Central Casting

Cast iron cooking a must-have skill for any camper

By Drew Harris

Green chillies provide the pop to Wild About Chili Rellenos. - Photo by Drew Harris

Green chillies provide the pop to Wild About Chili Rellenos. - Photo by Drew Harris

Hollie Sanders educates would-be chuckwagon cooks at the Witt Stephens Jr. Central Arkansas Nature Center in Little Rock.

Hollie Sanders educates would-be chuckwagon cooks at the Witt Stephens Jr. Central Arkansas Nature Center in Little Rock.

In use since the 17th century, the Dutch oven – the official cooking vessel of The Natural State – has proven its worth in a variety of locations. 

Originally made of brass, its inventor, Abraham Darby, is credited for patenting the process for making the thick-walled cooking vessel from sand-molded cast iron, which allows for uniform heat distribution. American patriot Paul Revere is rumored to have adapted the design to incorporate a flat lid with a lip to hold coals and legs to elevate the pot above the coals. 

Regardless of its origins, the design has held its purpose for centuries. From Lewis and Clark portaging the pots to the Pacific to wagon trains opening the American West, these kettles were commonly seen. They have ridden along on ships, bounced in the backs of wagons, clanked on mule trains and dangled over countless campfires. 

Cooking with cast iron provides reliable, even heat from one edge of the pan to the other. The utensil is highly versatile, allowing the cook to bake, broil, roast, stew and fry in one vessel. The Dutch oven, used on six continents, is so valued in some families it is often legally willed to descendants.

Hollie Sanders, facility manager at the Witt Stephens Jr. Central Arkansas Nature Center in Little Rock, is an educator and promoter of Dutch oven cooking. 

“You don’t have to go camping to Dutch oven cook,” she said. “It’s just another way to find your outside.” 

A charcoal chimney starter is a must-have accessory.

A charcoal chimney starter is a must-have accessory.

Sanders was introduced to Dutch oven cooking while attending Becoming an Outdoor Woman, an Arkansas Game and Fish Commission program dedicated to teaching women outdoor skills. As an angler, hunter and camper, she makes good use of her Dutch oven on her adventures.

“I like to eat something besides a cold Pop Tart or a hot dog when I’m around a campfire,” she said.

One amazing thing about cooking in a cast iron Dutch oven is the ability to do so without a fire. Simply by adding or subtracting hot coals to the lid or underneath the pot, the cook can manipulate the temperature with remarkable precision. And since the coals can be lit in a chimney starter or even a metal bucket, it reduces the chance of causing a fire in drier conditions.

Sanders uses the “three up, three down” method for regulating temperature. Going off of the pot’s size (that number cast into the lid) she adds that many coals plus three on the top and subtracts three coals from the cast number to put underneath the oven to maintain 350 degrees, perhaps the most common temperature for baking. 

A rule of thumb is a single briquet will add roughly 25 degrees when placed on top, although factors such as ambient temperature and wind can affect the amount of coals needed. Coal charts are included with most new Dutch ovens and they also can be found online.

Sanders holds Dutch oven cooking classes in November and February; specific information and dates will be posted on the Witt Stephens Jr. Central Arkansas Nature Center’s Facebook page as the time approaches. For more cooking tips and information, visit the Central Arkansas Dutch Oven Group or the International Dutch Oven Society on Facebook.  


Wild About Chili Rellenos 

1 lb ground venison or beef
1 lb chorizo pork sausage 1 medium yellow onion, diced
1 12 oz can evaporated milk
1 cup water
½ tsp salt
6 eggs
½ cup flour
6 cans (10-12 oz) whole green chilies, seeded (not jalapeños…chilies)
3 cups shredded Mexican or mild cheddar/Monterey Jack cheese
Mrs. Dash Jalapeño seasoning to taste or favorite Mexican spices

1. Prepare about 1½ chimneys of charcoal. Place oven, with the lid off, on a bed of coals.
2. Season ground venison with Jalapeño spice or Mexican spices like you would for tacos.
3. Brown the onion and all meat in the bottom of the oven then remove and set aside. You do not have to remove oil residue from pot unless it’s really thick or watery.
4. In a separate bowl, beat the eggs, add evaporated milk, water, salt, flour and then stir in 2 cups of the cheese. Mix well and set aside.
5. Open the can of chilies, drain and slice. Put a layer in the bottom of the oven. 
6. Sprinkle half of the meat over that and pour half the egg mixture over the meat.
7. Add another layer of chilies, meat and the rest of the egg mixture, saving some chilies – five or more if possible – for later.
8. Top with the remaining cheese. Use remaining chilies to make a star pattern on top.
9. Cover and bake at 425 degrees for 45-60 minutes or when browned. 

This recipe uses the ring method of coals: 15 coals underneath the pot in a ring and two full rings of charcoal on top. About 2/3 of the way through the cooking time, remove coals from bottom and place on top to brown. Remember, in hotter weather it will cook faster.

Make fish tacos in your Dutch oven.

Make fish tacos in your Dutch oven.

Razorback Fish Tacos

 Make the seasoning and sauce before you leave to save work. 

White fish brought from home or catfish caught on your excursion.
Seasoning mixture
Taco sauce
Pico de gallo 
Black olives 

Combine all ingredients.
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp ground coriander
1/2 tsp paprika
1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
1/4 tsp garlic powder
1/2 tsp salt

Warm your tortillas on the Dutch oven lid.

Warm your tortillas on the Dutch oven lid.

Combine all ingredients. Mix well.
1/2 cup thinly sliced green onions
1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro
1/3 cup mayonnaise
1/3 cup sour cream 
Zest from 1 lime
Juice from 1 lime
1/2 tsp salt
2 cloves garlic, minced

1. Coat the fish with the spice mixture and drop into a lightly oiled Dutch oven over the prescribed amount of coals to cook at 350 degrees. It won’t take long, so pay attention. The fish is ready when flaky and white. Set aside when done. 

2. Warm tortillas on the inverted Dutch oven lid, and you’re ready to eat. Top with taco sauce, garnish with pico de gallo, black olives and cilantro.