Wood Coals And Dutch Ovens

Credits to Glen Carman

 

In Dutch oven cooking we often talk about cooking with either wood coals or charcoal, but in reality, they are the same thing.

Wood coals being charcoal we make ourselves on demand, charcoal most often referring to pre-manufactured charcoal.

Strictly speaking charcoal is an organic substance (aka a living or previous living substance) that has had all or most of the volatile organic compounds and the water have been removed.  For simplicity lets just say volatile substances are the stuff that makes the flames when you burn something rather than get off on that subject.

The charcoal we are going to talk about for cooking with is charcoal made from wood, a substance that is thousands of years old and was used for metal smelting for most of the bronze and iron age, in fact the forests of Europe, China and Japan were decimated to make charcoal for refining metal.

People talk about either using wood coals or charcoal when cooking with dutch ovens, but in reality they both are the same thing, what we call charcoal is most often made in a factory by heating in an oxygen free atmosphere leaving fairly pure carbon and ash behind.   This is most often made from ground wood scraps and held together with a binder, making equal size pillow shaped lumps called briquettes.   Also charcoal can be made from larger chunks of wood the same way and is often called natural or lump charcoal.  The embers from the fire are just charcoal made by heating wood in a low oxygen atmosphere since the volatile compounds up higher above the wood burning consume a large part of the oxygen.  This is a less refined charcoal but it is charcoal just the same.

Using charcoal briquettes is a popular way of using dutch ovens, many times that is the only way to use them where real fires are not allowed.  The common charcoal briquette that many use for grilling and dutch oven cooking is a product of the 1920’s and as a bit of history it was developed at the Ford Motor Company as a way of using wood scraps from the manufacture of Fort Model T’s.  These had wooden floor boards and also the sheet metal bodies had a wooden frame, the all metal bodies in cars not becoming common till the mid 1930’s.

Naturally in this process a lot of small wood scraps were generated, Henry Ford saw the big waste in this and had his scientist come up with a method of making the charcoal briquettes from ground up wood and saw dust and binding them together in the briquette then sold them at his dealerships, at one time a bag was given with the purchase of each new Ford car, to introduce the public to this handy item to take along on picnics in the families new Ford car.    A brother-in-law with a last name of Kingsford was put in charge of the charcoal factory, hence the name of a very popular brand.  Of course Mr. Ford was successful in introducing this fuel and one no longer has to go to a Ford dealership to buy it.

The other type is lump or natural charcoal, this has been around for thousands of years, it is simply the natural pieces of wood which have also been heated in the low oxygen environment, but when finished it retains the natural shape of the wood that it was made from.  In the years before coal was heavily mined and other sources of heat were developed a lot of the forests of Europe and Asia were cut down to make charcoal for cooking and even more of it was used for smelting and smithing metals.

In most of our historical cooking a fire is going to be needed, this is the way most camp cooking was done in the time period.  The place to start with is a discussion on different types of wood, wood of course comes from many different species of trees, all will make a campfire, but some make better coals for our purposes than others.

What is needed is wood that is dense and when it burns it makes good coals to use to heat the dutch ovens. These coals also called embers, can then be removed with a shovel and used to heat the dutch oven to cook the food inside. The denser the wood, the more carbon there is to make coals. This makes the coals last longer as well as burning hotter, this makes the cooks job a lot easier.

One is limited though to woods that is available in the area unless you are going to haul in wood. I have not used all the woods available in the US; I am only familiar with the ones common in my area. One will have to experiment with the woods that are in the area you are working in. A good rule of thumb is if it has needles it most likely is second rate, where most trees that have leaves are fairly good.

Most of the conifers (trees with needles) tend to not be very dense, they will work but they are far from ideal, of the conifers I’ve worked with, Eastern Red Cedar seems to be the best, the pines I’ve used are Ponderosa and Yellow Pine, they burn rapidly and they also make a lot of soot, your cook gear will be very black after use. These woods also tend to pop and throw sparks because of the resin in them. However if these are all that is available they can be made to do, it just takes more work and more wood to keep a good bed of coals in both the fire and on the ovens.

The deciduous trees fair better, not all are good, but our best woods come from this family. Poplar, Aspen and Cottonwood are not very good dutch oven woods, they are not very dense and burn fast leaving few embers, like the Conifers, they will work if nothing else is available but involve more wood and more work.

The woods I’ve used that work well that are common in my area are the different types of Elm, Ash, the Oaks, Hackberry, Locust, the harder Maples and my favorite, Osage Orange., For those who are not familiar with this wood it is one of the densest woods in the world, it is also called Hedge Bois de Arc and Bodark. Its originals are in eastern Texas and the surrounding area and were brought to the more northern areas of the plains to grow both hedges to keep cattle in and after barb wire was invented it was popular for hedge posts. The down side of this wood is it is tough to saw, tough to split and does make a lot of sparks. However the coals are very long lasting. Other woods I have not used but have a good reputation are Hickory Mesquite and the Locusts. One wood that is hard and dense that does not work well at all is Black Walnut, the reason is the oils in the wood make it burn right down to mostly ash and does not make many coals.

A common misconception when burning and using charcoal or wood for fuel is different species of wood or different brands of charcoal burn hotter or cooler than another.  This is not true, once the volatiles are burned out of the wood, in a non-forced air situation (dead calm, no breeze fanning the fire) they all will burn right around 1900-2000F it is the BTU’s or in simpler terms, the amount of heat they produce that changes things, is other words the mass which simply means the amount of carbon available that controls the amount of heat a volume of charcoal produces.  Wind or fanning the coals with a hat will raise the temperature of the burning carbon so one must remember that wind could cause problems, fanning could solve problems by either raising the heat of the dutch oven.  (For comparison the heat of a gas flame in a stove is around 3600F with natural gas, a bit higher with propane.)

The heavier the wood before becoming charcoal as a general rule, the more heat it produces although to a point the amount of water and volatile compounds in the wood do make a difference also, a cord of green Ponderosa Pine has less heat available as charcoal than America Elm that is seasoned although they weigh similar before being burned into charcoal, the reasons the elm will produce higher heat there is more of the slower burning carbon and less water.

So why does one type of wood or one brand of charcoal seem to burn hotter than another?  Simple, it maintains its heat longer, as it burns the amount of heat it puts out drops off, despite the fact it is still around 2000F, it does not have as much heat because part of the fuel has been consumed and it is struggling to keep the temperature up on the oven.   Natural lump charcoal is not as dense as briquettes, because it contains less carbon than the pressed briquettes, also with lump charcoal as well as briquettes, the density of the wood used to make the charcoal will affect the density of the finished charcoal also the charcoal is the same size and shape and the wood burned into charcoal and is not uniform like the briquettes made in moulds of the same size.

So with that information, let’s say we are going to dutch oven cook for the first time, what do we want to use, store bought charcoal (and which kind) or do we want to build a fire and use the coals from it?  T

Today, many chose the modern charcoal briquettes, they are easy to obtain, and they need no elaborate fire pit to use.  Most folks start them in a vented, cylindrical sheet metal device called a chimney, these can be made or there are pre-made ones on the market.

I must confess at the time of this writing I have used very little of the briquettes for dutch oven cooking, The only time I have used them much was a few years ago on a weekend that was dang wet and I had poor wood, I dropped several 10 pound bags into the fire when I needed them, un-opened at that.

There are guides that will tell you how many to put on top and bottom for different oven sizes to put on one size oven to run it at this or that temperature.   Like recipes, I’ve seen several and they vary a bit, but will get you where you need to be.  They tell you to put this amount on the bottom, this amount on the top and you will get around this temperature, which in most cases is close enough.

Many because of where and how they cook will stay with the charcoal briquettes and never have a desire to use wood, perfectly fine if that’s what works for you.  I know some say it is best to learn this way and then switch to wood, but I have found I have a bit more difficulty when I have a student that has been cooking this way getting them used to wood over someone who has never used a dutch oven before.

This leads to our woods to use, it will vary with where you are at and what can be obtained in the area.  As a rule of thumb, the harder the wood the better it will be, I in most cases use what has been provided to me.

My favorite is Red Elm also called Slippery Elm, it has decent BTU’s makes nice coals and splits nice if needed, it is a bit on the scarce side for me.  A lot of times I end up with Siberian Elm, also called Chinese Elm, it burns nice if seasoned well, makes nice coals, has decent BTU’s, it is hard to split but I get a lot of it because at times it is almost considered a weed.   I also get some Ash, Red and Burr Oak, all which are fine.  Osage Orange is the great one, but is often hard to get and hard to burn unless you need a lot of it at once.  Eastern Red Cedar is really not bad for a Conifer, but falls behind the others unless it is all you have. Other types of Oak, Hickory, Locust, Hackberry and Mesquite all are well liked in the areas they are common.

We now have our wood supply figured out or at least have a good idea of what is needed, in my case the majority of the time who ever is putting on the event has a supply of wood ready for me and I make due with what is available. If one is cooking for a large group especially over a couple day period it is best to have the wood supply secured and ready before hand.

The next step is to get the place for the fire ready, but before I get to deep into how to build the fire I will point out that when dealing with other people around it is best to let it be known that the fire belongs to the cook, nothing should ever be placed in the fire with out his or her knowledge and permission,  a well meaning person who decides the fire is dying down may think they are helping, but it is now a pain to get the coals you need to bake the bread, out from under an arm load of unburned firewood.  A helper that can keep one’s fire going can be very handy, but even then it is best that they ask before placing more wood on the fire unless they are really in sync with what you are doing.

Another problem when doing demonstrations in a public venue is there are a lot of folks out there who are fascinated with a fire, for safety reasons it is best to set the cook camp up so that you can keep people back from the fire a safe distance.   This not only keeps people not used to fires from getting burned, but it also keeps them from deciding to toss a piece of garbage in a fire and in any crowd of tourist types there is almost always at least one and most times more than one who will want to toss it in to see it burn.

To do this they have to get closer to the fire than I want them to, imagine someone letting a toddler toss something in, besides the chance they could fall in the fire, the most common thing they want to toss in is a piece of paper.  Those of use who have spent a lot of time working around a fairly hot fire knows that piece of paper upon lighting and burning will float up and out of the fire, risking starting a fire when it comes down.   A lot of the public who comes out to watch do not realize this, I was at a fair one time and had an elementary school teacher with a group of kids ask if they could throw the greasy wrappers from their corn dogs on my fire.  I pointed to a straw bale maze that was set up a short distance down wind from where I was at and explained to her how those papers would most likely rise up out of my fire and drift toward the straw bales.  The papers were then put in a proper trash can and I decided that science was not one of her better subjects.

The other common trash today that could end up in ones cook fire is plastic, plastic cups, plastic water bottles and in some cases plastic plates, plastic forks and spoons.  I think today we all know the environmental problems of burning plastic, plus the fact I do not want my camp smelling like one of those old time land fills, besides those two problems, I can assure you if you ever have some plastic get tossed in unnoticed and you end up with that melted mess on the lid of a dutch oven you will not be happy.  I had it happen one time and it was someone who had been already told to not put anything in my fire.  I will say when I found out what had happened I was a bit rude about the whole mess, perhaps not the best public image but this family had been a problem at that place for several years.

Where is allowed I prefer to just dig a hole in the ground to build the fire in, I then just bank the dirt around the hole to help keep the fire where I want it. I like this method because it makes my camp look more period correct. In some places this is either not safe or not allowed, in these places some sort of fire ring is needed, I’ve used many different types that were at the place where I’m cooking, some of these have been made of stone or brick, some have been steel rings, but the type I’ve found I like the best are steel semi rims, they vent the fire well and can be found for the price of scrap or even free if they no longer meet DOT specs. I have two of these, although I try to make sure there is a place for a fire before I get someplace. If there is not, then these go with me.

I like my wood cut and split into different sizes, the majority of it I like in sizes similar to what is used in wood stoves and fire places. These are the best for building up good beds of coals, this is our goal with the fire, and these coals are what make our oven work. Before we can get these larger pieces of wood to burn, we do need to get a small bed of coals built up. For this we need a variety of smaller pieces that will catch fire quickly. A variety ranging in size from a little bigger than match sticks to an inch or so in diameter works well, a good supply of this is very handy because there will be time a majority of the coals are removed to get multiple ovens heated. What is left will be needed to get the fire built up again and get the larger chunks going again to make more coals so they are there as needed. Sometimes when using multiple ovens that need to be kept going, a second fire is handy.

A few larger chunks of around 12 to 18 inches in diameter and about 18 inches long are very handy to keep a bed of coals going during the night, this helps get things going faster in the morning especially if one is planning a large breakfast. Before going to bed one of these dropped on the coals will keep up enough heat to have a bed of coals that can be built up quickly in the morning to prepare breakfast. Depending on the size and type of wood, a second one may need to be added during the night. This can only be done if there is not much dry vegetation around to catch fire in the night and if it is not very windy. This is where a metal fire ring can be handy, a piece of sheet metal over the top will keep sparks in place and will slow down the burning of the wood.

When it comes to building a fire that depends on the individual who is doing it, I’ve built a lot of fires in my time and have seen a lot of them built. I have my methods, others use different methods. My methods depend on where I’m at, who is around to watch, when I get somewhere and there is already people who will watch me, I try to make my fire like someone would of in the 19th century. If there is not, then I use different methods if I’m in a hurry and/or if it is wet out although most times these also fall under the period correct label.

Anyone with much knowledge of history knows there is several ways to build a fire with out using the modern butane lighter. Among them are the bow drill, flint and steel and even rubbing two sticks together.  Although these were still used in the post-Civil War era, they world was advancing fast, there was a wonderful invention that was a fairly common item sold in stores everywhere, this being the common friction match, a lucifer or as they are often called, a kitchen match, even better is with a little searching these can still be bought most places. This is not a history of the common match, if we split hairs the matches today are similar to but not exactly the same as the matches of the period, mainly they are safer to use and make. Today the Strike-Anywhere matches can be hard to find in some areas, this is not a problem because the Strike-On-The-Box types were also on the market before the Civil War.

When I’m not in a hurry, I simply take a piece of wadded up paper and put it on the ground then stack some small dry twigs over top of it with plenty of room for air, I then put a match to it, as the fire spreads I simply add more and more larger pieces of wood till the larger pieces I’m using for building up coals is burning.

If the wood is damp, I put some larger pieces in the bottom and I wrap the paper around a lump of lard about the size of a golf ball. I place this on top of the wood and add my twigs as before and light it with the match. The wood on the bottom catches the burning lard and this helps light this wood. The lard helps the fire burn hotter and longer, igniting more of the wood above it. A small candle can also be used instead of the paper and lard.   If everything is really wet, or one is in a big hurry, then pile the wood up, dash a cup or so of coal oil (kerosene) on the pile, let is soak in a few minutes and light it. This will most times get damp wood in a drizzle going. I seldom do this, but when I’ve got people that need to be fed I do it. I do use a more modern version of it though, I use charcoal lighter fluid, the cans are pretty leak proof, and it can be bought in most any store if needed. I also use it in my kerosene lanterns because it burns with less soot and has a whiter flame. I’ve been doing this for several years and have had no problems with it, but if you decide to do this also, the risk is yours.

Once the fire is going it just needs to burn down to coals that one can use as needed, the fire will need fed from time to time to keep up this base of coals. The trick to this is to not cover the ready coals with large unburned chunks of wood when the coals are needed, timing is everything here, which will come with experience and most camp cooks will not start out with large amounts of ovens at first so there is plenty of time for a learning curve.

One way of building and feeding a fire I’ve adopted in recent years is to not build just one fire, but to build two. When I set up I build one fire and work from there, often I set up the day before and need only one fire the first day. What I do as more folks show up and it takes more ovens to get enough ready I start a second fire. I prepare the ring or hole for the fire and pile extra wood on the first fire. When I need a large amount of coals for the oven I take my tongs and remove the wood that hasn’t burned down to coals yet and place them in the area for the second fire, then add more wood to the top. I can then remove the coals as needed, by the time I have got enough ovens going to use up the ready coals; the second fire should have plenty in it. The wood not ready can be then moved to the first fire, exposing the coals in the second. Then the first fire can be re-stoked. Another advantage to this method is a smaller fire is much easier to get close enough to remove the coals; a large fire can be very hot from quite a distance, even with a long handled shovel this can be a bit on the warm side.

After the evening meal is done and the dishes are washed I just simply put all the burning wood and coals in one fire, it is then easy to build back up for an evening sitting around a fire with friends or to bank it for the night.   In the evenings when all the cooking is done or there is maybe one or two ovens with something just slow cooking in it I let someone else keep the fire going as long as there is plenty of wood, this is a good time to get a good bed of coals built up for morning.

 

We now have a fire of some sort going, either manufactured charcoal or one in which we are making our own charcoal, we have determined that the woods and the charcoals all burn around the same temp give or take a few degrees, so we will simply have to add coals more often with some types over others to maintain temperature.  Since we don’t have a chart to go by, where do we start?  First when cooking, even baking temperatures don’t have to be exact, just sort of close, that of course goes against what most have been taught but it’s true, bread will bake fine between 350 and 450F although the baking time and crust texture will vary.

Simply start with a dish that is not easy to burn, something with some liquid in it and experiment a little and get the feel of it, I recommend post roast, you can learn to get it hot to sear, add water and then watch the bubbles in the liquid and you can gauge if you are running hot or on the cooler side, just don’t let it go dry and you’ll be fine.

When using a dutch oven the general rule is 1/4th to 1/3 rd of the coals on the bottom and the rest on top.  So let’s look at this picture and the coals on the ground, a simple layer with out any depth, but plenty to get started.

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Now we toss on three dutch ovens full of dinner rolls and add coals to the top.

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That will bake it fine and should not burn, after about 3-5 minutes lift the lid and smell, you can smell it before it really burns, if it has that smell just remove it for about 10 minutes and put it back on the coals, they will have cooled and it will finish baking fine.

To check the temperature just touch the oven near the bottom real quick, most experienced cooks can tell and if you do it quick you won’t get burnt, if you do you touched it to long.

With decent wood that should last fine the 25-35 minutes it takes to bake it, if not, just add a bit more coals.  A 2007 picture, but I’d guess that is running about 375 degrees give or take 25 degrees.

If you are not sure if you can judge the temperature well, sometime put a cast iron skillet or similar item in the oven and turn it one, (this would be a good time to season one at the same time) use a oven thermometer and just keep re-setting the oven to different temps and check by touching it once in a while, you can learn a lot in a short afternoon.

If your coals look like this most anything a beginner will make in a dutch oven will do fine, you have enough heat to brown the crusts, baking time my be longer than what a cook book may recommend but it will be fine, items that need to cook longer will need more coals added from time to time, stews and pot roasts will get up to temperature and as the cools die off after a bit will slow cook like a crock pot and will just need a few coals added from time to time to maintain it.

OK, let’s say we have a large meat dish we want to cook a long time like a turkey or large roast and we even start it maybe the night before for noon the next day.  Put an inch or so of water in it, put a bit heavier layer of coals on the ground to heat it up a bit more.

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Now put the meat on and pile them up on the top, heavy.

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That will get you around 475 to 500 for a short time and get you a good sear and will be enough to slow cook it as they die out for 2-3 hours.  Drink a big glass of water and then you can go to bed and be able to check on them in a couple hours.  (The amount needed will depend on the individual renal system.)  Add a few coals and more water to the cook and it will slow cook for a couple more hours.  Continue till day light.

Many new dutch oven cooks ask about stacking, sometimes it is one of the first questions they ask, yes the stacked ovens look pretty in pictures, but this should be avoided by beginners.  Putting another oven on the top of one will often mean that the heat on the bottom of the top one is too much for many items, also when you put the one on top; it will radiate more of the heat into the top of the bottom one than the open air, get some experience before stacking.

Stacking is really nice when you have to simmer something as long as you don’t burn the tops of the bottom ovens.

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These pictures were all taken on dry ground with out much wind, wind will often mean the coals do burn hotter plus don’t last as long, but that is true for both charcoal and wood coals watch for burning and shelter from the wind if possible, remove some coals if needed.

Wet and/or damp ground will mean you need more coals on bottom till the ground is warmed up and dried out, this is from a bit of an extreme day, Late October and 3 inches of rain in the night, things were a bit damp.

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Corn cobs and coal oil helped, then I just moved the fire and cooked in the warm dried out spot.

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This will give some ideas and the basics of setting up the dutch ovens to cook, like all things the best way to learn is just to go out and do it.