The cast-iron Dutch oven is an old-time cooking pot that still commands a following among Utah cooks. But although many people might make stew or chili in a Dutch oven, they are often intimidated by the challenge of baking bread, cakes or pies using only charcoal briquettes as a heat source.
Bruce Tracy of Ogden has met the challenge and conquered it.
A past winner of the International Dutch Oven Society’s world championship, he shares his knowledge and recipes in his book “Dutch Oven Baking,” (Gibbs Smith, $15.99).
The Dutch oven’s ability to bake was one reason it was widely used by pioneers and cowboys out on the open range. By placing hot coals on top of the rimmed lid and under the pot’s three-legged bottom, they had an oven that could bake johnnycakes and biscuits.
But modern-day kitchen ovens with built-in thermostats for heat control have made outdoor baking almost a lost art.
A common mistake for novices is to use too much heat on the bottom of the pan, “which burns everything,” said Tracy. “As soon as that happens, they get discouraged.”
Tracy’s love affair with Dutch oven cooking began when his wife, Vickie Tracy, gave him a Dutch oven for Father’s Day in the early 1990s.
“I’m a competitive type, and I saw a cook-off announced in the paper for (North Ogden’s) Cherry Days, and thought I’d try it,” Tracy said. “I didn’t have a clue of what I was doing, and we didn’t even place. But I learned from the other people there. The next cook-off I was in, the Weber County single-pot, I won.”
Tracy was a seven-time finalist in the IDOS World Championship — the Olympics of Dutch oven cooking. Just getting a berth is an achievement, since teams have to win an IDOS-sanctioned cook-off in order to qualify. The contestants pull out all of the stops, with dishes more likely to be seen at a four-star restaurant than a camp-out.
When he and Vickie took the title in 2004, they wowed the judges with Cheese-Stuffed Pork Loin with New Potatoes and Stuffed Mushrooms, a perfectly baked Challah Holiday Bread with Parmesan Dipping Butter, and a stunning Poached Pear and Almond Tart.
“I took the pear tart recipe from Cook’s Illustrated magazine and modified it enough that it was my own,” he said. “Vickie does the sauces, and she keeps us on time during the competitions. In order to win, we knew it had to be just as complicated as you could possibly get done within the amount of time we had. So we had to time everything. We practiced those three recipes about 30 times that winter.”
He and Vickie ran some of the Dutch oven cook-offs, and competed in other “big-money” cooking competitions such as the World Food Championships held in Las Vegas last November. He’s sharing the results of all that practice in his book, with 64 recipes that can be baked outdoors in a Dutch oven or indoors in a regular oven. He notes that recipes sized for a 12-inch Dutch oven can be baked in a 9-by-13-inch pan.
“The recipes are designed for the backyard cook, but there are recipes in here that are good enough for competition,” he said.
The Cheese Onion Rolls, pictured on the book cover, are among the competition-worthy dishes.
“It’s been copied hundreds of times by now, and they have about 25 different variations with different cheeses or adding sausage and so on,” she said. “They were Vickie’s idea. By cutting them in triangles, they fit perfectly into the round pan.”
Temperature control is the key to successful Dutch oven baking, he said. Two-thirds of the coals used should be placed on the lid, to help the item brown on top instead of burning on the bottom.
A general rule to determine how many charcoal briquettes are needed for an approximate 350-degree temperature is to multiply the size of the oven by two. A 12-inch Dutch oven would require 24 coals. Then divide that number by three, and place one-third of the coals (eight) on the bottom, in a circle, and two-thirds (16) on the top around the rim of the lid.
“We like Dutch oven cooking because it’s all family-oriented and we do a lot of backyard stuff with our kids and grandkids,” Tracy said. “We have eight kids and 21 grandkids. We seldom can get them all together anymore, but when we do, it’s in the backyard.”
He said there are two reasons why food cooked in Dutch ovens tastes so good.
“The first one is scientific. The essential oils stay in the food because the lid holds them in, so the taste is more saturated. And the second reason is because nearly all backyard Dutch oven cooks are late! So people are hungry.”
Here are two recipes from the book.
Cheese Onion Rolls
7-8 coals on bottom
15-16 coals on top
(For indoor oven, 350 degrees F)
1 cup warm water
1/4 cup sugar
1 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 teaspoon salt
3 eggs, divided
4-5 cups flour, divided
2 packages instant yeast
4 ounces extra-sharp cheddar cheese, grated
1 medium red onion, finely chopped
2 tablespoons sesame seeds, optional
In a large bowl, mix together water and sugar. Add oil, salt and 2 eggs. Carefully add 2 cups of flour and yeast until incorporated and then stir vigorously for 30 seconds. Add more flour, 1 cup at a time, until you have a soft dough. Knead on a board until the dough is well-formed and elastic. Roll the dough around in a large oiled bowl, cover, and let rise until almost double in size, about 20-30 minutes.
Sprinkle a little flour on your bread board and spread dough out into a 1/4-inch-thick rectangle. Spray lightly with nonstick cooking spray and spread with cheese and onion. Roll up from the long side jelly-roll style. Cut into triangles like this: \ / \ / \ / \ / \ /
Spray Dutch oven with nonstick cooking spray. Arrange rolls in a circle, small end toward the center and just touching. Make an egg wash by stirring together the remaining egg and 1 tablespoon water. Brush tops of rolls with egg wash and sprinkle with sesame seeds, if using. Put the lid on and let rise again until just double in size, about 20-40 minutes. The rolls will fill the oven.
Bake, using 7-8 coals underneath the oven and 15-16 coals on top, for about 45 minutes. Every 15 minutes, gently turn the oven about a quarter turn over the coals, and then turn the lid the opposite direction, to prevent hot spots. After 30 minutes, check the rolls for browning. When they begin to brown, remove the bottom coals. When they are golden brown, maybe 5 minutes later, remove the rest of the coals from the top. Leave the rolls in the oven for about 10 minutes after the heat is removed, with the lid cracked. Remove to a trivet to cool.
Banana Upside-Down Cake
12-inch Dutch oven
7-8 coals on the bottom
15-16 coals on top
(For indoor oven: 350 degrees F)
1 cup brown sugar
6 tablespoons (3/4 stick) butter, cut into small pieces
1/4 cup Kirsch (cherry brandy) optional
6 bananas, peeled and sliced lengthwise
12-ounce bottle maraschino cherries, drained
2 boxes banana-flavored cake mix
Spread brown sugar and pieces of butter in the bottom of Dutch oven. Pour in the Kirsch and stir. (The alcohol evaporates, leaving a slightly nutty cherry taste.)
Press the bananas flat side down into the brown sugar and butter. Sprinkle the cherries over the bananas. Prepare the cake mixes according to the box directions and carefully pour over the fruit.
Cover and bake, using 7-8 coals underneath the oven and 15-16 coals on top, for 35 minutes. To see if the cake is done, insert a table knife in the center of the cake. If the knife isn’t clean when removed, add a few more minutes cooking time. Let it cool for 20 minutes and flip the oven over, so the cake will release onto the lid. Serve the cake on the lid.