An outdoor Dutch oven is a relatively deep cooking vessel, normally made of cast iron, which has a tight-fitting lid. It is designed to be used over a campfire, in an open fire pit or inside a fireplace. It can be footed or flat-bottomed, depending on when it was designed and its intended use.
Although stories of how the outdoor Dutch oven got its name vary, the general consensus is that it was first used in the 1700s. Settlers in the American Colonies as well as exploring mountain men and frontier cowboys are documented throughout history as being big fans of the outdoor Dutch oven. Some models were so well constructed that they are currently part of museum collections depicting this period of history.
Besides durability, the outdoor Dutch oven was popular for its versatility. Its design made it practical for roasting, stewing, baking and frying all types of food. One day it could be used to boil water and the next it could turn out a pan of cornbread.
The earliest version of the outdoor Dutch oven was quite deep and had a flat bottom that sat directly on the coals of a fire. This was soon modified to a shallower model with legs that kept the pot elevated an inch or so above the coals. To keep stray coals out of the food, a lip was added to the perimeter of the lid.
The outdoor Dutch oven model, commonly referred to as a chuck wagon, cowboy or camping style, has three legs instead of the convention two legs. It has a wire bail handle to facilitate hanging it from a pole over a fire. The other unique feature of this model is a slightly concave lid that efficiently holds hot coals on the top of the pot. This dual heating method creates an oven effect that allows the food to be uniformly cooked from the inside out.
This oven effect was regularly utilized with most outdoor Dutch ovens. They were frequently placed over campfires and when they were sufficiently heated, pies, pizzas, biscuits, cakes and breads were put into smaller pans and then placed inside the Dutch ovens to bake. As one batch was done, another pan replaced it.
When multiple food items were being prepared, outdoor Dutch ovens were commonly placed on top of each other and rotated as dishes required more or less heat. It was common to see up to six Dutch ovens stacked on top of one another. Outdoor Dutch ovens were also favored for cooking foods that benefited from slow, even and long cooking, such as stews, soups and roasts.