Food & Drink May 13, 2015

Romancing the Coals

The Lure of Dutch Oven Cookery

“The Dutch will burp,” explained Steve Lentz, owner of Far and Away Adventures, personifying an innate object critical to his business—the Dutch oven. During cooking, pressure builds inside the oven and the lid pops slightly, releasing a perfumed bubble of air. “Your nose will catch that scent of ginger, and that’s your clue you’re 10 minutes away” from a fresh-baked spice cake.

Lentz’s river adventure company has fed thousands of guests over the past 35 years on six-day float trips down the Middle Fork of the Salmon River in the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness. Among the many rewards of river running—experiencing the thrill of rugged, unspoiled habitat, whitewater rafting and world-class fly fishing—one of the richest is rather simple: dining under the stars. But on Lentz’s trips, as well as a handful of other river outfitters, the grub is far from a pot of chili and dump-and-stir cakes. These outfitters practice the highest form of Dutch-oven cookery, preparing gourmet meals—think crab-stuffed mushrooms and red wine-braised lamb shanks—in a different camp every night. It takes organization and practice, as well as knowing a thing or two about the tools of the trade.

Photos courtesy Far & Away Adventures.

Dutch ovens are made from cast iron or aluminum, with or without legs, and come in various diameters and depths. River runners choose anodized aluminum Dutch ovens for practical reasons. Anodized aluminum is sturdier and less likely to react with acidic foods when cooking than is untreated aluminum or cast iron. Aluminum weighs significantly less than cast iron. A 12-inch aluminum oven weighs seven pounds, compared to 18 pounds for a cast iron equivalent. Aluminum heats up and cools down more quickly, saving cooking and cleaning time in a mobile environment. Cast iron requires “seasoning” to create a cooking surface patina, and cannot be washed with soap and water like aluminum.

Having the right Dutch oven is half the battle. Knowing how to cook in it is the other. Sheila Mills is considered a Dutch oven cooking innovator. Now retired, Mills and her husband Dave owned Rocky Mountain River Tours for 35 years before selling the business two years ago, although it still operates trips on the Middle Fork, even using her recipes to feed guests. Mills’ most recent cookbook, “The Outdoor Dutch Oven Cookbook,” is in its second edition and contains more than 225 recipes from the basics (Dutch-oven potatoes) to the gourmet (horseradish-encrusted pork loin).

“We cooked with charcoal briquettes,” she said, explaining there is a method to the madness of arranging briquettes and stacking ovens for synergy and logistics. “Baking or roasting at home, you turn the oven to 350 degrees. Outside on a Dutch oven, it takes about 15 briquettes on top and 10 or 12 on the bottom for the same temperature. We taught our guides to use their noses to smell for doneness and to use their watches to time it. Taking the lid off too much is like opening the oven door. You lose all that heat,” she said.

According to the International Dutch Oven Society, a nonprofit organization formed to preserve and promote Dutch-oven cooking, a general rule of thumb is that one briquette burns between 20 to 25 degrees (Fahrenheit). Coal placement is driven by a formula: two times the oven diameter minus four. For example, a 12-inch oven would have a total of 24 coals, split evenly between the top and bottom, but then four coals would be moved from the bottom to the top, resulting in 16 coals on top and eight on the bottom.

“It’s all about heat management,” Lentz said. “Every guide will embrace one of our Dutch items and say, ‘this is the perfect amount (of coals). Don’t you dare put one more on or take one off!’ It’s about knowing your oven.”

Including knowing that when your Dutch burps, it is time to eat.

This article appears in the Issue of Sun Valley Magazine.