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Old West and Chuckwagon Cooking RecipesOLD WEST COOKIN'

The Dutch Oven for Campfire Cooking

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Campfire Cookin' With a Dutch Oven


An absolute "must have” for campfire cooking is an old-fashioned Dutch Oven. You know -- the heavy cast iron, lipped lid, three-legged pan. The history of this cooking wonder goes back hundreds of years in various forms. In 1704, an Englishman by the name of Andrew Darby, taking what he learned by observing the Dutch system of making these cooking vessels, patented a process similar to them, and produced cast-metal cooking vessels for Britain and the new American colonies. The term "Dutch Oven" has been used since about 1710.


American's changed the design over time, including making a shallower pot, putting legs on it, flanging the lid, something that has been credited to famous colonist Paul Revere.


You can use a Dutch oven on a wood stove or open fire cooking. Dutch Ovens come in all shapes and sizes but the most usable size is a 12-inch diameter with legs, a bale handle on the body of the pan, a small loop handle on the lid, and a lipped lid -- the heavier the better.  Twelve inches may seem like a large pan, but not so large that a meal for four would be lost and versatile enough for a crowd of 8-10.


Camp cook near Marfa, Texas

Camp cook using dutch ovens near Marfa, Texas, 1939.




A heavy pan will retain heat for longer periods and cook your food more evenly than a thinner pan. Any pan you use on the open fire needs to have a bale handle, as you will need to be able to slide a stick or pot lifter under the handle to move it.


You could buy a pan with a flat bottom, but these pans are best left to the conventional or wood stovetop. The flat surface of the bottom will not allow heat from a fire to evenly absorb into the iron to provide even cooking and you won't be able to get the coals up under it. A pan with 3 legs is actually more stable than one with 4 legs. An additional small loop handle on the lid will save time, as well as burned fingers when you take off the lid to check the food.


Finally, the lipped lid, with the lip running around the outer edge will make your job of regulating the temperature easier, as well as keeping the hot coals on when you are moving the pan around in the fire area. Most lids are somewhat dome shaped and can be turned upside down to use as a griddle or frying pan on the hot coals.


Cast iron pans are slow to heat up, retain heat for a long time and work best when used at lower temperatures except when frying.


Seasoning the Pan


If you purchase a cast iron pan it is necessary to season it well in order to make it as non-stick as possible and to lengthen its life. Some pans that are well taken care of will last for generations. Wash the new pan with soap and warm water very well as there is usually a lacquer on them that will burn onto the food the first time it’s used. Old, rusty pans can be scrubbed with steel wool and washed with soap and water, too, but be sure to clean any vestiges of steel shavings from the steel wool out of the pan.


Dry the pan well and use a clean towel or paper towel to rub a thin layer of shortening or other vegetable oil all over the cooking area of the pan. You may want to oil the outside of the pan also, purely for appearances. Do not use animal fat or lard as it can become rancid very quickly.


After rubbing the oil into the pan, place the pan in a warm oven at 250 F, or over warm coals for 2 hours, replacing the coals often to maintain the temperature.  Cool the pan and repeat the oiling, heating and cooling process 2 more times.


To clean your pan after the oiling and baking process, wash with a mild soap, rinsing and drying thoroughly after each use.  Each time you wash your pan dry it completely in a low oven or on warm coals. Then oil it lightly and bake in the oven or over coals again. This process, known as "curing" will ensure that your pan maintains its non-stick surface and keeps your pan lasting for a lifetime.


Cooking Methods When Using a Dutch Oven


There are four  different methods of cooking with a Dutch Oven over a campfire – each  achieved by altering the source of heat.


Roasting - In roasting, the heat from your coals should come from the top and bottom evenly. You will place coals on top, as well as pulling the coals up under the pan to create an even heat. Place the same amount of coals on the lid as under the pan. Roasting is best achieved at high temperatures and short cooking times. This will seal in the juices.


Frying and Boiling - When frying and boiling, all the heat should come from underneath the pan. The temperature should be high and kept even during the cooking processes.


Baking - Baking requires cooking mostly from the top. You should place the coals on the lid and underneath the pan at a three to one ratio, with most of the coals on the lid.  You will want to watch baking foods very carefully.


Simmering and Stewing - Most of the heat should be from the bottom of the pan. The coals should be placed on the lid and underneath the pan in a four to one ratio, with the bulk of the coals underneath the oven. Regulate the heat in stewing and simmering by moving hot coals underneath the pan

Remember not to rush the cooking process. If you allow adequate time for the oven to heat up before adding the food, and keep the coals manipulated to maintain the temperature, you will have great results. 


Number of Coals to Use to Achieve the Desired Temperature


Coals must be used on both the top and the bottom of the Dutch Oven. Use only quality charcoal briquettes for consistent temperature control. The chart below shows you how many coals to use for a desired temperature.



10" Oven

12" Oven

14" Oven

Degrees F




































Note: Adding one coal to the top and bottom will raise the temperature of the Dutch Oven approximately 25 degrees. Or conversely removing one set of briquettes will lower the temperature by 25 degrees.


Check Out our Dutch Oven Recipes



Compiled and edited by Kathy Weiser/Legends of America, updated August, 2011.



Chuck Wagon cook near Spur, Texas, 1939.

Chuck wagon cook near Spur, Texas, 1939.

This image available for photographic prints HERE!


Also See:


The Chuck Wagon - The Real Queen of the Cattle Trail

Chuckwagon Western Recipes

Campfire Recipes

Flavors of the Mother Road - Route 66 Recipes

Good Ole' Fashioned Recipes






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