A beginner’s guide to Dutch oven cooking

A campsite primer for cast-iron cooking.


Welcome to the world of Dutch oven cooking. Whether you’ve cooked with one for years or just want to try it for the first time, we’ve designed this guide with you in mind. You’ll need a Dutch oven and an appreciation for good food.

We call lots of pots Dutch ovens. They’re the ones with three legs on the bottom, designed to sit above some coals, and have a lid with a rim around the outside edge to keep the coals on top from falling off. They’re made with two kinds of material: aluminum or cast iron.

Purists prefer cast-iron ovens. They’re heavy and rust if not properly cared for. But they conduct heat more evenly, and, if well seasoned, develop a nonstick surface that rivals Teflon.

Other folks swear by aluminum. They’re lighter, don’t rust and require fewer coals. But they can develop hot spots and lose heat faster. And food tends to stick.

CookingDutchOvenWhich Oven Is Right?
The key to choosing a Dutch oven isn’t the brand or style. It’s whether the lid fits properly. Don’t use one that wobbles or is warped. Check the sides of the oven to make sure they’re the same thickness all around; uneven walls will result in uneven cooking. Note the surface inside. Is it rough or pock marked? If so, find one that’s smooth.

Dutch ovens come in a variety of sizes. Look on the lid for a number that indicates its diameter in inches. A 12-inch oven represents a standard size.

These days, most ovens come “pre-seasoned,” meaning the manufacturer has baked onto it a “patina” or nonstick surface. You’ll recognize the patina as that rich, black color that reminds you of Grandma’s skillet. But if you find an “unseasoned” oven, or one that’s rusty, don’t fret. Here’s a seasoning method that works well:

How to Season Your Dutch Oven
1.Wash the pot and lid in warm, soapy water — this is the only time you’ll use soap in your oven.

2. Rinse well and dry with a paper towel.

3. Thoroughly rub the pot and lid with a thin layer of shortening, lard, olive oil or cast-iron conditioner. Do not use butter or margarine.

4. Set your outdoor-barbecue grill to medium/high heat (about 400 degrees) and separately place the oven and lid upside down on the wire rack. Close the cover and let the oven bake for an hour. Turn off the grill and allow it and the oven to cool down. You may repeat this entire process if you want a darker patina.

Note: If you’re careful, you also can use your kitchen oven for the seasoning process. But you might set off your fire alarm. Place aluminum foil or a cookie sheet on the bottom rack to catch any drips. Bake the Dutch oven at 400 degrees for one hour. Turn off the heat and allow the Dutch oven to cool down as your kitchen oven cools.

The Essentials:

  • Dutch oven
  • Charcoal briquettes
  • Lid lifter
  • Charcoal chimney (a me­tal tube with a handle). Fill chimney with charcoal briquettes. Place a wad of newspaper in the bottom of the chimney and light it, which starts the coals. You can also place the chimney on an outdoor gas stove for faster results.
  • Matches or barbecue lighter
  • Long tongs for handling hot briquettes
  • Heavy leather gloves; welding gloves work great
  • Cooking supplies and eating utensils
  • Paper towels, scrapers and nylon scrub pads for cleaning
  • Recipes and ingredients

Cooking Made Easy
You can cook anything in a Dutch oven that you can cook in your kitchen oven at home. To avoid serving “burnt offerings,” though, follow the simple “Rule of Three.”

Take the diameter of the oven (12 inches, for example) and subtract three (12 – 3 = 9) for the number of coals to place below the oven and add three (12 + 3 = 15) for the number of coals to place on the lid. This creates a temperature of about 325 degrees.

To increase the temperature by 25 degrees, place one coal on top of the oven and one below it (see the accompanying chart). But weather will have an effect. If it’s hot, the oven will cook faster; if it’s cold, it will cook slower. Wind also dramatically affects the results of Dutch oven cooking.

Also influencing the result: the way you position the charcoal briquettes.

Make a ring of coals about the diameter of the oven’s bottom, placing one coal in the center. Set the oven on top of the coals and evenly place coals around the outside edge of the lid, with two coals in the center and one on each side of the handle. Some Dutch oven cooks disagree about placing coals in the center. I prefer it. Experiment and see what works best for you.

Hint: If you can smell your food cooking, you’d better check it regardless of the time suggested by the recipe. It’s probably done.

Watch out when you lift the lid to check your food. I’ve seen many a dish spiced with “camp pepper” (ash) when folks try to lift the lid with a claw hammer, pliers, or some kind of fancy lever. The best lid lifter ever invented is the Mair Dutch Oven Lifter. It gives you control of the lid like it was your bare hand.

DutchOvenMealMake Cleanup a Snap
Wipe out the oven with a paper towel. For stubborn foods, use hot water and a nylon “scrubbie” or similar scrub pad (not steel wool) to remove all food from the pot. Or try boiling a few cups of water in the pot with the lid on.

When all food has been cleaned from the oven, wipe it dry and place on a gas stove or other heat source to thoroughly dry out the pores. I wipe a thin layer of cast-iron conditioner, olive oil etc., on my ovens after I dry them. Some other cooks do not. Just remember: If you keep the oven dry, it won’t rust.

Colleen Sloan, one sage of Dutch oven cooking, likes to fill a spray bottle with one part vinegar to four parts water to clean her ovens. She sprays the dirty oven while it’s still warm, puts the lid on for a few minutes, and then wipes the oven clean with a paper towel (repeat a few times for really stuck-on foods). I like to use this vinegar/water mix because it neutralizes any odors and disinfects the oven as well.

Some folks line their ovens with aluminum foil or purchase ready-made aluminum inserts to make cleanup easier. Will the aluminum hurt your oven? No. However, it will affect cooking time and evenness of heat, as well as alter the taste. Remember, keep your cast-iron pot well seasoned and cleanup will be a snap.

Store your ovens with the lid off or with a folded paper towel half-in/half-out of the oven with the lid on.


H. Kent Rappleye, past president of the International Dutch Oven Society, is an Eagle Scout and Vigil Honor member of the Order of the Arrow. A former Scoutmaster, Varsity coach and commissioner, he has three sons who are Eagle Scouts.

39 thoughts on “A beginner’s guide to Dutch oven cooking

  1. I clean my dutch ovens with either a paper towel or a plastic scraper from Lodge. You can use anything plastic, but the Lodge is really ergonomic. I also use a spray can of vegatable oil like Pam to oil my ovens for cooking or storing.

    • When I can I clean my dutch oven with ashes from the fire or coals …I rub them around to clean the oven then empty them out wipe with crumpled newspaper and rub with bees wax..it has no smell and will not get sticky

  2. If you need to use an abrasive inside a seasoned oven, and do not have a clean and soap-free scrubber handy, a pumice made from vegetable oil and table salt works well.

  3. The current IDOS pres is Debbie Hair. A new prez will be installed April 2012. Clean ovens by scraping out all food. Rinse with hot water til clean. Heat til dry. Oil if desired

  4. If you are in a pinch to clean your Dutch Oven. We have used a little sand from the beach . It worked well. Just don’t scrub too hard. Happy Cooking. Dutch Oven cooking is the best.

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  6. I never had to clean the inside of my dutch oven. I get around this by lining the inside with 2 layers of aluminum foil. When I do a cake or a pie, the aluminum foil allows me to lift it right out and is also used to serve.

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  8. I always wipe my cast iron after it’s cooled to make sure there is not an excess of oil left standing that will become a gummy sticky mess.

  9. I always oil my cast iron hot and wipe excess as the pan cools. This way I don’t leave excess oil on the pan that will become a gummy sticky mess.

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  11. The seasoning directions as given leave out one step: after washing and drying, place the dutch in a warm oven or on the stove to heat and drive out any remaining moisture. THEN wipe on your choice of seasoning. If this is the first seasoning, you’ll be able to tell it is completely dry when it changes from damp dark to grey. Doing this will also let the oil get deeper into the metal. To help keep the outside from rusting, be sure to season that, too. After that first seasoning, it’s up to you if you do the outside any more. I always do at least near the rim.

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  17. Thank you so much for the temperature guide!
    My Scout Master also has a very large heavy aluminum cookie sheet that he places under everything. This allows for on the ground cooking – on dirt. Please be careful around grass as this may cause a fire – I have yet to test this but safety is essential when working with heat.

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  23. If you want to pare it down to bare essentials, don’t pack the charcoal or the starter chimney. Do what I did when I first learned to use one and use coals from a fire. That’s what I used for years!

  24. I usually don’t have a much cleaning, line the Dutch oven with heavy duty foil. If there is some cleaning I take some foil and wad it up to use as a scrub pad.

  25. For cleaning I use very hot water I have turned my hot water heater up just to have really hot water for cleaning my cast iron peices no soap on these babys also I use the Lodge scrapers to help remove any crusty leavings and then I use the Lodge SCRBRSH Scrub Brush, 10-Inch I got from Amazon I love this brush for cleaning up

  26. One of our favorites is lasagna. No need to precook pasta. Use a big jar of Ragu and 5hin with equal part water. Layer sauce, pasta, sauce, veggies or meat, chesse, repeat. Very easy for the scouts to make. Cook for 60-75 minutes at about 350-375 degrees. The pasta soaks up the thinned sauce nicely and everyone will love it!

  27. My dutch oven cooking stinks… I mean it stinks like a residual smell of old campfires and old oil and old burnt on sugar from canned fillings. How can get the smell of old burnt campfires out of my new good meals? thanks

    • This can be fixed by ” burning it out”. place Dutch oven upside down on a hot open fire. Build the fire around the Dutch oven so that it is completely surrounded by fire. Let the Dutch oven get super hot. Pull the Dutch oven from the fire and sit someplace safe to cool. The idea here is to remove and burnout anything that is been left behind in the Dutch oven. Once it is completely cool to the touch wash the Dutch oven with warm water and then re-season by heating it to 400° and wiping the inside with oil of your choice preferably coconut oil. Your Dutch oven will be like new.
      Warning if you don’t let the Dutch oven completely cool before you wash it. It will crack and ruin it.

  28. Step 1. After a good cleaning, a vinegar treatment might do the trick. Cleaning it again with vinegar and water works if the condition of the oven isn’t in too bad.
    Step 2. If the oven is really crusted, some sand paper and elbow grease may be necessary. You can take the crust off clear down to the metal and start over with the conditioning.
    Good Luck, the effort will be worth it.
    Carl Rasmussen

  29. I’m looking for Blade Blackie’s Recipe for Poison Peppers
    from about 20 years ago. It won the dutch oven recipe contest held by the magazine.

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