Commotion at the prep table in the boathouse kitchen caught my attention. I drifted toward two fellow guides deep in the throes of problem-solving something that appeared rather complex. Junior and Ben, two incredibly smart humans, often engage in complicated conversations, and this was no exception. They bent over the stainless steel counter top, each with a dry erase marker in hand, furiously scribbling numbers that were forming drafts of an equation.
What were they solving? The perfect coal to Dutch oven ratio, of course.
A Dutch oven is a seasoned cast iron pot with a tight-sealing lid. When you strategically place charcoal briquettes underneath the pot and on top of the lid, it creates a portable oven of sorts; one that bakes pineapple upside-down cake or roasts scalloped potatoes in the backcountry.
The first time I experienced a Dutch oven meal, I was ten. We had blackberry cobbler for breakfast on the sandy banks of the Green River, and I was beside myself. Up until that point, I had only ever gone backpacking, and had only ever eaten re-hydrated food while adventuring. Suddenly, not only was I using a pillow while camping, but also I was eating fresh, hot cobbler for breakfast? This moment was profound for a 10-year-old me.
When Dutch oven meals turn out correctly, they are show-stopping. Perfecting Dutch oven cooking can be an elusive task. With no temperature gauge, regulating the heat requires an awareness and maintenance of many variables. How many briquettes underneath the oven? Too many and the bottom will burn. How many on top? Too few and it won’t cook all the way through, too many and it will burn. When do you put the coals on? If you put them on too soon, they won’t get hot enough. If you wait too long, they’ll burn out before the food is cooked. When should you rotate the pot for even heat? Do you rotate the pot and the lid the same direction? Or opposite directions? How many total briquettes in relation to the size of your Dutch?
Hence the calculus.
River guides are infamous for superstitions, and Dutch oven cooking is no different. I know a guide who only uses an even number of briquettes, never odd. I know guides who always line the bottom of the pot with oiled paper towels when making brownies; others shake their heads at that. And Junior? Well, he carries his formula in his wallet, complete with a chart with his best-performing ratios for Dutches of different sizes.
There’s something indescribable about eating a potato-crust quiche on a white sandy beach a hundred miles from the nearest road. The novelty never disappears. Just last week, I tried a Dutch oven enchilada pie for the first time. I was ten again. Except this time, I was 28 and perched on the bedrock banks of the Rogue. The moment felt just as profound.
Despite the calculus, and despite the superstitions, there is no perfect formula. That’s part of what makes it so special. Though there is some basic advice to consider, Dutch oven cooking is unquestionably an art. It’s an act of faith, but one that reaps grand rewards that should be savored and enjoyed by all.