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Camp Oven (or Dutch Oven) Cooking

Written by Tracey, October 2008

How to select, prepare and care for a camp oven. How to produce to most amazing meals with minimum effort while sitting around a good old Australian camp fire.

 

Introduction

 

Our camp oven in action. - [Click for a Larger Image]
Our camp oven in
action.

In my opinion there is nothing better than cooking on an open campfire. We have been travelling Australia since 2003 and at every opportunity we try to cook outside. There are 2 main reasons for this – firstly we love sitting by a fire at night, and secondly we are often in temperatures where is just too damn hot to be heating up the inside of the bus by using the stove or oven.

Whether you choose to cook using a camp oven, put your food directly into the coals, or use a BBQ plate, nothing beats the enjoyment of sitting around the fire with a tinnie or two and listening to the sounds of the bush while the smells of a delicious roast or freshly baking bread delight your senses.

Camp ovens are a very versatile piece of cooking equipment and can be used to cook pretty much anything that you would cook at home on a standard stove top or oven. Cooking in a camp oven is very simple and it doesn’t require too much effort to produce a fantastic meal.

 

 


Choosing your Camp Oven

There are 3 main types of material used to manufacture camp ovens- cast aluminum, spun steel and cast iron. The camp ovens I use are cast iron, and while these are heavier than the other types, they are more common and I am very happy with the results I get from these ovens.

Cast iron requires special protection from rust. This material rusts very quickly so it must be "seasoned" to protect the metal (see Seasoning your Camp Oven). This seasoning is usually done by burning oil into the pores of the metal to form a hard protective layer.

 

Cast iron camp ovens react slowly to temperature changes so you don't burn food as easily and they also retain their temperature for quite a while after they have been removed from heat.

 

Choose a camp oven that is well made. There are some cheaper brands available that may be tempting but will ultimately be less versatile and give you poorer results. Here are some things to look for:

 

Camp ovens are generally round or oval, are available in a variety of sizes, and come in two basic styles. The type I use are made of heavy cast iron and have a flat, tight fitting lid with a vertical lip around the outer edge for holding coals and keeping them from falling into your food when you remove the lid.


The other style has a domed lid without an outer rim; these cannot be used for placing coals on top.
Camp ovens also come with or without short legs on the base. The idea of the legs is to maintain the height of the camp oven above the ground and allow air to flow around the coals underneath while cooking. I am not sure that these are of much benefit as the legs tend to bury into the coals so the camp oven is usually sitting directly on the heat anyway.


My ovens are all flat bottomed and I find that sitting the camp oven directly onto coals does not adversely affect the cooking process as long as the camp oven is rotated regularly (see Tips for Cooking). A flat bottom also allows them to be used on a stove or gas ring and directly in the oven, something I do often if we are camped in a place where we can’t have an open fire.
 
The last thing to consider when selecting a cast iron camp oven is the roughness of the surface. A rougher surface provides a better result when seasoning as there is more surface area for the oil to adhere to, and as the oil builds up and hardens with use it creates a very smooth surface to cook on. On a camp oven with a smooth cast the protective layer can peel when being cleaned as it has nothing to adhere to and the oil can’t get into the pores of the metal.

 

Seasoning your Cast Iron Camp Oven

Seasoning your camp oven has two purposes. Firstly it forms a barrier between moisture in the air and the metal surface which prevents rust from forming, and secondly it forms a non-stick layer on the inside of the camp oven which, if properly maintained, is as good as Teflon. This layer will darken and turn black over time and is a sign of a well used and well cared-for camp oven.
The seasoning procedure only needs to be done when you first purchase your camp oven, unless the protective layer is damaged during cooking or in storage, or rust forms.
 
New good quality camp ovens are shipped with an (often thick) coating of protective grease to preserve the metal and prevent it rusting. This coating must be completely removed if you don’t want your food to taste like machine oil, and requires some steel wool, detergent, hot water, perseverance and elbow grease! This is the only time you will ever use soap on your camp oven. Once all traces of the coating have been removed, it should be rinsed well, then towel dried and allowed to air dry.
 
You can use your kitchen oven, or a gas BBQ with a cover to season you camp oven, or if these are not available then it can be done on a campfire. Be aware if doing this inside that things will get a little smoky as the last traces of protective grease burn off so ensure the area is well ventilated.
  1. Preheat your oven or BBQ to 200 deg C, place the dry camp oven in the centre with the lid ajar and allow it to warm slowly so it is just barely too hot to handle with bare hands. This pre-heating does two things; it drives any remaining moisture out of the metal and opens the pores of the metal.
  2. Apply a thin layer of vegetable oil with a paper towel, ensuring every cm of the camp oven inside and out is covered (vegetable oil is preferred over other oils as it will set and harden at lower temperatures).
  3. Place it back in the centre of the oven upside down to stop oil pooling in the bottom, with the lid resting on top. Leave for 1 hour at 200 deg C; this hardens the oil into a protective coating.
  4. Remove the camp oven and allow it to cool slowly, when cool enough to handle apply another thin layer of oil and repeat the baking process.
  5. Allow to cool again and apply the final thin layer of oil. Do not leave any oil pooled in the bottom as this will turn rancid and ruin your new protective coating.

Your new camp oven should now have 2 baked on layers of oil and one final layer applied while still warm. Your camp oven is now ready to use!

 

It is a good idea to avoid cooking anything with a lot of sugar or a high acid content such as tomatoes, for the first 2 or 3 times after seasoning your camp oven. The acid and sugars can break down the protective covering before it has a chance to harden properly.

 

Maintaining your Camp Oven

After use simply rinse out with warm water, the protective coating makes it very easy to wipe off any food. To remove any stuck on food place some warm water into the camp oven and heat it until almost boiling, any food should then be easily removed with a gentle scrubber. It is a good idea to have a separate scrubber for your camp ovens that never goes near any detergent.
Do not use any detergent or soap to clean your seasoned camp oven. This will taint your food.
Detergent will destroy the protective layer, coat the pores of the metal and return to make your next meal taste rather soapy.

Once clean allow the camp oven to air dry, and then gently heat over the fire or on a stove until hot to the touch. Apply a thin coating of vegetable oil to all surfaces both inside and out, including the lid. This should be done with each use otherwise the protective layer will break down over time causing your camp oven to rust.
 

Storing your Camp Oven

Do not store with the lid tightly on as air needs to circulate through the oven to stop the oil turning rancid. Keep the lid ‘cracked’ by laying a rolled up paper towel across the rim between the camp oven and the lid, leaving a small amount inside to help draw away any moisture. This also provides some padding and prevents the lid from banging up and down on the camp oven while driving.
I place my small camp oven inside my large one, with an old tea-towel between them and use my thick gloves (see Useful Accessories) between the lids as padding.
It is also a good idea to place your camp oven(s) inside a protective cover to keep them free of dust.
 

Useful Accessories

Cooking on an open fire is made much easier with the addition of these few simple extras:

Camp Oven Accessories - [Click for a Larger Image]
Camp Oven Accessories

 

Campfire Tips

Where possible I try to dig a pit for my campfire, about 60cm square and about 10 – 15cm deep with at ;east 1metre of clear ground around it. I find it is easier to keep the coals contained in a small area and the pit also doubles as a wind break. Once we have finished with the fire it is easy to fill in the hole and replace the grass, thereby leaving no trace of a fire having been there.

Our Camp Oven dinner is cooking - [Click for a Larger Image]
Our Camp Oven dinner is
cooking

I then dig a smaller pit about 1 metre from the main fire just large enough to contain my camp oven(s). The reason for this is it is generally not recommended to use your camp oven directly over the open flames of your campfire. It tends to be much harder to control the heat and you could end up with food sticking to the camp oven or even with burnt offerings.

 

In order to get a sufficient bed of coals for cooking you will need to start your fire a good 2 hrs before being ready to put your food on, and have a good supply of wood at hand. Allow the fire to die down a little and you will get a good bed of coals. The number of coals you will need will be dependent on the type of wood you use and how long it will take to cook your meal.

 

Hard woods such as Gidgyea, Mulga, Jarrah, Desert Oak, Red Gum, Blackbutt, Ash and Ironbark make much better coals for cooking as they are hotter and also retain their heat for much longer. Hard woods do however take longer to burn and therefore longer to make good embers. Soft woods such as Pine burn much faster but tend to burn to ash and less dense coals that quickly loose their heat.

 

Tips for Cooking

If you use an iron cast camp oven, it is recommended that you preheat the camp oven close to the fire before you start cooking in it, just as you would preheat a normal oven
Once the embers are ready, place a shovel of coals into your smaller pit and place the camp oven on top, then place a shovel of coals on the lid.

 

Now comes the part that may take a little practice - knowing how much heat you have.
Initially you will need to add more hot coals after about five minutes because the camp oven is not up to temperature and the heat gets sucked out of the coals fairly quickly. Once the camp oven is hot (and depending on the wood you have used) then the coals will need a top-up every 20mins or so (more often if you have used a softer wood, less often for a really hardwood like Gidgyea). This is based on a roast, if you are cooking damper, bread, scones etc then you will probably need less heat, therefore less frequently replenishing the coals.
As a general rule of thumb, if the meat is sizzling then there is enough heat, if not then add a few more coals top and bottom. It is much better to cook things slowly than to apply too much heat and overcook or burn your creation.

 

Camp Oven - lifting the lid - [Click for a Larger Image]
Camp Oven - lifting the
lid

In order to avoid ‘hotspots’ on the bottom or on the lid, rotate the camp oven 90 degs clockwise and the lid 90 deg counter-clockwise every 10 – 15 minutes.
When you move the camp oven to replenish the hot coals underneath, or remove the lid to stir the pot or turn your veges, avoid putting it down on the ground as this will suck out a lot of the heat – I place it on a couple of sticks of wood to keep it off the ground.

 

 

Take care when lifting the lid if it is piled with coals. Use the brush to move any coals and ash back from the edge and then gently lift the lid, taking care not to let it tip and deposit coals into your food – not good when you have just waited two hours for it to cook!
 
Camp Ovens are extremely versatile and I wouldn't go anywhere without one. From cooking roasts, casseroles, rice, soups, bread and damper, pizzas, lasagna, cakes, scones….. you could get by with just this one pot, in fact you can adapt just about any recipe to be cooked in a camp oven.

Food cooked over an open fire has a very special quality to it. The fresh air, watching the hypnotic effect of the fire as the light fades from the day, the combination of wood smoke and the flavours embedded into a well-used camp oven make every meal worth waiting for.

You may also like to read the Hobohome article about making Camp Oven Bread


This document is copyright (c) and may not be reproduced in any form without written permission from the author. If you find the information contained in this documents useful please let us know. If you believe it is incorrect or inaccurate in any way please contact the author.

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