Dutch ovens as we know them today were developed in the early eighteenth century. They sometimes were called "bake kettles" or "bake ovens," but "Dutch oven" (a name of uncertain origins) became the title of choice long ago. By the mid-1700s, almost all American families were cooking in Dutch ovens on home hearths and campfires.
The Dutch ovens used by today's camp cooks differ little from early models. Each is a large deep pot with a tightly fitting lid. Three short legs support the whole affair over coals on the ground (or on the hearth). The lid has a raised rim to retain coals that are placed on the lid and to keep ashes from falling into the oven when the lid is lifted. With this arrangement -- coals on top and coals beneath -- the oven can be evenly heated for better cooking.
A fixed handle on top of the lid provides for lifting the lid. A bail of steel wire is permanently attached to the pot portion for lifting and moving the whole oven. (Early Dutch ovens often had a long handle instead of a bail.) Old-time ovens were heavy cast iron, as are many modern versions, but now you can get aluminum ones, too, that are lighter. I prefer, however, cast-iron ovens. Cast iron heats slowly and evenly, and retains the heat long after the pot leaves the fire. In aluminum ovens, which do not have these characteristics, food often burns and sticks.
Seasoning a cast-iron Dutch oven is very important. This is done by first cleaning the oven in hot water to remove any factory coating on the metal. (Most oven manufacturers recommend against using soap when washing.) Then rub salt-free shortening or cooking oil on all surfaces of the oven, and heat it for an hour or two with low heat. (Beef suet, bacon grease or salt-free butter or margarine can be used in a pinch.) This can be done in your home oven or with campfire coals. The ideal temperature is 250-300 degrees for two to three hours. After heating, remove the oven, allow it to cool and cover the whole metal surface with a light coating of shortening to protect the metal from rusting. Your oven will form a black patina, or finish, with continued use.
Aluminum ovens won't rust and don't need any preparation or treatment before or after use. Simply wash and dry; no need to oil.
Preheat the oven before food is put in to bake. Do this by placing a few coals on top and a few underneath for several minutes. This helps keep food from sticking in the oven.
Food can be placed directly in the oven, or placed in a pan or aluminum foil wrapper in the oven. I like to cook large cuts of meat, soups and stews, and boiled or steamed vegetables, directly in the oven. Foil cups are good containers for muffins and breads. When making a cake or pie that needs to be removed for cutting and serving, I use a pan in the oven, elevated above the bottom to allow heated air to circulate all around and protect the dish from overheating by the coals beneath. A couple of metal tent pegs or nails, or a few pebbles, placed in the bottom of the oven support the pan.
Coals are placed under the oven, and on top, when cooking. Generally, when making dishes with large liquid content, such as stews and soups, you place two-thirds of the coals beneath and one-third on top. This transmits higher heat to the liquid in the oven and then on to your food. When baking, reverse these proportions: one-third beneath and two-thirds on top. Too many on the bottom may overcook the baking food. More coals on top give high heat to the baking air space in the oven and directly down to your food.
It's sometimes tricky maintaining the proper heat while cooking. Regulate it by adding or taking away coals on top or beneath, experimenting a bit if necessary. It's a good idea to build a small fire beside the oven and keep shoveling the fresh-made coals from there to the oven. Check the progress of your cooking by lifting the lid with tongs or a hook, and testing.
Remember, Dutch ovens are not just for baking. They work well for pan frying, broiling and deep-frying as well. The lid can be inverted and used as a griddle, with some rocks, or three metal tent pegs driven in the ground, as supports.
Dutch ovens are naturals for one-pot meals, but if you want to get spoiled, try the luxury of a whole battery of ovens: one for meat, one for vegetables, others for bread, pie, cake, cobbler, you name it. This is real living!