You’ve decided to take the plunge into the age-old tradition of cooking in a dutch oven while you’re camping. Some people are able to make amazing meals in their dutch ovens, and you think it’s about time that you tried it yourself! But which dutch oven to get for camping?
We eventually decided on the Lodge 10-inch 4-quart Camping Dutch Oven… We love this Dutch oven and it has given us many delicious meals.
Multiple factors impact your choice of a dutch oven for camping, including:
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|A dutch oven’s size is expressed in quart capacity
|Depending on the size of the dutch oven, cast iron dutch ovens can weigh from 10 lbs to over 30 lbs, while aluminum dutch ovens can weigh from 5 lbs to 10 lbs.
|Which material do you want in a camping dutch oven? Cast iron? Aluminum? Enamel?
|Different dutch oven materials need different levels of maintenance
|Even the lid shape has a big impact on which camping dutch oven to choose
|Do you want to use a hook? Or use the built-in handle?
|What good are legs on a camping dutch oven? Do you need them?
|Pre-seasoned, season yourself, or no seasoning required?
|Reversible Lids, legs on lids, etc.
All of these factors affect the dutch oven experience, so it’s important to decide on what is most important to you in a dutch oven for camping.
- Ideal Size of the Camping Dutch Oven and the 4-Quart Sweet Spot
- Which Metal Type is Best for Camping Dutch Ovens?
- How Heavy Do You Want Your Dutch Oven?
- Maintenance Needs For Dutch Ovens
- Lid Shape and Why it Matters
- Legs or No Legs for Camping Dutch Ovens?
- Seasoning: To Season or Not to Season
- Which Extra Features Actually are Useful in a Camping Dutch Oven?
Which Size Of Dutch Oven Is Best For Camping?
Last November, I cooked dinner every day for my family of 3 with a 4-quart (10-inch) dutch oven. We always had leftovers. A 10-inch 4-quart dutch oven is perfect for a family of 3-5 for camping because it’s not heavy or bulky to carry around back and forth to the campsite, but it’s still deep enough to bake, stew, and cook.
By the way, I highly recommend our Lodge 10-inch dutch oven. (see it here on Amazon where we got it) It’s worked out great for us and isn’t very expensive. It’s got camping legs and a flat lid and lots of other benefits.
Sizes of camping dutch ovens range from 1-quart all the way up to 12 quarts (and beyond), but the most popular dutch ovens are from 2-6 quarts.
Choosing the size of your dutch oven can be tricky, but it becomes a lot simpler if you consider your needs.
Assessing Your Camping Oven Size Needs
Many meals from a camping dutch oven are going to be foods that can be spooned out, like cobblers, stews, chili, beans, etc. Thus, thinking in terms of volume is very practical for selecting the right dutch oven.
How Full Can I Fill Up My Dutch Oven While Camping?
In reality, you can fill up your camping dutch oven as full as you want, but a good rule of thumb is to shoot for using only 2/3rd of the dutch oven’s capacity. This will give you plenty of room to work with so you can stir (if that’s needed), and spoon the food out without spilling it all over the place.
Remember, that since you’re camping, you must give yourself a little wiggle room. You might be lifting your camping stove from the fire to the ground and back again, thus there is going to be some movement and rocking in your camping stove. If your food is to the brim of the camping stove, you’re bound to make some undesirable spills.
If you are making a dessert or a side then 1/2 a cup is a good starting place to start calculating serving portions.
So for an example with a 2-quart dutch oven–remembering we won’t fill the dutch oven to the complete top–then that means we have a bit more than 1 and a 1/4 quart of the oven to work with. Rounding down to 5 cups, then that means we have 10 dessert or side dish servings we can prepare with one 2-quart dutch oven. Careful though, if your peach cobbler is amazing then people will want more than 1/2 a cup!
If you are cooking the main course in your dutch oven, then you should plan on at least a full cup for each serving portion. Going off the same calculation as before with dessert, then a 2-quart dutch oven can feed 5 people with the main course. Remember though, if all of the dinner for 5 people is in one 2-quart dutch oven without any other sides, it’s possible everyone won’t feel satisfied. If you have other side dishes, then a 2-quart dutch oven will work fine.
These examples only account for spoonable dishes (like chili or cobblers), and for modest portion sizes.
Therefore, to be conservative, if you are planning on only ever cooking in your dutch oven for 2-3 people, then a 2-quart camping dutch oven will work great.
This all changes if you are cooking meat, such as pork chops, or bulky foods like biscuits. At that point, you are limited by how many you can fit in your dutch oven.
If you are planning on groups of 4-10, then you should start looking at 4-6 quart dutch ovens for camping. The sweet spot is right around 4-quarts. At 4-quarts, you can handle groups of around 6-8 people (for entrees), or 10-14 people (for sides or desserts), and you can then accommodate bulkier foods.
We tested this out for pre-Thanksgiving last year. With our 4-quart, 10-inch dutch oven we made a Sweet Potato Casserole, and it fed 6 adults and 3 kids. So not quite 10 people, but everyone definitely got enough. It was delicious too so we all got more.
Which Metal Type is Best for Camping Dutch Ovens?
When you think of a dutch oven, you often think of cast iron. It’s been the de facto metal of choice for dutch ovens for centuries.
Nowadays, dutch ovens are used in home kitchens, and so there are many different types of dutch ovens out there. However, not all of these dutch oven materials are good for camping! For example, enamel dutch ovens (which look really gorgeous) are actually not suited for camping since the enamel can be damaged by really high temperatures (such as temperatures you’d find over an open flame).
Cast Iron Dutch Ovens
As mentioned, this is the de facto material for camping dutch ovens, and for good reason. Cast iron cookware is known for its durability and heat retention.
Cast iron is incredibly resilient and durable. It’s not uncommon for cast iron cookware to be passed on for years and even for generations. It can withstand high temperatures (although you have to be careful about rapid changes of temperature or uneven heating, which can lead to cracking), and if seasoned properly, can have an extremely functional non-stick surface for years.
Heat retention is a great feature to have in a dutch oven since at times you want a lower heat. Rather than finding a really tall tripod or swing to suspend your dutch oven above the fire, with a cast iron dutch oven, you can remove your oven from the fire and still cook or warm your food for a good long while!
Cast iron dutch ovens are heavy, weighing anywhere from 10 to over 30 lbs–this is one of its major downsides. If you have bigger cast iron dutch ovens, you’re going to need to use some muscles to move things around.
Cast iron has this amazing and sometimes finicky thing called seasoning. Seasoning is essentially polymerized oils that are cooked and embedded within the pores of the cast iron, creating a non-stick surface. Cast iron is generally pretty forgiving of what you do to it if you have a well seasoned pan, but it can take some time and effort to re-season a pan. Here’s a very in-depth blog entry for an example of how passionate people can get about the cast iron seasoning process.
Aluminum Dutch Ovens
Aluminum has some excellent properties, the main being that it conducts heat really well, which means more even heating, and another advantage is that aluminum dutch ovens are lightweight (by comparison). Furthermore, because aluminum dutch ovens have a thicker layer of aluminum, the dutch oven does a decent job of heat retention.
In comparison to cast iron, aluminum has some distinct advantages:
- Aluminum dutch ovens do not require seasoning. Because of this, there is no concern about rancid oil that hasn’t polymerized as you would have with cast iron.
- Aluminum dutch ovens do not rust
- Aluminum is at least a 1/3rd of the weight of cast iron. For example, the GSI Outdoors 6 quart aluminum dutch oven weighs 6 lbs 2 oz, while the Lodge 6 quart cast iron dutch oven weighs 19 lbs.
- Aluminum dutch ovens actually heat up faster because of their superior thermal conductivity, which also means fewer coals are required.
One drawback to aluminum dutch ovens is the nonstick properties of the dutch oven. While dutch ovens are much less used than your regular pans, and therefore are not likely to get scratched up as much, it is still a risk that you could scratch through the hard-anodized surface (typical of aluminum dutch ovens) and expose the bare aluminum. The bare aluminum is reactive and thus can leech into your foods.
With cast iron, you can re-season a pan, which takes some elbow grease, but the same amount of work (if not more) is required if you want to repair the hard-anodized surface of an aluminum dutch oven.
Lastly, aluminum has a lower melting temperature, which means if you leave your aluminum dutch oven in the fire after your food is done, you could potentially ruin your aluminum dutch oven. Aluminum camping dutch ovens are thick and are made for cooking over a fire, so you’ll be fine, just be careful and mindful.
Which Dutch Oven is Best for Camping?
So, what to go for? Cast Iron? Or Aluminum?
It all depends on your priorities. Cast iron requires a certain kind of treatment and are meant to last for years and years if taken care of. Also, if you have cast iron already, then adding more cast iron to the mix won’t be a big deal. Although there are more premium and expensive brands of cast iron out there, we’ve really enjoyed the Lodge products we’ve owned and if we choose cast iron, we’ll choose the Lodge 4-quart dutch oven (see the price on Amazon)
If you don’t already own cast iron, or if you don’t plan on cooking with your dutch oven that often, then I’d recommend to seriously consider an aluminum dutch oven. From my research, GSI Outdoors seems to make the most solid aluminum dutch ovens, and they are very inexpensive and have great reviews. Check out the price for the 12 inch model on Amazon.
How Heavy Do You Want Your Dutch Oven?
Weight is an important factor when deciding on what kind of camping dutch oven you want to purchase. If you’re needing to feed hordes of people, you have two options, buy multiple smaller dutch ovens, or buy one massive 20-quart dutch oven. The weight for one of these dutch ovens is over 30 lbs, (some report even up to 45 lbs).
Furthermore, a gallon of water weighs 8.34 lbs, so if you fill up a 20-quart dutch oven 2/3rds of the way, you will have 13 quarts, which equates to 27.8 lbs of liquid! If your 20-quart dutch oven weighs 35 lbs, then it will weigh over 62 lbs! (depending on what you’re cooking)
Something to think about is that you are not always able to pull up vertically on a dutch oven the same way you would a 60 lb weight at the gym. If you’re suspending your dutch oven with a tripod over your fire, then that means the dutch oven will need to be lifted with a hook with some distance from your body. Lifting a dutch oven with your arms outstretched like this would be very difficult, even for someone who goes to the gym frequently.
To minimize this sub-optimal lifting position, making the fire as small as possible will help. You can also avoid the issue by just using coals instead of hanging the dutch oven over the fire.
To learn more about cooking with coals (and how many to use), check out my blog post on this subject.
Aluminum dutch ovens are another way to avoid a heavy dutch oven. Aluminum dutch ovens weigh around 1/3rd of an equivalent-sized cast iron dutch oven.
So, if weight is a factor in your decision, the following are your options:
- Buy multiple and smaller dutch ovens rather than bigger dutch ovens
- Ensure easier lifting positions by making sure your cooking method allows you to lift with your body directly above the dutch oven (smaller cook fires, cooking with coals, etc)
- Choose an aluminum dutch oven instead
Maintenance Needs For Dutch Ovens
My family, growing up, had a rusty dutch oven that we had forever. I don’t think we used it, in part because of the work required to remove the rust and re-season the dutch oven.
Cast iron, as many know, do require some care and maintenance, but really, most importantly of all, they require to use. After you use your cast iron cookware, it’s a good idea to do a light seasoning by putting a light coating of oil on your pan and then heating the pan up for a few minutes to maintain the seasoning on your pan.
Even if you skip this step on occasion (such as if you are a normal person and not a superhuman cast-iron maintainer), then just by the fact that you are cooking with it (and therefore cooking with oil), your cast iron cookware will be just fine and in ready cooking condition for the next meal.
If you plan on using your camping dutch oven once or twice a year, then you have to put more effort into ensuring that your storage is as dry as possible and that you occasionally perform the light re-seasoning you would do if you were cooking with it regularly.
If your cast iron gets rusty, then removing the rust involves using a 50/50 vinegar-water solution to lift the rust and then to scrub it to ensure as much rust as possible is removed. The next step is to immediately re-season (the long way) your pan since bare cast iron rusts quickly.
For more detail on how to season your cast iron pan, check out my blog post on cooking with cast iron while camping.
Lid Shape and Why it Matters
Curved lids are not what you want for your camping dutch oven. You may not be putting coals on the lid of your dutch oven, but you definitely want that option! Therefore, a flat lid with a lip is the design you’re looking for. I’ll show an illustration to show what I mean:
A dutch oven can cook your food evenly if heat is applied from both the top and the bottom of the dutch oven. Just like your oven at home! Sometimes you don’t need this, such as if you are trying to fry something, or perhaps if you are just boiling water, but if you are trying to bake something, then being able to apply heat from the top is a must.
Additionally, many dutch ovens have reversible lids that will allow you to griddle your food on the underside of your lid. Cool!
Legs or No Legs for Camping Dutch Ovens?
What’s with those legs on a dutch oven? Won’t those get in the way? Well, yes and no.
For using your dutch oven in your oven at home, legs can be a pain. You’ll have to set your dutch oven in such a way that the legs will go through the grates in your oven. Furthermore, storing a dutch oven with legs is more cumbersome than storing a dutch oven with a flat bottom.
So do you need legs on a dutch oven for camping, though?
You can live without them, but legs offer you some flexibility in the way you cook. If you don’t have legs on your dutch oven, then you will rely on cooking grates, tripods, or swings to suspend your dutch oven over a heat source. While you can put a flat dutch oven directly on coals, you may be asking for some nasty hot spots which can cause your food to burn. Furthermore, your dutch oven won’t sit levelly if you are resting it directly on coals.
With legs, you can put coals directly under your cast iron dutch oven and cook away from the rest of your cook fire. The legs give a little bit of distance, and ensure a more level surface while cooking. It’s a trade-off, but in general, you want a camping dutch oven with legs for the flexibility of being able to cook in multiple ways.
Seasoning: To Season or Not to Season
Every cast iron dutch oven you will buy comes with a different level of pre-seasoning. Many cast iron aficionados choose to strip the pre-seasoning off their cast iron cookware immediately upon purchasing and will go through their own seasoning process. Others say it’s best to just use the default seasoning until it starts to deteriorate before going through the involved seasoning process.
Depending on the manufacturer’s seasoning process, you may find yourself dissatisfied with the level of seasoning on your cast iron cookware. Whether you choose to re-season a new cast iron dutch oven is up to you, but it can help to know what others decide to do.
Other options to seasoning are to choose an aluminum camping dutch oven that doesn’t require any seasoning at all. Or, to use disposable dutch oven liners intended to cook your food for one meal, but prevent contact with the walls of the dutch oven, meaning that your food won’t affect the pre-seasoning, and you can get away with not needing to worry about seasoning as much as you would otherwise.
Actually, it might be a good idea to use a liner if you’re going to be cooking acidic foods in general, since they can damage the seasoning of your cast iron dutch oven, whether you choose to use liners on a regular basis or not.
Which Extra Features Actually are Useful in a Camping Dutch Oven?
Dutch ovens (even if they haven’t been called dutch ovens) have been around for well over a hundred years, but that doesn’t mean that different manufacturers don’t try new things to try and make dutch ovens more useful and versatile. Let’s dive into a few useful features
Legs on the Lid: A Cast Iron Griddle in Disguise!
Let’s face it, dutch ovens are bulky. They’re not ideal for pan-frying an egg or a steak, because it’s just more difficult to cook food in a pot that needs to be cooked in a pan.
Then comes the problem of needing to bring multiple pieces of cookware and the inevitable question: do I really have to bring my entire kitchen when I go camping?
Fortunately, some strides have been made here. Some dutch ovens actually feature legs on the top of the dutch oven lid. These lids have dual purposes and are actually reversible. You can flip the lid and rest it on the legs, and then use the bottom side of the lid as a griddle. Therefore, you can just bring your dutch oven and you have two pieces of cookware to fulfill almost all of your cooking needs! Pretty snazzy. Does anyone say snazzy, anymore?
Some manufacturers, such as Overmont, actually make the lid with a little depth, with legs on the top making this a portable standing skillet.
Lodge makes what they call a “Cook It All” (see Price on Amazon), which is a 14-inch but shallow dutch oven that has multiple uses. The lid is reversible with a griddle on one side and a grill on the other, while the pot itself is wide and shallow, making it ideal for a stir fry (like a wok). With the lid on the bottom with the pot inverted, you can use it for baking, closer to a dutch oven. This is actually pretty tempting for me since it’d be nice to just have one piece of cookware to go camping.