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All Glory to the Dutch Oven!

Written by Kobus on October 2, 2012

potjieIn South Africa the Dutch oven or potjie (pronounced poy-key) is usually associated with social gatherings and special events. While overlanding it’s that and much more. Our Dutch oven forms a vital part of our kitchen arsenal. It allows us to make ridiculously cheap and good meals with little effort. Not to mention that it makes us popular around dinner time as fellow travelers flock to our side to contribute to the evening festivities.

The Dutch oven allows us to make a wide variety of delicious comfort food without needing an actual oven. After being on the road for a year, we can emphatically say that a little bit of home goes along way.

What is a Dutch Oven?

Simply put, a Dutch oven is a cooking pot made from heavy cast iron. If you take care of it, it will last forever. They are typically black and pre-seasoned but can be found with enamel coatings that come in all shapes and sizes. Cast iron pots are not practical for backpacking because of their weight and size, although lighter aluminum varieties are available, they are definitely the the same.

A Dutch oven typically has three legs, a wire handle, and a lid that you can place hot coals on top of. We've found that models without legs are friendlier for overlanding since they pack in a smaller space. Popular home cooking Dutch ovens are often enameled, which is practical in a kitchen but won't last long if you use them on a fire. Since most of the dishes we cook are made on a fire, we prefer the old fashioned solid cast iron models.

What Can You Do with a Dutch Oven?    

double potjieYou name it and you can make it. On this trip alone we have made empanadas, potjies (a kind of stew), soups, roast chicken, pulled pork, curries, deep dish pizza, bread and cinnamon rolls. The Dutch oven is one of the most versatile and forgiving cooking pots we have in our kitchen.

How to Use a Dutch Oven

Dutch ovens have been around for hundreds of years. Some have even been passed from generation to generation. However, if you do not take care of it you will soon find yourself with 20 pounds of rusted metal.

Care and Maintenance

After every use you have to clean the Dutch oven. Yes, the heat of the next meal will most likely kill all the bad bugs, but that is just not how we roll. Besides there is nothing quite like cinnamon rolls that taste like pulled pork.

Once the Dutch oven has cooled, wipe it out with a paper towel, then wash it gently with soft dish soap and water. Never use harsh detergents. Make sure to rinse it well when you are done. Dry the pot thoroughly and reapply vegetable oil with a paper towel to stop rust from setting in. Never air dry cast iron, and always store it in a moisture-free environment.

If you have rust spots on your Dutch oven, scrub them a scouring pad or fine sand paper. Clean the pot thoroughly with soap and water and dry. To re-season your Dutch oven, apply vegetable oil inside and out and place upside down in an oven at 400 degrees for an hour. Turn the oven off and allow the Dutch oven to cool before removing.

Fire for a Dutch Oven

making fire to bake breadWe prefer to use our Dutch oven on a charcoal fire. The best part about cooking on a fire is that it takes very few coals to keep the oven going for hours. Also, the radiant heat will keep you warm on cold nights.

If you are using firewood, start the fire about 45 minutes to one hour before you want to start cooking. When making a charcoal fire 30 minutes is usually enough time.

If your pot doesn't have legs, make a stable base using rocks or bricks. Placing the pot directly on the coals doesn't allow for good airflow to keep the fire going, and could get unstable as the coals burn down.

Depending on what you are cooking, you might need to add some coals on top of the lid. This is always the case when baking or roasting. We've found that you need two to three times the number of coals on top to bake or roast evenly.

Make sure you keep a separate fire going on the side so you can add more coals as needed.

Basic Instructions for Potjies

  1. Brown the meat
  2. Add the veggies in layers
  3. Add liquid
  4. Put the lid on
  5. Leave it alone, don’t even take a peek. Depending on what type of meat you are cooking times can be as high as 6 to 8 hours. See recipes for cooking times.

Basic Instructions for Breads

  1. Make the dough
  2. Let the dough rise for one to four hours, depending on the recipe
  3. Punch it down and shape into desired form and place in the Dutch oven
  4. Let the dough rise again – 30 minutes to 1 hour
  5. Add a few coals to the bottom of the pot
  6. Add at two to three times as many coals to the top of the lid
  7. Leave it alone for 25 minutes and check the bread. If it sounds hollow when you knock on it, it’s done.
  8. If it is not done, add more coals if needed and check again in five to ten minutes

The Right Tools for the Job

  • A 5 quart Dutch oven is good for 5 or 6 people. But remember, leftovers aren't a bad thing.
  • Leather gloves to handle the hot pot and lift the lid.
  • A good set of fire tongs to poke, prod and stoke the fire.

Normally we would publish a follow up article in a few days but since you are most likely starving, here is a cheap, simple and fall-off-the-bone chicken recipe to get you started.


#4 Vera 2012-12-06 01:52
Hm, I've cooked in a dutch oven at home all my adult life. It distributes the heat evenly, is easy to clean, and you can bake in it as well as cook on the burners. But I never even considered taking my dutch oven (I have both enameled and not enameled) camping!! Wow! Can't wait to go camping again and include the dutch oven with my cooking gear!
Fritz and Trisha Edg
#3 Fritz and Trisha Edg 2012-12-05 00:14
My Aunt gave me a DO for a wedding present and I just emailed her for some "campfire" reciepes... she is a master at open fire cooking! Can't wait to get started and post the how toos... I am ok on a stove but fairly scared of open fire cooking!
#2 Kobus 2012-10-04 18:43
Hey Dave, funny you should ask. Baking bread and emapanadas are two of my favorites. In a week or so I will upload a simple Bread Recipe that works every time!

Dutch ovens are very forgiving, don't be afraid to experiment.
Dave B
#1 Dave B 2012-10-03 20:55
I have never used a dutch oven before... sounds like you have definately got to grips with it! What have your bread making experiences been like using it?

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