bottomed version, you can always use three lemon sized rocks for makeshift legs.

The next consideration for a cast iron oven is in the seasoning.  This applies to ANY cast iron cookware; good seasoning is a MUST!  Seasoning seals the pores of the cast iron and prevents sticking.  To properly season a iron pot, skillet, oven, or griddle is a bit time consuming, but not difficult.  The better the seasoning job you perform, the better you will enjoy using the cast iron.  The first thing you will do, and NEVER do again until you decide to reseason it is scrub it with hot water and soap using coarse steel wool.  You will NEVER use soap on cast iron afterwards, and you will never scrub it unless you want to reseason it.  Well, I guess you could... if you like food that tastes like your soap, or you want to permanently adhere your eggs to the skillet.

Here is a brief instruction on seasoning cast iron cookware:
1.  Scrub with soap and hot water to remove any oils that may be present due to the manufacturing process, or if it is antique, to remove any contaminants that may have landed on it inadvertently.
(Do not scrub NEW pre-seasoned cast iron as it is ready to use.  You CAN apply a fresh coat if you'd like though.)
2.  Apply a nice wetting coat of melted shortening or vegetable oil to the entire pan, inside and out.  Not too much or it will be sticky afterwards.
3.  Place it upside-down in an oven preheated to 400 degrees that has had the bottom covered with foil for any drips.
4.  Allow it to cook for an hour and then turn the oven off and allow it to slowly cool inside the oven.  Repeat this at least twice more for new unseasoned cast iron.  You should now have a nice coating on the pan.
5.  Store your cast iron in a dry area and watch for any rust that may develop over time.

Using your cast iron is just like anything else, it takes a bit of practice to master it.  A couple things you need to accept right from the start are that you will not SCRUB it or use SOAP on it after it is seasoned.  You wash it with plain water and a cloth.  If you are concerned about germs you have to consider this: after you wash it you will dry it in an oven at 350 degrees afterwards and then reoil it.  350 degrees will sanitize anything.  The next thing is to add a bit of extra oil right before you begin cooking for the first couple uses to help prevent sticking.  Also, count on sticking for the first five or six uses!  I don't care what people tell ya!

Ok... Back on topic!  Put your oven in the campfire* (literally) and cover the lid with coals so it too will heat up.  Crap, another side note here... NO evergreen or sappy wood!  Use oak, hickory, ash, poplar.... something along those lines.  Okay.... Now, mix your biscuits while the oven is heating.  When everything is set, take the oven out and using a natural bristle brush, cotton towel, or even a paper towel, lightly oil your dutch oven before adding your biscuits to the bottom.  A piece of parchment paper on the bottom could also be used instead of oiling for a surefire nonstick solution.

Now, quickly prep your fire by raking the coals back from the bottom of the fire pit.  Get a layer of good hot coals about an inch and a half deep ready on one side of the fire pit.  Place your oven on top but don't squash the coals; it should be supported by the legs on the dirt underneath and still lightly touching the coals.  Lastly, put about 18 to 20 chucks of golf ball sized coals on top of the lid.  This will give you about 400 degrees for about 30 minutes.  You will only cook your biscuits for about 15 minutes and don't forget to start timing from the second you put them in the preheated oven!

This also makes fantastic cornbread, cinnamon rolls, and loaf biscuit.

* For the yuppies...
If you want to try this at your home located safely in town, you can use charcoal briquettes.  Using QUALITY briquettes such as Kingsford start yourself a pile of 30 briquettes and let them burn until they are ready like when grilling your filet mignon.  Spread them out and use 10 on the bottom, and 20 on the lid for a 12 inch oven.  Go down to the Market and buy frozen Pilsbury "Homemade" biscuits and then follow the instruction above.  After the oven cools, donate your dutch oven to a local transient under a bridge because you cannot put it into a dishwasher.  Try not to burn yourself... careful, it's hot when in use.



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