Debbie and I were streaming an old episode of Good Eats and got inspired. Alton Brown featured Dutch oven recipes, and I suddenly had a flashback to my Boy Scout days in the 1980’s. When I first learned to cook outdoors, there was no charcoal involved and certainly no liquid fuel or gas. We couldn’t sell enough popcorn to buy camp stoves, so we learned to cook the way the cowboys, Indians, pioneers and mountain men did… over an open fire fueled by wood. The epitome of campfire cookery implements is the cast iron Dutch oven, useful for almost any recipe. To a bunch of twelve year old boys, the epitome of Dutch oven cooking is the cobbler. Especially on a freezing cold evening with snow blowing around as you sip hot chocolate and get ready to crawl into your sleeping bag.
We love cooking over our fire pit. Campfire cooking is an art form, everything about it is deliberate and you have to think about every step in the fire making process in order to get the results you want. It is obviously slower than any other method, and I find it relaxing. With so many blueberries still in the freezer from the Summer harvest, I thought it would be fun to break out the Dutch oven and make a cobbler the old way.
Gather The Wood
To build a good cooking fire, hardwood works best. The goal is to create a deep bank of coals and not much ash. We have a plentiful supply around our house of oak and hickory, and some maple as well. Since we did’t want to spend the whole evening around the fire, we gathered sticks ranging from thumb-sized up to two inches or so in diameter. This size burns down relatively quickly to provide coals, and won’t keep going all night like wood stove logs do. The sticks came from above the fallen leaves, below the leaves everything is pretty wet. Using fallen branches ensures that they are dead…green wood is terrible for this type of fire. Ideal branches are completely dry, but still somewhat heavy and may have dried to the point where the bark has fallen off. Two large arm loads of 18-24″ sticks was enough to make the cobbler.
Light The Fire
I don’t like using trash to start a cooking fire, so I foraged for tinder as well. Dried asparagus foliage is a fantastic fire starter. I just break off four or five old stems and break them up, squeezing them into a bundle. This bundle forms the base of the fire, then pencil sized twigs are laid across it to form the initial fire lay. Our seven year old is really interested in learning how to build a campfire, so I let him light the match and he is super proud of being the one who “made the fire” (it’s pretty easy for kids to learn how to use stick matches). When the fire gets going, add the fuel in perpendicular layers. Again, this will help the wood to burn down relatively quickly and still retain plenty of coals. When about half of the wood is on the fire, you should have enough coals to preheat the Dutch oven.
Preheat The Dutch Oven
To access the coals, use an old shovel to push the burning sticks to one side of the pit and scoop the coals from beneath. Place a scoop of coals on a cooking platform (I used a large baking sheet supported by concrete pavers, any firm non-flammable surface will do). The Dutch oven then sits on the coals (mine has legs, if yours doesn’t you can use rocks or even firewood to elevate it a couple of inches above the coals), the lid goes on the oven and more coals are placed on top. Allow it to heat for ten minutes or so. Meanwhile, push the fire back to the center of the pit and build it back up with more fuel. You will need more coals in a little while.
Add The Ingredients
When the oven is hot, add the ingredients according to the recipe. I prefer to remove the oven from the heat to do this step. Rake the coals and ash from the lid while it is on the cooking surface, then move it off the heat. (Welding gloves work extremely well for handling the pot with a great degree of control. There are also a number of specialized tools you can purchase. I used a stick.) Carefully remove the lid, add the ingredients and replace the lid. Check the conditions of the coals on the cooking platform…they should still be glowing. If you need more heat, add another scoop from the fire. Then place the oven back on the cooking platform and add coals to the top.
Between 3/4″ and 1″ of coals should spread evenly on the surface beneath the oven. One and a half to twice as many coals should be placed on the lid. Every ten minutes, rotate the pot a quarter turn clockwise; and rotate the lid a quarter turn counter clockwise. Since you are cooking in a less controlled environment than pretty much any other medium allows, these rotations help to mitigate the effects of hot spots, promoting even cooking. For recipes with long cooking times, you will need to replenish the coals periodically, both top and bottom.
Cleaning a cast iron Dutch oven is fun! Scrape the remnants as thoroughly as you can, then put it back on the fire. Soap is the enemy of cast iron, as it will ruin the surface. Simply heat it until all food remnants have burned to ash. Let it cool, wipe out the ash, and coat it inside and out with fat (vegetable shortening works fine).