Dutch Oven Camp Cooking: The Quick Start Guide

The most predictable way to cook with a camping dutch oven is indoors with an easy to control temperature setting.  But where is the excitement in that? The most common mistakes in dutch oven camp cooking involve managing heat and keeping food from burning. We’re here to help.

If you mess up while using a camp dutch oven, it’s OK.  After all, everything tastes better when cooked outdoors and (especially if it’s dark outside) there is a good chance no one will notice. The vast majority of the time, however, things turn out better than expected. 

Dutch Oven Camp Cooking: 4 Tips For Success

1. Choose The Right Heat Source: Charcoals not Firewood

Outdoor cooking with a dutch oven can certainly be done with a wood fire, but requires using a lot of wood and significant active intervention during the cooking process. Cooking with a wood fire is fun and more true to how Dutch ovens were originally used, but these days most camp cooking is done with charcoal briquettes. This is largely because coals from firewood lack uniformity and could cause hotspots and burning. Charcoal briquettes will not only provide adequate heat but also allow for more evenly distributed heat in the cooking process. 

2. Use Charcoal Briquettes, NOT Lump Charcoal, and Consider a Chimney Starter

Standard charcoal briquettes, as opposed to lump charcoal, is suggested for camp dutch oven cooking because they burn longer, cost less and allow for more consistent and predictable cooking temperatures.

As far as fast-light charcoal vs standard charcoal briquettes, we suggest the standard version. Since we’re using standard charcoal briquettes, we suggest using a chimney starter to help start your coals. We also suggest a chimney starter since it allows you to start your coals without lighter fluid. Generally, this allows you to travel without flammable liquids and avoids potential spills while traveling.

To use a chimney starter, first, pour your charcoal briquettes in cylinder. Light a small bunch of newspaper or crumpled cardboard at the bottom and in 15 minutes your coals should be hot and ready to use. Again, you do not have to use lighter fluid so long as you have paper or cardboard handy. Be sure not to wait too long for the charcoal to light and that you’re ready to cook. Otherwise, your charcoal will turn to ash before you know it.

3. Charcoal Placement is Key for Even Heating

There is a plethora of data on how many briquettes to use and where to place them.  We disclose some of the magic here. Generally speaking, you want to place the coals in a circular pattern at the edges of the oven on top and bottom. The bulk of the metal in the dutch oven is found in the lid and body around the edges. For this reason, placing the coals at the outside is the best thing to do get good even heat distribution.  A small circle of charcoals should be placed around the top handle as well. 

However, don’t place coals directly in the center, below your dutch oven. The only exception to this rule is when using a Dutch oven that is 16-inches wide or larger. At that size, there is so much surface area that help is needed to provide the extra heat to the center. In fact, a good checkerboard pattern is recommended for big Dutch ovens.

4. Lid Rotation is Recommended, Especially when Baking

When the charcoals are in place, it is good practice to rotate the oven counter-clockwise and the lid clockwise a quarter of a turn every so often.  Even when using charcoal briquettes, not all coals are created equal and this ensures even heat distribution.

An alternative to rotating is to move the coals around if needed. When baking items such as biscuits, if there appears to be an area that is not cooking or a cake that isn’t rising evenly, move some heat to it.  Conversely, if things appear to be cooking too quickly, remove some charcoals from that area.


How Many Charcoal Briquettes Will I Need?

The most common temperature for a Dutch oven is 350º F.  If in doubt, aim for 350º.  There are two rules of thumb to help you remember how to hit the 350º target, regardless of what size Dutch Oven you have.

(1)     Take the width of the oven in inches, double it, and then put 1/3 of the coals on the bottom and 2/3 on the top. 

(2)     There is also the “Rule of 4”.  Take the Dutch oven diameter/width in inches and add 4. This is the number of briquettes for the lid. Take the Dutch oven diameter/width in inches and subtract 4 and that is the number of briquettes for the bottom. For example, a 12-inch oven will have 16 on top and 8 on the bottom.

From there, each additional charcoal adds 10-15º to the cooking temperature. You can add or subtract depending on the type of Dutch oven cooking you are doing and what the weather conditions are like.  If it is cold, windy, high humidity or high elevation, it might take more coals to get the same temperature.  If it is hot and sunny, it might take less. 

How Should I Place My Charcoals Depending on What I’m Cooking?

There are certain instances where you want to get really specific with the heat distribution in your Dutch oven depending on what you’re cooking in your Dutch Oven. Using the rules of thumb above to determine the total number of briquettes to get to 350F, now use the ratios below to determine how to place your coals based on the method of cooking you’re using.

Baking – Coals in a circular pattern with a 2:1 ratio top over bottom

Stew or Simmer – Coals split evenly top and bottom

Broil – Coals in checkerboard pattern with a 2:1 ratio top over bottom

Fry or Boil – All coals on the bottom

How Can You Tell How Hot Your Dutch Oven Is?

Simple, hold an open palm 6-8 inches above your Dutch oven, rotating your hand in a circle. If you can hold your hand there for the durations listed below, then the heat and temperature will be as follows:

dutch oven cooking

If there are still some doubts as to how many coals are required to reach a certain temperature. Here is a handy table with sizes and temperatures.  

dutch oven cooking

Cooking Several Meals For Several People (Stacking Dutch Ovens)

To feed a big group with multiple options AND have the cobbler, cake or other dessert available, multiple Dutch ovens are going to be required.  In this case, there is a little trick to saving charcoal briquettes.  You stack them, one on top of the other.  Cool, eh!

The coals on the lid can be counted towards the coals of the bottom of the oven on top.  It is common to see three stacked, but you can have up to five.  Keep in mind that the top oven will see the most heat and the bottom will see the least amount.  That means, stews on top, desserts on bottom and meat in the middle.

Of course, rotating your ovens and replacing coals becomes a little trickier, especially when you want to maintain good head distribution.  It can be done though, and in less time than you think.  When rotating, remove the top one first, work down, and then build back up your tower. Cast iron is so efficient in retaining heat that if you move quickly, little heat will be lost.

What Should My First Camp Dutch Oven Meal Be?

If you haven’t cooked with a camp dutch oven before, you are going to want to get comfortable with regulating the temperature of your Dutch oven outlined above. Also, assuming this is your first time using your cast iron Dutch Oven, it might be good to start with something easy that won’t strip your seasoning.  Bacon, chicken or biscuits are a great place to start.  They all cook well at the nominal 350º F.  Bacon is easy, just heat up your oven, using enough coals to hit 350º and cook, watching and flipping the bacon so it does not burn.

Dutch oven chicken is also known to be an easy food to master.  Pour some olive oil into the oven, place some chicken thighs and legs in, add some seasoning, put on the lid and wait.  Every ten minutes, move the chicken around. 

Biscuits are also fairly easy as to begin with if you buy the cardboard tube full of biscuit dough.  Add oil to the bottom, arrange the biscuits and cook.  Be sure to follow the Dutch oven baking protocol with coals in a circular pattern with a 2:1 ratio top over bottom.  In 20-25 minutes the biscuits will likely be done.

Since grease is used on these first meals, your cast iron is likely to have a better seasoned layer after than before.  Not all meals are like this.  Foods with a lot of acid can end up removing your seasoned layer if it hasn’t had sufficient time and use to get a good coat of cooked in oil.  Foods with tomato based sauces are notorious for removing a little bit of seasoning each use.  As a first time Dutch oven cook, meals with tomato sauce or beans should be held off until the oven has been used a few times.

Another food that might be frustrating for a first time user is dessert. Sugar will caramelize when it gets hot (crème brulee lovers know this) and it can be a real pain to clean.  A trick here is to line your oven with aluminum foil.  This will keep the sticky mess away from the walls of your oven and save time during cleaning.

Other Helpful Dutch Oven Cooking Hints You Might Find Useful:

(1)     Watch your coals closely, they won’t last forever and will eventually need to be replaced and the oven rotated.

(2)     If you see the contents boiling at a rate that makes it difficult to see the food, then remove coals, your Dutch oven is too hot.

(3)     When you take the lid off and nothings is boiling after being over coals for twenty minutes, your oven is too cold, add more coals.

(4)     Keep your lid on tight and try to reduce the number of times you peak in to see. Each time the lid is opened, you release heat and extend your cooking time.

(5)     You can remove ash that builds up on a briquette by tapping it on the ground.

(6)     If your oven and coals are in the wind, one side is going to burn faster and hotter.  You may have to add more coals to the side getting hit by the wind more quickly than the other side.  Setting up a wind break or using a cooking table helps tremendously.

(7)     Wood coals burn more quickly than charcoal briquettes.  They will have to be watched more carefully and replaced more frequently.

(8)     If baking bread, add a few similar sized pebbles inside the bottom of your oven and use aluminum bread tins as your baking sheet. Placing the tins on top of the pebbles allows for air flow and even heating when baking. This works great for bread, rolls, and pastries. 

(9)     The inside of a Dutch oven’s lid is a great cooking surface to use as a skillet for bacon, sausage, eggs or pancakes.  Place your lid upside down on a bed of coals to heat. You’ll know when it’s the perfect temperature by flicking a drop of water on the lid. If the water droplet dances around without quickly fizzing away, it is probably the perfect temperature.  If it does nothing and steams a little, add more heat.

Have fun with your Dutch oven cooking!