Luann Waters would like to restore the pride of place for the humble Dutch oven.
Waters, known to many across the country as “The Dutch Oven Lady,” travels the U.S. teaching the secrets to success in Dutch oven cooking.
The pot is a versatile cooking utensil, Waters says. With the lid on, it becomes an oven and can bake, braise, stew or roast foods. With the lid off, you can fry, boil or sauté food over an open fire.
“It’s just so flexible,” Waters says. “You can fry, bake, baste and stew in it. You can even turn the lid upside down and use it as a griddle or as a shallow wok.”
Also known as a bean pot, stew pot, bake oven, hearth oven, camp oven, woodsman oven and even a spider, the Dutch oven is a large pot with a lid and often times three legs. Most people are familiar with the Dutch oven as a pot the beans were cooked in on cattle drives, or as the pot setting over the stove in a Colonial New England home.
“If you were to go to George Washington’s home and see the cast iron pot near the fireplace, you would think that it looks a lot like what you’ve got in your kitchen,” she says.
Waters is Oklahoma’s coordinator for the Leopold Education Project, named for Aldo Leopold, a conservationist whose “land ethic” called for a caring relationship between people and nature. One of the project’s many goals: promoting critical thinking skills through “hands-on/minds-on activities.”
Waters has taught workshops in 17 states and at events like Becoming an Outdoor Woman and Women in the Outdoors. She teaches a one-hour education outreach class at Oklahoma State University called, “Pioneer Food History and Food Preparation.”
The basic design of a Dutch oven – so called because the Dutch perfected the casting process for the pots – hasn’t changed for generations.
“Cast iron has been around since 600-700 A.D.,” she says. “But the 1700s cast iron cookware is the same as we know it today.”
For many rural Americans, the Dutch oven was used regularly to cook in as recently as two generations ago, she says.
“For us here in Oklahoma, not everyone had electricity until the 1940s-1950s,” she says. “As recently as our parents, many of us may not have had electricity … I think that 20 years ago, I would have said that many people in rural areas knew about Dutch oven cooking. But I think now they are a generation away from it. I think most people, even if they are rural, are familiar with cast iron skillets, but not cooking in a Dutch oven.”
For Waters, cooking in a Dutch oven is a simpler way of doing things. What started as a way to learn a new skill to teach became a passion that combined her love of history, the outdoors and education.
Waters recommends cooks get a cast iron Dutch oven with legs and a lid to cook in. And she recommends that you use it outdoors on charcoal.
“You really need to use charcoal briquettes,” she says. “It’s not as difficult as it seems. And there are formulas for getting to the right temperature. First, you take the diameter of the Dutch oven and you double it. That will give you the number of charcoal briquettes you need to get your Dutch oven to 350 degrees…. And if you’re going to bake in it, you take three from underneath and put it on the lid.”
While most people won’t build a campfire in their backyard, using a fire pan made from an oil change pan (not the plastic ones, however) to hold the charcoal simplifies clean-up and contains the fire, she says. Using metal flashing in the fire pan as a wind screen, she says, is a good way to control the heat too.
In 2018, cast iron cooking became all the rage in magazines from Self to Bon Appetite. Since 1997, the Dutch oven has become “the” cooking vessel in the US, having been named the state cooking pot of Utah in 1997, the official state cooking vessel of Arkansas in 2001, and the official cooking implement of Texas in 2005.
But those who’ve cooked with cast iron Dutch ovens have long known the value of the cooking implement, as Aldo Leopold mentions the cooking implement in his book, A Sand County Almanac.
…[E]very region has a human food symbolic of its fatness. The hills of the Gavilan find their gastronomic epitome in this wise: Kill a mast-fed buck, not earlier than November, not later than January. Hang him in a live-oak tree for seven frosts and seven suns. Then cut out the ‘straps’ from their bed of tallow under the saddle, and slice them transversely into steaks. Rub each steak with salt, pepper, and flour. Throw into a Dutch oven containing deep smoking-hot bear fat and standing on live-oak coals. Fish out the steaks at the first sign of browning. Throw a little flour into the fat, then ice-cold water, then milk. Lay a steak on the summit of a steaming sour-dough biscuit and drown both in gravy.
This structure is symbolic. The buck lies on his mountain, and the golden gravy is the sunshine that floods his days, even unto the end.
Waters says with care and some instruction, Dutch ovens can become the “new” old cooking staple in your kitchen, too.
1 1/2 c. yellow corn meal
Southwestern Corn Bread (Double recipe for 14 inch Dutch oven)
3 t. baking powder
1 t. salt 2 eggs (or egg beaters)
1 c. milk or buttermilk (or 1/4 c. nonfat dry milk & 1 c. water)
1/4 c. salad oil (to 1/2 c.)
3 chopped jalapeno peppers or 3 T. picante sauce or 2 to 3 T. fire roasted green chilis
1 can (16 oz.) creamed style corn
1 c. grated cheese or 4 to 8 oz. cubed cheese (vary amount to taste)
Mix all dry ingredients in bowl till well blended. Add eggs, milk (or water) and mix well. Add oil and stir till well blended. Stir in cream corn, then picante sauce (or other). Pour into lightly greased and mealed baking dish (2 qt. Pyrex cake pan) or Dutch oven. Bake at 350 degrees for about 45 minutes.
1 1/2 c. yellow corn meal