Getting the best Dutch oven possible is not so hard if you know what to look for. Although price is always a factor, don’t let it dominate your decision. A quality camping Dutch oven, properly cared for, will last for generations.
1. Legs to stand on
A good camping Duch oven should have three legs about an inch-and-a-half long to lift it up off the ground. Here’s why:
To get the best in temperature control for your cooking, you won’t usually be hanging this pot over a fire — that’s just too unpredictable a heat source for top-quality outdoor cooking, as you know if you’re familiar with how to cook with a Dutch oven. Instead, you’ll be setting the Dutch oven directly over a bed of hot coals.
These coals need air to burn well, which they can’t get if the Dutch oven is squishing them into the ground. So you need legs.
What’s more, setting the Dutch oven directly on the coals can cause hot spots to develop in the bottom of the Dutch oven, which makes it easier to burn your food, or at least cook it unevenly. So again, you need legs.
And while you’re at it, be sure that the tops of legs — where they attach to the bottom of the Dutch oven — are wide and taper out smoothly into the bottom surface. This helps ensure the legs can carry a heavy load without punching through the bottom (it’s been known to happen).
2. Keep a lid on it
The lid of your camping Dutch oven should fit snugly, without wobbling. A little room to slide side-to-side is fine, but a wobbly lid is bad news.
This is because a Dutch oven really is an oven, great for baking and roasting, not just for boiling beans. A wobbly lid lets the heat and moisture out, making it very difficult to get the right environment for baking biscuits or cobbler, or roasting pork loin, or anything else.
Watch out for cheaply made Dutch ovens, whose manufacturers are hoping you won’t notice the lid is letting out all the heat. You wouldn’t buy a kitchen oven with a wobbly door, would you? Then don’t buy a Dutch oven with a wobbly lid.
The lid should also have a flange going around its edge to hold coals on the top. Remember that a camping Dutch oven is meant to have hot coals piled on top of it, thus to create an actual oven, as opposed to a stew pot that just cooks from below. Some cast-iron cookware sold as a Dutch oven has a flat lid, and if you pile coals on top of that, you’ll find them in your dinner sooner or later.
Finally, check that the lid handle is a loop, through which you can insert a hook or lid lifter, and not just a solid tab or knob. That lid will be covered with hot coals, and will be pretty hot itself, so you won’t have much luck trying to pick it up with a pot holder.
3. Heavy-hitting cast
Another important element of baking is that heat should come evenly from all directions. This is helped along by ensuring your Dutch oven is properly cast of thick iron, and that it has a consistent thickness on all sides.
This is another area where cheap construction can come back to bite you. Poorly cast Dutch ovens with uneven sidewall thickness will do a poor job conveying the heat to your food, causing it to cook unevenly.
Sure, your grandmother’s kitchen oven may have had a hot spot, but she could compensate by turning her cookie sheet on the rack. In a Dutch oven, where the food is usually placed directly in the pot, there’s no way to do that. So look for good-quality casting to ensure your meals come out perfect every time.
4. Solid construction
Most Dutch oven manufacturers do fine in this department, but there are enough bad ones out there that I’ll mention it: Look for solid-body construction, and avoid Dutch ovens that use rivets, screws, or even welds to hold pieces together.
Dutch ovens are made of cast iron for good reasons, one of which is that it will last you until the next ice age if you care for it right. Any rivets or screws, on the other hand, are going to get loose with repeated heating and cooling. Welds can trap moisture and crack over time.
Your camping dutch oven should be made of exactly three whole pieces: A solid cast lid, the solid cast pot with legs, and the wire bale that attaches to the pot. If there’s anything bolted on, you’re asking for trouble.
5. Look for a trusted brand
All of those points are pretty simple to check for, but sometimes you can just save a lot of trouble by going straight to a trusted Dutch oven manufacturer.
I recommend going with the Lodge brand. In my years of outdoor cooking, I’ve really found only this one brand that’s easy to find, covers all the points above, and is well known as a standard among Dutch oven cooks.
You may also want to consider the MACA brand. They’re a little pricier, but their reputation is good. Most of their Dutch ovens are produced in India, and I’m bothered by shipping items such great distances when they could be made closer to home. Still, if you’re looking for a super-deep Dutch oven that could handle, for example, your next Thanksgiving Turkey, you might want to look into their deep ovens.
My current favorite general-purpose Dutch oven, and the one I recommend for first-timers as well, is the Lodge “BOLD” 12-inch model. Click here to see it on Amazon.com. This is a top-notch Dutch oven, with the added bonus that it’s already seasoned, meaning it’s ready to cook your breakfast, lunch, or dinner right out of the box. I’ve made good use of mine, and believe me it doesn’t have a straight 5-star rating on Amazon for nothing.
6. (Yes, a bonus item!) Check your grandpa’s attic
Lodge has been producing Dutch ovens in America since William McKinley was president. It’s no surprise to find an old one still ready for another hundred years of good use, though it might be hard to find one just lying around that nobody wants. Still, it’s happened. Give it a look; you never know what you’ll find.
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