Turning up the Heat

The newsman said it’s a red air quality day on the Wasatch Front in Utah. In the winter they call this a no burn day. It’s only a matter of time before the officials declare fire restrictions, so let’s talk about heat sources.

Traditionally, the only heat source for outdoor cooking was the coals from a wood fire. Of course charcoal, buffalo chips, and cowpies were used, but Charcoal had to be made and transported. Buffalo chips . . . well I don’t want to think about buffalo chips except to say, I’ve heard they burn too hot, making it difficult to control the heat.

We have charcoal briquets thanks to Henry Ford. I understand he needed a way to turn a profit on scrap lumber not used in making the Model "T" automobile. He ground charcoal into powder, added binders and pressed it into the pillow shaped Briquets we use today.

Briquets on Dutch ovens make cooking easy—just count coals. But how many should we use? There are many methods to determine this, but I have developed what I call the 325-degree/three-coal rule. It’s not rocket science, but it’s a good rule of thumb.

First, you need to realize the number on the lid of most Dutch ovens represents the inside Diameter of the pot. This is important because most recipes refer to this number.

In the rule, you start with the number then subtract 3 from the diameter and place that number of coals on the bottom. Now add 3 to the diameter and apply that number to the top. This will produce a 325-degree temperature in your oven. So, for a 12-inch diameter, we use 9 coals on the bottom and 15 on top. (This is a general-purpose oven. Or an oven that you can cook most things in.)

Then, for every two coals added or subtracted, the temperature is raised or lowered 25-degrees. Remember it’s three, two, and twenty-five or the 325-degree/three-coal rule.

One of the most asked questions about Dutch ovens is where to place the coals. I attached a chart below.

So how do we cook during fire restrictions?

My first answer would be propane. Most park rangers don’t restrict it, and you can cook many fine dishes on top of a stove, even inside a propane grill. Be careful though, the heat source is usually concentrated in one area. The hot spot created must be watched or your food will burn.

You can avoid this by using a steel plate heat diffuser. Really nothing more than a flat piece of steel with a few holes in various places, it deflects the heat and spreads it over the whole surface.

What about baking?

The Grill I mentioned above can be helpful. Basically, you place your oven inside an oven. The grill, however, is heavy and difficult to take on the road.

A few years ago, a man named Nick Manos invented a gadget called the Dutch cap. It was nothing more than a tube of steel with the top closed in. Vent holes were drilled into the lid. The apparatus trapped the heat from a propane stove, creating an oven enclosure. Nick is gone now, and I don’t think these are still being made. The Dutch cap had a thermometer attached, but the one you make needn’t be so elaborate. Keep in mind the diffuser mentioned above, would be needed.

There is another method called cooking with two lids, but it’s a little work. Put your pot in the propane burner. Use another burner to heat a lid then place it on the pot. When the lid cools down, place the second lid on the oven, while re-heating the first lid. Keep changing the lids until you are finished baking. This method burns the seasoning off so you may need to re-season.

We can’t continue without taking a moment to talk about the most important rule of thumb. Whatever the heat source, it’s HOT! You will get serious burns if you’re not careful. Also, mankind likes to think we have mastered fire, but like a maniacal killer it lies in wait. Hoping for a careless person to do something stupid. Please be careful.

Hope you enjoy.

Return to the Neighborhood.

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