Dutch Oven

A camp Dutch oven with lid lifter. (Glenn Koenig, Los Angeles Times / June 17, 2014)

Dutch ovens are a cast-iron symbol of a pioneer past still especially cherished in the American West. But Dutch oven cooking is more than a bit of delicious nostalgia. Aficionados across North America are cooking — and creating — in this sturdy pot, even if their back 40 is no bigger than an apartment balcony.

"Dutch oven cooking is always at the crossroads of retro and what's next,'' says Mark Hansen, who has written a number of Dutch oven cookbooks and lives in Eagle Mountain, Utah. "Retro, of course, because of the history, the cowboys, we've got that rich tradition. But you can cook far beyond beans and biscuits, you know."

Believe it. Dutch oven fans cook nearly everything and anything in these sturdy covered pots, from holiday turkeys to vegetable casseroles to cakes and pies and breads. It's that can-do utility that made these pots so essential to pioneers and others who found themselves out on the land — and so useful to modern cooks looking to spark up the backyard cookout.

Now, don't go thinking there was some chuck wagon rolling around in the 1880s tricked out with a nest of Dutch ovens robed in the brightly colored enamels of today. The pots the pioneers used — and outdoor cooking aficionados still swear by — were rugged cooking vessels mounted on legs so they could stand over burning charcoal or wood. The lids were flat and rimmed so hot coals could be placed on top and whatever was inside was cooked from two directions — just like foods in a modern oven.

But the neat thing about Dutch oven cooking is that you can adapt both the pot and the cooking method to what you already have. Smooth-bottomed Dutch ovens bought for the kitchen can cook up delicious food equally well on a grill or, with a trivet or some form of support, over a campfire.

"I've become a big fan of using a Dutch oven or related accessories, even a cast-iron skillet or simple griddle," says Jamie Purviance, author of many outdoor cooking books.

"You can vary the meal that way. Not everything off the grill has to be charred in the strictest sense," adds the resident of El Dorado Hills, Calif. "You can have someone making a jambalaya in a Dutch oven on one side of the grill and grilling a whole fish on the other side."

Dutch ovens are made in a variety of metals, but none garner the enthusiasm of fans like cast iron, a material so old-fashioned it's the rage again.

Michele Pika Nielson, the Salt Lake City author of "Dutch Oven Cookout: Step by Step," says cooking in cast iron provides trace amounts of iron needed in the diet. And cast-iron pots also create a natural nonstick coating. That counts, she says, for people wary of cooking pots made from other metals or sporting an artificially applied nonstick coating.

The famously heavy lid keeps the food's essential oils and aroma in the Dutch oven, which results in better flavor, says Bruce Tracy, author of 2013's "Dutch Oven Baking."

Don't go buying a legged Dutch oven for outdoor use unless you're really sure you're going to use it, cautions Matt Pelton, author of the new book, "Dutch Oven Pies: Sweet & Savory" (Hobble Creek, $12.99). He recommends newbies begin with a model meant for the indoors: "They will get more use out of it."

Southwestern baked chicken

Prep: 15 minutes

Marinate: 2 hours

Cook: 1 hour

Makes: 4 servings

This recipe from George and Carolyn Dumler's "Southwest Dutch Oven" (Gibbs Smith, $15.99) is made in a 10-inch Dutch oven. If cooking over charcoal, you'll need 10 to 12 hot coals to place under the oven and 12 to 14 coals for the top. That will maintain a temperature of around 350 degrees for most of the cooking, about 45 to 50 minutes. Then, add additional coals for a final 15 minutes of cooking at 400 degrees. (For an indoor oven, start the chicken at 350 and bake for 45 to 50 minutes, then raise the temperature to 400 degrees for 15 minutes.)

8 boneless, skinless chicken thighs

2 cups buttermilk

2 cups panko breadcrumbs