Dutch Oven: Delicious Trial and Error
If you care to see a complete cooking resume, just look toward my burgeoning waistline. While I have not yet reached professional chef status, it is only about one pie and two dozen cookies away because the old saying is true: “Never trust a skinny cook.”
You can trust me.
During a recent yard cleanup, I split a couple of huge hickory trunk slabs that had been lying around for several years. The effort produced a nice pile of firewood, along with a first-rate finger laceration, a herd of back spasms and enough sweat to fill a saltwater aquarium. Too late I discovered that the firewood sticks would be too long for our fireplace.
Standing, sweating and sucking on the bleeding finger, I suddenly was confronted with an answer in search of a problem. On the passing cool breeze, an idea took shape: break out my brand-new Dutch oven.
For those who aren’t familiar with the Dutch oven, it is essentially a heavy cast iron kettle with a specially designed lid made to hold hot coals, thus baking the food from all sides. The Dutch oven was the pioneer equivalent of a slow-cooker that can even bake bread.
I had used a Dutch oven previously when camping but had not attempted anything more elaborate than beans. I therefore vowed to use the ample supply of wood to master the art of Dutch oven cooking.
The first order of business before using any new cast iron utensil is to “season” it. This is the process of driving oil into the pores of the metal, forming a natural non-stick surface. My oven came from the factory with a paraffin coating that first needed removal so I placed the oven directly onto the campfire I had prepared in our backyard. Within minutes, the coating dissolved into an oily sheen and I opened the lid with the metal potholder.
This was a mistake because I hadn’t considered what happens when superheated petroleum products are suddenly exposed to air. The resulting flash fire was quite spectacular and momentarily took my mind off the injured finger.
After the oven had cooled, I washed it with very hot water, rubbed cooking oil all over the surfaces inside and out and waited for a half hour for the oil to soak into the pores of the iron. The oven was now ready for use.
The first cooking attempt involved two packages of store-bought cornbread mix. The oven was put back on the fire and I used an old shovel to pile more coals onto the lid.
It wasn’t long before steam began wafting from the edges of the pot. Concerned that the cornbread wouldn’t brown properly, I added more coals until the oven was hidden under a small glowing orange pyramid.
Ten minutes later, I checked inside. My first recipe turned out to be a fancy Cajun dish known as Blackened Cornbread.
The first rule of Dutch oven cooking: you don’t really need that many hot coals.
After the whole mess was scraped clean, the oven was oiled and put away until the following weekend.
The second attempt would be venison stew. This was in the hopes that dinner made from a deer that I had personally hunted and cooked over wood that I had cut myself would be a tasty and meaningful way to use the bounty of nature. I also hoped it would be harder to burn stew.
Starting at noon, a nice roast from the freezer was cut into one-inch cubes and browned in butter. Here’s another cooking tip: a half stick of butter will instantly burst into flames when thrown into a hot Dutch oven.
After the meat was nicely browned and my new series of burns salved, the venison was covered with water along with salt, pepper and garlic powder. I then went about yard work for the remainder of the day, periodically adding sticks of wood around the pot and replenishing the water level.
Toward evening, half of a diced white onion was added to the pot. As darkness approached I cut up several potatoes and carrots and added them to the pot with more water. Twenty minutes later I checked that the whole affair was bubbling nicely and a couple of tablespoons of flour were added to thicken the gravy. After calling the kids and dogs, the oven was carefully carried into the house and sat upon the stove.
My family approached the blackened and ash-covered cast iron pot with trepidation, at least until I opened the lid. As the smell of cooked vegetables, velvety soft venison and rich gravy filled the kitchen, the assembled crew did a group double take.
It was a good day for The Flaming Chef. Once my eyebrows grow back, I may even attempt Dutch oven biscuits.