1. Choose the right Dutch oven for you. A Dutch oven with short metal legs and a flat, rimmed lid is designed for use with charcoal outdoors. The legs keep the pot up and over the hot coals below, while the rimmed lid holds hot coals above. A smooth bottomed Dutch oven with domed lid is designed for indoor use or you can place it on the cooking rack of a gas or charcoal grill. If uncertain which to buy, go for the indoor model — you'll likely put it to more use, says Matt Pelton, who outlined the basics of Dutch oven use in his 2013 book, "The Cast Iron Gourmet."
2. Prepare your charcoal, if using. Many Dutch oven afficiandoes start their charcoal and cook atop special metal cooking tables that lift the action up to a more accessible height. Still, you could use a flat, bare patch of dirt, as George and Carolyn Dumler, authors of "Southwest Dutch Oven," used to do. Mark Hansen, author of "Dutch Oven Breads" and a blogger at marksblackpot.com, has set up a 2-foot square of bricks on which to build his fire. Have sturdy, heavy-duty oven mits to handle hot cooking pots and charcoal starters.
3. Be flexible, if you like, but be safe. One can use an outdoor Dutch oven indoors and an indoor Dutch oven outdoors with some forethought and a little ingenuity. Just be aware — and careful — of the features unique to each.
Put some sort of baking or sheet pan under the legs of an outdoors Dutch oven so the legs don't get caught in the rack of your grill or kitchen stove. Take care in positioning the legs over a stovetop burner — and remember the legs are there when removing the pot from the stove. Outdoors, place an indoor Dutch oven on some sort of trivet or stand if cooking over charcoal. To let the pot come in direct contact with the coals will create hot spots, Hansen says.
An indoor Dutch oven's domed lid need not prevent cooking with charcoal. Lesley Tennessen of Holiday Hills, Ill., director of the Blackhawk Dutch Oven Cooks chapter of the International Dutch Oven Society, an organization of avid Dutch oven cooks, uses the leftover tin from frozen pie and molds it to the lid. The rim of the pie plate holds the coals in place, she says. Have a trivet to place the lid down on, too, for the lid will be hot.
3. Watch the heat when using charcoal. "If people learn to control the heat they've got it made,'' says Bruce Tracy, author of "Dutch Oven Baking." Put more charcoal pieces on the lid of the Dutch oven than below the pot. Why? Heat rises, he notes. Beginners should go with charcoal briquettes until they get a grasp of how to cook various foods over hot coals, Tracy says.
4. Develop a non-stick strategy. Is your new Dutch oven already seasoned or does it need treatment? Respond accordingly before you begin to cook with it. Some Dutch oven experts insist on never washing the pot with soap; others disagree. Pre-heat the Dutch oven too. "Pre-heated cast iron is much more non-stick then when not pre-heated,'' says Michele Pika Nielson, author of "Dutch Oven Cookout: Step by Step."
5. Biggest mistake in Dutch oven cooking? "Too much heat, almost always and especially with baking,'' Tracy says. "The Dutch oven is so efficient. It is an enclosed heat sponge." Tracy says most coals are good for about 1 hour, which is roughly the longest most recipes will take.
Prep: 30 minutes
Cook: 40 minutes
Makes: 8 servings
Matt Pelton's recipe from "Dutch Oven Pies: Sweet & Savory" (Hobble Creek Press, $12.99) can be made in a 10-inch Dutch oven or cast-iron skillet. If cooking over charcoal, place 11 coals in a checkered pattern on the lid and 10 coals under the pot in a ring sticking halfway out from the pan to maintain a 375-degree temperature for 30 to 40 minutes. (If baking the pie in an indoor oven, use that temperature and time too).
Pelton recommends using parchment paper strips to lift the cooked pie out of the Dutch oven. Cut two parchment paper strips, 12 inches long by 4 inches wide, fold in half, and set in the bottom of the pot. Cut a parchment paper round slightly smaller than the pot's diameter and set in the bottom atop the two strips, he writes. You will build the pie over the parchment paper. When you cover the pot, make sure the strips are between the lid and the pan before baking. When done, carefully lift the strips to remove the pie.
1 double-crust pie dough recipe, divided in two and rolled out, see recipe (or use your favorite recipe)
5 cups peaches, skinned, sliced, see note
1 1/2 cups sugar
1/4 cup flour
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1. Heat the oven to 375 degrees. Fold one of the prepared crusts into quarters; lift into the bottom of the Dutch oven. Unfold the crust, smoothing the pastry over the bottom and up the sides of the pot. Leave the edges long. Mix the remaining ingredients together; put them in the pie shell immediately. Flatten them out as best you can.
2. If you are making a full shell pie, carefully place the remaining crust on top of the filling. Crimp the edges of the top and bottom crust together to seal, trimming off any excess. (Be careful not to mold the crust to the sides of the pot.) Slice 2 to 3 vent lines in the pastry lid. If you choose a lattice top, cut the lattice into strips; lay them in your preferred pattern, crimping the edges to seal as before.
3. Brush the top of the shell with an egg wash (1 egg and a splash of milk, mixed well). Cover. Bake until the crust is golden brown, 30-40 minutes. (If baking in the oven, you may need to remove the lid to brown the top crust.) Let the pie rest for several minutes before serving.
Note: To remove the skin from the peaches, blanch the fruit in boiling water for 2 minutes.
Nutrition information per serving: 598 calories, 25 g fat, 6 g saturated fat, 23 mg cholesterol, 86 g carbohydrates, 7 g protein, 301 mg sodium, 3 g fiber
Matt's favorite pie crust
Prep: 15 minutes, plus resting
Makes: enough dough for a double-crust pie
3 cups sifted flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 to 1 1/2 cups butter-flavored shortening, chilled
1 egg, whipped
5 tablespoons cold water
1 tablespoon white vinegar
1. Sift the flour and salt together in a shallow bowl. Cut the shortening into the flour with a pastry cutter until the pieces are slightly larger than peas. In a separate bowl, whip the egg, water and vinegar together.
2. Create a well in the center of the flour-shortening mix. Pour the liquid in slowly; fold in the flour. Press and gently fold the mix together until it holds its shape. Divide dough into two equal balls. Wrap each in plastic wrap; allow to rest 15-20 minutes.
3. Be sure to use plenty of flour on the surface as you work it or this mix will stick. After dough has rested, roll out each piece until the dough is about 1/8-inch thick and fairly round in shape.
Nutrition information per serving (for 8 servings): 400 calories, 25 g fat, 6 g saturated fat, 23 mg cholesterol, 36 g carbohydrates, 6 g protein, 300 mg sodium, 1 g fiber
About this recipe
In his peach pie recipe Matt Pelton describes making a double-crust pie in a Dutch oven. We opted for a simpler approach, one that can be dished out of the pot, instead of Pelton's more precarious idea. Our dessert was more like a cobbler but with pie dough instead. We skipped the bottom crust, pouring the pie filling directly into the Dutch oven. We then rolled out enough of the dough to create a top crust (rolling it out fairly thick, about 1/4 inch), cutting it into decorative triangles. Those pieces were baked separately, then placed on the baked filling. The pastry pieces could also be baked directly on the filling.
Cooking in Chicago
Chicagoans curious about Dutch oven cooking needn't go it alone with just cookbooks, blogs and video clips for guides. The Blackhawk Dutch Oven Cooks chapter of the International Dutch Oven Society is located in these parts, with members from Chicago, northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin.
"It's camaraderie and the cooking,'' says Lesley Tennessen of Holiday Hills, chapter director. "You share all the food. It's like a giant pot luck."
The communal aspect of Dutch oven cooking extends back to pioneer days when hungry folk gathered 'round the campfire. Blackhawk Dutch Oven Cooks members try to cook together every month, conducting public demonstrations and going camping together.
Tennessen says there are 10 to 12 active cooks in the group, which does not charge dues and is open to everyone. There are also "a lot of people we call tasters or eaters." And that's totally OK by her. "We always need people to eat what we make,'' she adds.
Members of the chapter, which is also a part of the Lone Star Dutch Oven Society, include scouts, families – children are welcome, Tennessen adds — campers and people who are just interested in Dutch oven cooking. What do they cook?
"My group is a little eclectic,'' Tennessen replies. "Some people like to do appetizers. We tend not to serve chili. We tend to have a lot of chicken and chicken stews. People like to do big, bold things. No one is timid."
For information about the Blackhawks Dutch Oven Cooks chapter, visit its Facebook page or the International Dutch Oven Society Web page, idos.org/Chapters/Blackhawk.php. For questions, contact Tennessen at firstname.lastname@example.org.