Lifting the lid of a Dutch oven for the first time is like opening a present and getting a surprise.

If you did things right, you might find a bubbly beef stew or steamy peach cobbler inside.

And if you did something wrong -- like pile the charcoal briquettes in the center under the oven -- you may have some burnt offerings for your guests.

But that's all right. Dutch oven cooking is all about learning from your mistakes and being rewarded for your successes.

Just ask Alette Hain with the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission. She's whipped up meals with Dutch ovens for more than 20 years.

Hain has made everything from bread and cinnamon rolls to stews and artichoke dip. Over the years, she's compiled a booklet of recipes that she shares with those who have been through the agency's Becoming an Outdoors Woman program. 

"It's better than a charcoal grill. Anything you can do in your home, you can do in your Dutch oven," said Hain, who works in the agency's mailroom.

Dutch ovens have been around since the 1700s. Some say they were invented by Abraham Darby, an Englishman who visited the Netherlands. Others attribute the ovens to the Pennsylvania Dutch.

Today, most Dutch ovens are used around campfires. Made of cast iron or aluminum, the ovens have three stubby legs and come in a range of sizes from 8 inches to 22 inches. The size, usually stamped on the recessed lid, gives you an idea of the volume of the oven.

Dutch oven aficionados use different sizes for a variety of foods and stack them in towers to cook four-course meals that could include bread or rolls, vegetables, a roast or other entrée, and pies and cakes. 

"It's a lot like using a crockpot. You can put anything you want in it and let it cook," Hain said.

The best size for beginners is a classic 12-inch oven, said Hain, while getting ready to make cobblers for about 400 people at the annual Carp-O-Rama event held last month at Pawnee Lake near Emerald.

Hain and her assistants -- Peggy Kapeller, Sarah Johnson and Tiffani Gerber, who also work for the agency -- were getting the charcoal briquettes nice and hot to place under the ovens and on the lids.

"Most of it's charcoal placement. If they can get that down, it's easy," Hain said.

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Her general rule is: Don't place the briquettes in a pile under the oven; scatter them around the edges near the legs because heat flows from the outside to the inside. The same goes for the lids. Spread them around the rim and put about two in the middle.

Hain suggests using eight briquettes around the bottom (that's the reason for the three legs) and 12 to 14 on the lid. Wood coals can be used, but it's trickier.

Hot, white coals are moved around with a scoop like those for cleaning out fireplaces. Dutch oven cooks also use a special tool to lift the heavy lid. You usually can find them anywhere Dutch ovens are sold.

Due to their growing popularity, Dutch ovens now are available in many farm and big box stores. Average price for a 12-inch Dutch oven is about $50. 

"You can cook so many things in them. It's good for all of our Scout trips," said Johnson, who has been using a Dutch oven for more than a year.

Many Dutch ovens already come preseasoned or cured. If they don't, you can preseason one by coating it with shortening and placing it on a grill. Don't do it in an oven because it will smoke up your kitchen.

"If you find a rusty one at a garage sale for a couple of bucks, buy it because they are so easy to clean up," Hain said.

Reach Algis J. Laukaitis at 402-473-7243 or


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