General Dutch Oven Heating Tips
You can make anything in a Dutch Oven that you can make in your own oven, on your stovetop, or in a slow cooker. Apply more heat (or all of it) on the bottom for frying, boiling, or simmering. Apply more of the heat on the top with coals on the lid for baking. Heating a Dutch Oven to a specific temperature, however, is not an exact science. Sometimes you will just have some charcoal that you have lit specifically for cooking. Sometimes you will have a campfire and some wood coals. The environment, including any wind, and the temperature around you will also come into play. Whether or not you are using a liner of any kind in your oven. And Dutch Ovens vary from brand to brand as far as how they heat, and how many coals it takes to get the food to a certain temperature. People will ask me how long I need to cook something before dinner will be ready, and invariable I will say “until it’s done.”
Cooking with Charcoal
My advice is to look up some of the charcoal counting references online, and use those for a starting point and make adjustments from there. I usually need to add more coals to my Camp Chef Deluxe model Dutch Ovens than most recipes will tell you. They seem to heat slower and need more heat to get up to cooking temps. But that also makes them great for cooking right on our campfire. When you have to maintain heat over a longer period of time, that’s when it gets tricky. You need to start thinking about adding additional coals to keep the temperature up in your oven. Anything over 30-45 minutes and you may want to consider this. Have a pile of coals off to the side, and add some fresh ones to the pile to start them burning a few minutes before you need to start putting fresh coals under and on top of your oven. Also, rotate your oven. Especially if you are cooking near your campfire. The coals may not be completely even underneath, and the side towards the fire may be cooking hotter. So occasionally you will want to spin your oven around part of a turn.
For my 12″ Camp Chef, I normally start with around 18 briquettes on the lid, and 10 or so on the bottom for most applications. If I need to boil something or brown meat, I put a solid bed of coals under it, and if it seems too hot then start taking some away. For my 10″ Lodge, I need fewer on top, and I don’t usually want to put a solid bed of coals under it. I leave some open area, and just have a few coals for it to sit on. That oven seems to heat up a lot faster, and it’s also smaller.
Dutch Oven Cooking Over a Wood Fire
In some ways, this is not quite as easy. Your coals are of varying sizes and temperatures. But if you are familiar with how much space 18 coals take on top of your Dutch Oven, you can approximate the same amount of coals from your wood fire. The part I like about cooking over the wood fire is that I can keep the fire going nearby, and pull coals off it as needed for the oven. If you’ve been doing it for a while, you get to the point you just throw some on top, and some under the oven and watch it. Cast Iron is fairly forgiving if you don’t go completely overboard. But if you’re cooking next to the campfire, it’s important to keep turning the oven around from time to time to keep the heat even.