Trip Tips: How to Master Dutch Oven Cooking on the River

Become a gourmet river chef

Dutch oven cooking. Photos by Jenni Chaffin / NRS

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By Clyde Nicely

The best way to guarantee your invitation on lots of river trips: earn the reputation as a good cook. (Also, don't be a dick.)

Mastering the Dutch oven is the key to becoming a gourmet river chef. There are two distinct features of an outdoor Dutch oven: the flat-rimmed, slightly concaved lid capable of holding coals on top, and the three legs that let you put coals underneath. This thick-walled pot, coupled with the coals, delivers more uniform internal heat, basically transforming the inside into an oven rather than a typical pan. In other words, anything you can create in your home oven, you can recreate in the wild outdoors. Traditionally, Dutch ovens are cast iron, but aluminum models are a third of the weight and work fine. Charcoal briquettes make the ideal fuel.

Don't be intimidated; cooking with a dutch is really easy. With these tips you'll soon be dazzling your companions with dishes they didn't think possible in the outdoors.

Remember the fundamental rule of coals, "Three Up, Three Down." This means you will have three extra coals on top of the Dutch, and three fewer coals underneath. To determine how many coals to use in the first place, take the diameter of your Dutch and double that number. For example, a 12-inch Dutch will need 24 coals. Based on three up, three down rule, place nine coals on the bottom and 15 on top.

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It doesn't hurt to have a few extra coals on hand in case it's really cold out. I generally add two to three extra coals on top, and one or two on the bottom, if the temperature drops toward freezing.

Use a clear glass of water to level the Dutch oven when you're cooking anything liquid.

Avoid early lifting of the lid. Checking to see if your dish is done too early slows the cooking process. When you can smell the food, wait a few minutes, then check. It's not exact science, but that makes it more fun.

Stack multiple Dutch ovens for efficiency.

Dutch oven biscuits. Voila. Photo by Jenni Chaffin / NRS

For Dutch oven use, care and recipes, I recommend The Outdoor Dutch Oven Cookbook by Sheila Mills. For years Sheila and husband Dave, ran Rocky Mountain River Tours, a premier Salmon River Middle Fork outfitter. Thousands of happy clients have enjoyed these dishes.

Here's her Chicken Enchiladas recipe, in a 12-inch Dutch. Feeds 6-8:
• 2 lbs. boned cubed chicken (I like thighs)
• 1 bunch green onions
• 4 oz. can diced, drained green chilies
• 10 oz. can black olives, drained, chopped
• 2 Tbls ground cumin
• Salt to taste
• 2 cups sour cream
• Flour tortillas
• 16 oz. grated Monterey Jack cheese
• 8 oz. grated cheddar cheese
• 8 oz. can tomato sauce

Pro tip: Brown the chicken at home; mix in the onions, chilies (I use more), olives and cumin, then freeze for the trip.

Oil the Dutch oven, cover the bottom with tortillas and top with a third of the chicken, sour cream, cheese and tomato sauce. Repeat for two more layers, saving a bit of cheese to sprinkle on the top layer.

Bake 40-45 minutes. Bring salsa and hot sauce for those who like it spicier.

Favorite home recipes can easily be adapted for a Dutch oven. I make a chicken with 40 cloves of garlic that's won prizes at Dutch oven cook-offs. Be creative, food is part of the fun on river trips. But don't fret, the Dutch oven isn't your only route to gourmetdom. Thinking outside of the indoor-kitchen-box and using these tips can result in delicious creations and earn you the River Gourmet badge.

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