1. Over cooking your food
A Dutch oven, in the end, is an oven. It does an amazing job of cooking food. But just because the food is potentially great, you still can ruin it by over cooking. If you pile coals on top of an oven and underneath it without knowing how many you have and how hot it is in the oven, you are in trouble. Under Dutch Oven Basics on the Dutchoventopia.com site, there are clear instructions as to how many coals to use for a desired temperature in the oven. Make sure you look at that page and get the formula down.
Plus, just because you have a Dutch oven, doesn’t mean the food will cook indefinitely without burning. I’ve seen people bury the thing in the ground and walk away for the day. That is only done to hide the food from animals while you are hunting or hiking. There still needs to be a bit of air in there and very low heat for a long time. Frankly, it’s a pain, and I never do that. I WATCH my food and actually cook it! Burning the food can destroy the patina (coating) on your oven. The patina is what it’s all about – great patina, great food.
Example: you have a recipe that would only take an hour at 350° in the oven in your kitchen… that’s the same amount of time it will take outside in a Dutch oven! You don’t double or triple the time. Don’t overcook your food and destroy your meal, and maybe even your oven!
2. Poor cleaning practices
I’m amazed at the many ways I’ve seen someone clean a Dutch oven. Let me start by reminding you that soap, ANY soap, will ruin your oven’s patina. You will have to wire brush it to bare metal and re-season it if soap is used. Again, go to Dutch Oven Basics on the site to get details on how to properly season a Dutch oven.
The right way to clean an oven
Hot water and a plastic scrubber that has NEVER touched soap is the right way.
Choose a scrubber…
That’s it. No other way is correct. By the way, when cleaning, make sure you don’t put cold water in a hot oven. It could crack.
The wrong way to clean an oven
Never turn the oven over in a fire. The patina can be ruined! Never use rock salt. That will also taint the patina and make food too salty. Never use a wire brush. That will take the patina right off! Anything else you think of… don’t do it! Alright, using a paper towel works for easy stuff, but that’s about it.
3. Poor placement of coals
I always say you can cook anything in a Dutch oven that you would normally cook in a kitchen oven, stove, or grill, but there are somethings that can only be cooked in a Dutch oven because of heat control. Correct number and placement of coals can make or break the food. Several breads and cobblers can only be made in the Dutch oven. For example, if you are cooking a bread, a cobbler or almost any dessert, your coals should be in a ring around the outer edge of the lid, with just a few in a ring just inside the bottom edge of the oven. You can a place few on the inside of the lid in a smaller inner circle, but none in the center under the oven. These type of recipes always need more top heat than bottom heat. If you are doing a meat or anything that gets stirred often you can place the coals evenly over the lid and evenly under the oven. Stirred items need more bottom heat. You can see the rules for coal placement under Dutch Oven Basics on the main website. Placement really matters.
4. Over oiling of an oven
I have seen many people that re-coat their oven with oil inside and out after every use. The oven and lid are literally dripping. Not only is that a mess to work with, it’s just not needed. If your oven has a nice black patina, lightly oil it after every few uses. That will be fine. I oil the outside of mine a lot less frequently then I do the insides as well.
Another thing. If you heavily oil your oven and then let it sit for a while, the oil could go rancid. Not good. If you can’t get the bad taste out with heat, you will end up cleaning the oven down to bare metal and re-seasoning it.
I know it’s temping. I know you want to just see how it’s coming. I know you want to smell it. I know you want to show it off just a little bit. Just put down the lid and slowly back away. Don’t do it! Peeking loses heat and messes up the cooking process. If you have a recipe that says it takes an hour… don’t look for an hour. If you have the right amount of heat (see number 1) then you are safe.
The exception to this rule: when making a soup, some vegetable dishes or a stew, you will be pulling the lid to stir every now and then. Maintaining heat is not as necessary here.
6. Improper rotation of lid and oven
Along with the right amount of heat, you need to make sure the heat is distributed evenly with no hot spots or cold spots. To do that correctly, rotate the lid ¼ turn clockwise every 10 to 15 minutes. Don’t pick up the lid and lose heat, just rotate it being careful to keep all the heat. Then, pick up the oven by the handle and rotate the whole oven ¼ turn counterclockwise. The direction you rotate doesn’t really matter as long as you are consistent. I just use the rule above to make sure I get good even heat.
7. Bad stacking
I know those pictures of 4 ovens stacked high look cool. Plus you are saving coals by letting the top coals from one oven serve as the bottom coals for the next one, right? Well, that all depends. For that to work, the coals on the top of the lower oven must be the right amount of coals and have proper placement for the bottom of the oven on top as well as the one below. That can happen, but often it doesn’t. I have had to cook in 5 feet of snow before and I couldn’t get a very large area cleared so I stacked in that case. It wasn’t my best work. Getting to lower ovens to rotate coals, or stir food, or change out coals, or whatever is brutal. In general it is better if you can give each oven their own space without stacking.
8. No adjustments for weather
If you are cooking in very hot weather, you will need a few less coals both top and bottom, to achieve your desired temperature in the oven. So if you normally cook in 75° weather but its 100° outside, you will do at least one less coal on the top and the bottom. If it’s winter, you will want to add coals. Also, if you are in windy conditions, coals that would normally last an hour (the usual time they last) could burn out as fast as 20 minutes, so watch them closely and replenish if needed.
9. Using poor fuel
I’m a stickler on this one. I always just use the best charcoal I can, and that is usually Kingsford. But make sure you don’t get the Matchlight variety. Matchlight charcoal burns very hot in the beginning because of the lighter fluid that is in them. Then they burn cooler towards the end of their life than normal charcoal. I have not had good luck with off brands for getting consistent heat.
10. Poor food choices
This is a two parter. Yes, parter is a word… sort of. Dutch ovens can do so much more than a chili, a stew or a mountain man breakfast. Not that those are bad, but if you do a crab stuffed roast or chicken cordon bleu and put it next to the chili, I’m guessing the first two dishes might be more… memorable. To me it’s just plain better. I rarely do the common stuff. You can do anything in a Dutch oven. Give something new a try. If my family is camping or the power goes off at my house, my family eats better ─ way better.
The second part of this is to only buy quality ingredients. What a difference that makes. I stopped letting others shop for my ingredients years ago. Other people mean well. They just don’t get it. Real butter (if you need it) the best fresh herbs, quality meats… the works. It makes more difference than most people realize. Garbage in, garbage out. Pour ingredients aren’t exactly garbage, but it does change the outcome dramatically. If you are going to the effort to Dutch oven, get the right recipe, right ingredients, right fuel, and do it right.