Quick: you’ve got your emergency foods stored in the pantry, but how are you going to cook them? Think fast, because without an off-the-grid cooking method you could be stuck eating cold cans of kidney beans in the event of a power outage or major collapse.

Fortunately, Dutch oven cooking is a skill everybody can learn. More than an alternate cooking method, it’s a culinary art and a family pastime. Some of the best memories are made over a campfire and a delicious Dutch oven meal.

Dutch ovens are the cookware that won the West—and the East, too. They were so valuable in early America that they were bequeathed in wills and passed down for generations. Pioneer women used them on the frontier where fire was the only means of cooking; they were ideal for life on the move because you could prepare a whole meal in one pot, with easy cleanup (today we love them for the same reasons).

The earliest Dutch ovens were cast iron, with tall steep sides and no legs—much like the kitchen varieties of today. The modern camp Dutch oven has evolved legs for sitting over hot coals with better temperature regulation (no hot spots on the bottom). The thick cast iron body makes for very uniform heat distribution, so a Dutch oven can be used to cook bread, pizza, cake, or anything that can be baked in an oven—and anything you can deep fry, boil or roast, too. You can even turn the lid of your Dutch oven upside down, set it on hot coals, and use it like a griddle to fry eggs, French toast or fish you just caught from the nearest stream.

Not all camp Dutch ovens are cast iron; there are also aluminum versions popular in river rafting and hiking expeditions because they weigh only a third as much as the heavy cast iron. But aluminum Dutch ovens can be damaged if heated to high temperatures, and don’t hold their heat as well or cook as evenly as their cast iron cousins. Combine that with the good flavor that seasoned cast iron lends to a dish, and cast iron Dutch ovens can’t be beat.

Choosing a Dutch oven

Camp Dutch ovens are 4 to 6 inches deep, with a handle for lifting and moving and a heavy lid that fits on tightly and acts as a pressure cooker for food. Dutch ovens range in diameter from 8 to 24 inches; the most common are 12-inch (6 quart) and 14-inch (8 quart) sizes. When full, a 12-inch Dutch oven can serve 12 to 14 people, so it is adequate for most purposes.

Lodge Dutch ovens, manufactured in Tennessee since Joseph Lodge began the operation in 1896, are the Cadillacs of Dutch ovens, costing upwards of $100. Camp Chef ovens, ranging from $60 to $109 for standard-sized models, are also good quality. But the truth is that you don’t have to spend a pretty penny to get a good camp oven. Much of my Dutch oven cooking has been in inexpensive off-brand Dutch ovens, and I’ve always been pleased with the results. (What you really don’t want to cheap out on are charcoal briquettes, as we’ll discuss later.) You can find good Dutch ovens at outdoor gear stores, at Army/Navy surplus stores, at farming supply stores, on manufacturers’ websites where you can order them directly, and even at Walmart.

Seasoning and cleaning your Dutch oven

Seasoning and maintaining cast iron cookware can seem mystifying, but it’s really pretty straightforward. Seasoning is just the process by which the gray, porous iron absorbs oil into its surface, turning the iron black and slick. As the process is repeated it produces a nonstick surface and a rich “season” that gives flavor to every meal.

If your new Dutch oven comes pre-seasoned, you can start cooking in it right away. If your camp oven doesn’t come pre-seasoned, or if you’re re-seasoning an old one, here’s the rundown:

  • Scrub your Dutch oven thoroughly with dish soap and water (this is the only time you’ll ever use soap on your oven). For a new Dutch oven, this will remove the wax coating manufacturers put on to keep products from rusting while in the store. For an old or secondhand Dutch oven, this will remove any rust or rancid oil that may have accumulated.
  • Dry your oven with a cotton cloth (paper towels can leave debris) and you’re ready to oil it.
  • Coat the inside of your Dutch oven in vegetable oil or shortening. (In the old days, people used lard, which can give a rich flavor but can go rancid if you use too much or don’t store your oven properly. Olive oil does not work well for seasoning cast iron cookware.)
  • Put your Dutch oven in a 350 degree F oven for 30 minutes; it will smoke, so be sure to use the vent hood or open some windows. The heat opens the pores of the iron so that it can absorb the oil and create its nonstick coating.
  • After 30 minutes, pull out the hot Dutch oven and carefully swab hot oil all over the oven, including the lid, inside and out (you want even the outside of your Dutch oven to be protected from rust).
  • Put the Dutch oven back in the oven for about two hours on 250 degree F heat. You may want to place foil or a baking sheet on the rack below the Dutch oven to catch any oil drips.
  • Turn off the oven and leave your cast iron to cool. Whatever you do, don’t pour cold water in your Dutch oven or put it out in the cold to try to cool it faster; that could warp or even crack your Dutch oven.
  • Before you store your Dutch oven, wipe off any excess oil so that it won’t go rancid.
  • Store your Dutch oven in a way that allows air circulation: turned it upside down and set it up on something to elevate it, or store it right-side up with the lid ajar so that there’s ventilation.

Cleaning your Dutch oven

However you choose to clean your Dutch oven after this initial cleaning, don’t use soap or scour with metal brushes or scrubbers, as doing so could remove the seasoning.

With water

The most common way to clean a Dutch oven is with water. Experts agree that using water is just fine as long as you don’t use any soap. Once your oven has cooled and you’ve scraped out any leftover food, pour in water and then let the oven heat up the coals again so that the warm water will soften the crusted-on food. Scrub off food debris with a sponge, dump the wastewater, and then wipe out the oven with a cotton cloth and make sure it’s completely dry before you re-oil it.

Without water

A few purists insist on cleaning Dutch ovens without any water at all; if you decide to go that route, use a pot scraper or a plastic putty knife to remove stuck-on food, then use oil and a sponge to soften and scrub off any really stubborn spots. (Some people use salt or even sand to do this, but sand can leave gritty residue and salt can cause cast iron to rust faster.) Once food is scraped off, wipe out your Dutch oven with an oiled cloth.

After you clean your Dutch oven, warm it up and coat it in a little oil once again to maintain the seasoning and avoid rust. (Always wipe up any excess oil so that it won’t go rancid.) You can re-season your Dutch oven any time it gets rusty or gets a rancid taste, or if you haven’t used it for more than a year or two.

Cooking with your Dutch oven

Charcoal briquettes

The easiest way to maintain even heat and a constant temperature in your Dutch oven is by cooking with charcoal briquettes. For most Dutch oven recipes, you’ll cook at a temperature of 350 degrees F — what our pioneer grandmothers called a “moderate oven.” To achieve that temperature, a good rule of thumb is to use twice as many coals as the diameter of the oven has inches. So for a 12-inch Dutch oven, use 24 coals, and for a 14-inch Dutch oven, use 28. Usually you’ll put two-thirds of the coals on top of the Dutch oven and one-third below. Because heat rises, you don’t need to put as many coals on the bottom to achieve even heat distribution; so, to cook in a 12-inch Dutch oven you’ll put 16 coals on top and 8 coals below the oven for a total of 24. If you want a hotter oven for roasting, just add more briquettes; each one that you add increases the temperature by about 20 degrees F.

Always use high quality briquettes; Kingsford Charcoal makes some of the best. Don’t cheap out on charcoal! Many generic brand briquettes are very poor quality, and the last thing you want is to waste an hour with briquettes that just won’t stay lit when your family is hungry.

How to light the briquettes

The best way to start the briquettes burning is with a charcoal lighter or chimney. These are inexpensive to buy, or you can make one for free out of an empty number 10 can. Either way, crumple up a few sheets of newspaper and stuff them in the bottom of your chimney, then fill the rest with charcoals. Light the paper, and within ten minutes the coals should be hot and ready to use (you can tell they’re ready when they’re mostly gray in color).

If you’re cooking a dish for longer than an hour, or if it’s windy or rainy, you’ll need to replenish briquettes as they cool. Just light a second batch of coals in the chimney. (No matter how bad the weather, don’t try to cook with briquettes inside! The fumes released are toxic.) You can also keep briquettes burning longer by shaking off ash so that they are exposed to more oxygen.

Over a campfire

If you really want to cook the way America’s settlers did, you can skip the briquettes and use your Dutch oven to cook by the heat of a campfire. To do this, start your fire at least a half hour in advance and use small- to medium-sized pieces of wood so that they’ll burn down to coals. Then use a shovel to scoop up the hot coals and place some below your Dutch oven and even more on top.

Like briquettes, coals from a campfire can cool before your meal has finished cooking, so you’ll need to keep a fire burning in one side of the fire pit while the Dutch oven cooks in the coals on the other side. That way as coals cool you can keep scooping up hot coals from your “replenishing fire.” To avoid burning one side of your dinner, be sure to rotate your Dutch oven every 5 to 10 minutes. If your oven is getting too much heat on the bottom from the hot coals, raise it up on some rocks to allow more space underneath.

Other tools you’ll need

Indispensable for Dutch oven cooking is a lid lifter or strong pair of pliers you can use to lift the lid of the Dutch oven and check on food without tipping the lid. After all, you don’t want to accidentally dump coals into your dinner.

You’ll also need a clean rock, piece of wood, or lid stand where you can set the lid while you’re stirring your food; you don’t want to set the lid on the ground and get dirt in your food. Tongs for moving charcoals around are also helpful, and thick gloves or hot pads are a must. Lighter fluid is great for speeding along the process of heating up your coals.

Everything you need for Dutch oven cooking—charcoal or firewood, lighter fluid, and matches—can be stored long-term. From a typical 16-pound, $13.99 bag of charcoal, you can cook 10 to 15 Dutch oven meals for your family. Storing all the stuff you need to cook a dozen meals for your family for less than $15 is no small feat, especially since the cleanup for one-pot Dutch oven meals is so minimal that it will use almost none of your water supply. Cast iron lasts forever, so once you invest in a camp Dutch oven, you’ve got peace of mind for a lifetime.