New Hampshire isn't exactly the Old West, but local campers often pack a piece of equipment that, in its own way, is as much as part of the cowboy mystique as spurs and lassos. Explorers, trappers and cowboys all used the humble Dutch oven.
As the name suggests, the Dutch oven originated in Holland before traveling across the Atlantic to the New World. Soldiers cooked with Dutch ovens during the Revolutionary war. Lewis and Clark carried a Dutch oven on their surveying trek to the Pacific. Native Americans valued the Dutch oven for its versatility, and traded furs and other valuables for the cast iron cook pots.
You can boil and simmer with a Dutch oven. You can bake a pie with one or cook a campfire roast. The lid can be used as a frying pan. When people visualize cowboys sitting by a campfire, they think of a Dutch oven full of chili bubbling over the coals.
A traditional Dutch oven is made of cast iron, which heats slowly to prevent food from burning. The base of the oven has three legs that allow heat from a fire's coals to circulate under the oven. The lid fits tightly, and has a one to two-inch lip, which prevents coals from dirtying the food. A sturdy wire handle makes the oven easy to remove from the fire.
Any cast iron pot must be seasoned before use with animal fat or oil. The fat soaks into the pores of the metal and forms a hard barrier against rust. Never wash a Dutch oven with soap: soap damages the seasoning barrier and imparts a sudsy taste to food. With care, a cast iron Dutch oven lasts for generations.
If a Dutch oven has a disadvantage to the modern camper, it would be weight. A cast iron Dutch oven can weigh up to twenty pounds. If you're driving directly to your campground, that's not a problem, but even the most enthusiastic hiker balks at the idea of packing an extra twenty pounds into the high country.
Fortunately an alternative to cast iron exists. Aluminum Dutch ovens weigh much less than their cast iron cousins, although a fair sized aluminum oven can still weigh up to seven pounds. An aluminum Dutch oven heats up faster than cast iron, but also cools faster. Unlike cast iron, aluminum doesn't have to be seasoned before use and it doesn't rust.
Camp cooking can get old after a while. You can only eat so many hot dogs, baked beans and hamburgers before you start to tire of them. Campers who pack a Dutch oven with a campfire grill can cook almost anything over a campfire with some practice and a little preparation.