Rich McCabe has 47 Dutch ovens.
Some are in the kitchen of his Kerrville home, a few are in the workshop and dozens more lie wrapped in their individual carrying cases in his garage, ready at the strike of a match to be loaded into his truck and hauled off to a Dutch oven gathering somewhere in the state.
As adviser for a traveling chapter of the Lone Star Dutch Oven Society, which has 40 chapters in about a dozen states, McCabe helps organize get-togethers for hundreds of fellow Dutch oven fanatics. He even had a Dutch oven wedding last year when he married Rose McCabe, a fellow Dutch oven lover. People came from all over the state, he recalls. "They broke out their black pots, and they fixed us our wedding meal," he says. "Everybody remembers the food more than the wedding."
McCabe's collection of Dutch ovens dwarfs the single 4-quart camp Dutch oven I pulled out of its original box last Christmas. But in just a year, I've become enthralled with a cooking implement with a history as rich as America itself.
Cast iron an American tradition
There's something decidedly American about Dutch ovens.
Sturdy and versatile, they are cut out for life on the road. During the past 390 years, everyone from Pilgrims to pioneers lugged the sturdy pots as they forged west. Paul Revere is credited with developing the flanged lid to keep coals or ash from falling inside the pot, which is often sandwiched between hot coals for top-to-bottom heating. Explorers Lewis and Clark dumped much of their gear during their two-year expedition out West, but when they returned to St. Louis in 1806, the only manufactured items they still carried were guns and Dutch ovens. In the mid- to late-1800s, no chuckwagon cook would hit the trail without one, and in 2005, the Texas Legislature named it the state cooking implement.
Cast-iron Dutch ovens are durable enough to be passed down from generation to generation. My own father has passed along his love of cooking outside, but there was no chance I'd be getting his Dutch oven any time soon. So he gave me my own Dutch oven for Christmas last year and we've been using it — indoors and out — ever since for braising, baking, frying, roasting and just about every other cooking technique that exists. We've even flipped the lid to use the underside as a griddle for pancakes.
Not all Dutch ovens in stores today are suited for both indoor and outdoor cooking. Many of the French-style enameled ovens sold under brand names such as Le Creuset are manufactured for stovetop or oven cooking, but aluminum or standard cast-iron Dutch ovens, especially the one I got with a flanged lid and legs that make it perfect for using with coals, are just as valuable in the kitchen as at a campsite. (See box on different kinds of Dutch ovens.)
Dutch ovens were the original slow cookers. When cooking at home, I still use the electric slow cooker for some stews and soups, but I prefer the Dutch oven for braising meats, one of my favorite cooking techniques now that the weather is cool. (Besides, who doesn't like a home warmed by the heat of an oven in use?) Slow cookers are slow to heat and have temperatures that are hard to control, and most of them don't get hot enough to sauté onions, garlic or vegetables.
If I'm braising, say, lamb shanks, I heat the Dutch oven over the gas flame on the stove so I can brown the outside of the meat. Another reason for buying cast iron: Browning meat on a cast-iron surface creates a crispy sear that's hard to replicate. After browning the meat on the stove, I add one part stock and one part wine, put the lid on and stick the Dutch oven inside the oven. Several hours later, the tight-fitting lid and thick walls keep the heat constant and tenderize even the toughest of meats.
Old King Coal
Just like cast-iron skillets, Dutch ovens are a fine addition to any kitchen, but they are nearly indispensable when it comes to outdoor cooking. Charcoal is preferred over open flame or propane as a heat source for Dutch oven masters like McCabe and fellow Lone Star Dutch Oven Society member Ken Brown.
Brown, a retired teacher who lives in Luling, says coals are best because you can precisely control the heat source. "You know how long it will burn and how hot it will get," says Brown, who heads up several area chapters of the society and now teaches kids about Dutch ovens. When teaching a class, he explains all the ways the cast-iron ovens can be used ("Anything you can cook in a 9-inch-by-13-inch pan, you can make in a 12-inch Dutch oven"), but it's the Mississippi Swamp Cake, which is made with chocolate cake mix, Dr Pepper and a can of cherries, that catches their attention. "Life doesn't get any better than that."
The Lone Star Dutch Oven Society offers plenty of recipes in its cookbook, "A Texas Treasury of Dutch Oven Cooking," and McCabe is gathering recipes for a second. (The book and other Dutch oven merchandise are available at www.lsdos.com.) The Lodge brand camp-style Dutch oven I got also came with a recipe book, and most Dutch oven recipes call for a certain number of briquettes to be placed under and on top of the oven.
Even when not cooking in a Dutch oven, McCabe refuses to use anything but cast iron. Cast iron requires some special care, including seasoning the surface with oil and not using soap when cleaning, but the results are worth the extra effort. Although much heavier than aluminum, cast-iron skillets and Dutch ovens more evenly distribute heat and stay hot longer, and they can also add the essential nutrient iron to foods, especially acidic ones such as tomato sauce.
But a little extra iron in their food is the last thing on the minds of most Dutch oven enthusiasts. McCabe says that at his very first Dutch oven gathering, he was struck by the camaraderie formed among strangers as they tended hot ovens filled with good food.
"Even if you've never cooked with them before, it's like you're family," he says.
For Thanksgiving, McCabe will be roasting turkeys with fellow Dutch oven cooks at an annual weekend gathering on the Gulf Coast. After a traditional dinner on Thursday, they'll barbecue in their ovens on Friday and cook seafood on Saturday. A different style of food each day, all cooked in cast-iron pots by people with an affinity for a cast-iron oven with a lid.
"It's all for the love of the black pot," says McCabe, who isn't finished collecting the cookware. He has his eye on a 120-year-old Dutch oven his 86-year-old mother is holding on to. "She's going to live to past 100, so it'll be a while before I get that one."
Mississippi Swamp Cake
1 21-oz. can cherry pie filling
1 12-oz. can Dr Pepper
1 box chocolate cake mix
2 cups coconut
1 cup chopped pecans
1 stick margarine or butter
Line 12-inch Dutch oven with aluminum foil. Spray foil with a light coat of cooking spray. Put in cherry pie filling and spread over bottom.
Combine the Dr Pepper with the cake mix and stir until it is mixed. Pour over the cherry pie filling. Cover top with coconut and then pecans (optional). Arrange 5 small slices of butter or margarine over cake.
Cover and cook for about one hour. Put 17 coals on top and 8 on bottom. This will make oven 350 degrees.
— Tom Sims
Ken's Dutch Oven Peach Cobbler
2 sticks butter
2 cups sugar
2 cups flour
2 Tbsp. baking powder
2 dashes salt
2 cups milk
2 Tbsp. vanilla extract
2 29-oz. cans sliced peaches, drained
Line the bottom of a 12-inch Dutch oven with aluminum foil. Place 10 hot coals underneath the oven. Melt a stick of butter in pan. Coat the bottom and sides of the oven with the melted butter.
In a large bowl, thoroughly mix sugar, flour, baking powder and salt. Add milk and vanilla extract and mix well. Carefully pour this mixture into the Dutch oven. Carefully spoon the drained peaches into the top of the mixture. Sprinkle cinnamon on top. Cut the second stick of butter into pats and space them on top. Put the lid on the oven and place 17 hot coals on top.
Cook for one hour, or until a toothpick inserted into cobbler comes out clean.
— Ken Brown
Ken's Tortilla Soup
1 lb. cubed chicken, white or dark meat
1 medium onion, finely chopped
8 cups chicken broth
4 corn tortillas, cut into 1-inch strips
1 15-oz. can diced or crushed tomatoes
1 can Ro-Tel tomatoes with green chiles
2 cans cream-style corn
11/2 cups shredded American or Cheddar cheese
2 tsp. ground cumin
2 tsp. salt
1 tsp. pepper
1 small clove minced garlic
1/4 cup cilantro (optional)
Place 12 hot coals underneath a deep, 12-inch (8-quart) Dutch oven. Cook chicken with onions. Remove from oven and set aside. Drain liquid from oven.
In the Dutch oven, combine broth, tortillas, tomatoes, corn, cheese, cumin, salt, pepper and garlic. Bring to a boil. Stir in chicken and cover with lid. Place four or five hot coals on the top and let simmer for at least 15 minutes. Serve with extra cheese, tortilla chips and cilantro, if desired. Note: Leftover turkey chopped into small pieces may be substituted for chicken.
— Ken Brown
Best Buttermilk Biscuits
1/2 cup butter
21/2 Tbsp. granulated sugar
1 beaten egg
3/4 cup club soda
1 tsp. salt
5 cups Bisquick
1/4 cup melted butter (for top of biscuits)
Grease and heat a 12-inch Dutch oven with eight coals on the bottom and 17 coals on the top.
Combine all ingredients. Knead the dough by hand until smooth. Flour your hands. Pat the dough flat to 3/4-inch thickness on waxed paper and punch out biscuits with a biscuit cutter. Place biscuits on the bottom of the hot Dutch oven and bake for 12 to 15 minutes or until golden brown. Rotate the oven and lid often to prevent burned spots. Remember, these will bake from the top down. Brush golden biscuits with 1/4 cup melted butter.
— 'Camp Dutch Oven Cooking 101,' Lodge Manufacturing Co.
2 lbs. sausage
2 lbs. frozen hash-brown potatoes
8 eggs, beaten with 1/4 cup water
2 cups cheese, grated
In a 12-inch Dutch oven over a full bed of hot coals, fry and crumble sausage. Remove cooked sausage and drain on paper towels. Using the sausage drippings in the pan, brown potatoes and spread them evenly in bottom of oven. Place cooked sausage over potatoes. Pour eggs over sausage layer. Sprinkle top with cheese.
Cook with eight coals underneath and 16 on top for 20 to 25 minutes, until eggs are cooked.
— 'Camp Dutch Oven Cooking 101'
Types of Dutch ovens
Camp style: This kind of Dutch oven sits on legs and has a wire handle and a lip on the lid to allow charcoal briquettes to be placed on top of it as well as below. Lodge brand ovens like these sell for between $30 and $100, depending on the size. Most Dutch ovens manufactured for outdoor use are made of cast iron.
Casserole style: Le Creuset is one of the most well-known brands of these style of Dutch ovens, which are best suited for indoor cooking. Similar to a French oven or cocotte, these Dutch ovens have tight-fitting lids and handles, but aren't necessarily made out of cast iron.
Tips on using Dutch ovens outside
Preheat coals in a charcoal starter. Not only will they start faster, but any extra briquettes will stay hot when shielded from the wind.
To produce 350 degrees of heat for an hour, the general rule is to use twice the number of briquettes as the diameter in inches of your oven. For instance, for a 10-inch oven, use about 20 coals.
Rotate the lid a quarter-turn every 15 minutes to prevent hot spots.
For soups and stews, place a third of the total briquettes on the lid and two thirds under the oven. For baking, place two thirds of the charcoal briquettes on the lid and one third underneath. For roasting meats or vegetables, evenly distribute the coals on the lid and underneath.
If you're cooking bread or biscuits, put just a few coals on the bottom or else the food will burn quickly, McCabe says.
Use wood utensils to avoid scratching the patina, the black coating that builds up over time and makes a well-seasoned Dutch oven as nonstick as a Teflon pan.
A Dutch oven event
There are several chapters of the Lone Star Dutch Oven Society in Central Texas. It costs $20 for a family to join for a year. To find a chapter near you, go to www.lsdos.com.
McCabe and fellow members of the Lone Star Dutch Oven Society are meeting for an outdoor cookout Sunday at the Texas Catholic Boys Camp in Mountain Home, northwest of Kerrville. The dinner is free, but bring plates or a side dish and, most important, an interest in Dutch-oven cooking, McCabe says.
There's another Dutch oven gathering from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday at the Brazos Center Pavilion in Bryan. Call (979) 776-1191 for more information.