Campfire Cooking: How To Make Chili In A Dutch Oven

Dutch Oven Chili

Just like cooking at home, the key to great chili is to build up flavor in layers.

Get the recipe »

[Photograph: Kenji Lopez-Alt ]

J. Kenji Lopez-Alt

Now I'm no expert in outdoor survival, and about 99 percent of the camping I do is of the set-up-a-tent-near-the-car variety that my sister likes to make so much fun of (ok fine—100 percent), but if there's one thing I do know how to do, it's to comfortably and tastily stuff large groups of people in a variety of settings. For this task, there are several approaches you can take in an outdoor setting.

Hobo packs are the simplest and least precise. Just wrap your ingredients in a foil pouch, toss'em into the fire, fish'em out a little while later, and hope for the best. It's a tasty, if slightly unpredictable way to get hot food with minimal supplies. (Pro-tip: unshucked ears of corn are nature's hobo packs. No foil necessary!)

The next step up is to bring along a grill to set yourself up over hot coals. Haul along a couple of pots and pans, and you can not only grill, but sautée, simmer, stew, and sear, just like on top of a regular burner.

And if you're really in the mood to lug stuff around (or off-load from your trunk), you can upgrade to full-on Dutch oven cooking. Like its name implies, a good quality Dutch oven is far more than just a three-legged cast iron pot with a lid—indeed, it's one of the most versatile cooking tools around.

Preheat your oven

Hardcore campfire chefs will outfit their Dutch oven with a tripod and chain for hanging it oven above the flames, but that setup is largely unnecessary. With careful heating and planning, you can legitimately bake in it, even directly in a fire pit. Biscuits and no-knead bread are my go-to's. No-knead bread (recipe here) is virtually made for camping. Just mix up the dough the night before, heat your Dutch oven with the morning's first fire, and have hot, fresh bread ready in time for brunch.

Flip the lid over and set it on the coals, and you've got yourself a nice, virtually non-stick griddle perfect for eggs and bacon. I like to simmer sausages or hot dogs in beer and sauerkraut in the main pot then transfer them to the overturned lid to give them a nice brown sear just before serving.

But its true purpose, the Dutch oven's real raison d'être, is for slow-cooking. With its heavy lid, thick walls, and ability to be heated from both above and below, it's custom-designed for braising projects like chunky chili and slow-cooked beans.

Cover and go

Just like cooking at home, the key to great chili (and to you hard-liners, when I say chili, I'm using the much broader meat-and-beans-with-chili-based-aromatics definition of the word) is to build up flavor in layers. This means browning the meat, adding aromatics, blooming spices, and finally simmering everything until they get real comfortable with each other.

For step-by-step campfire chili-making instructions, click through the slideshow above, or get the recipe right here.

Like all cast iron, maintenance is a little higher than with a stainless pot or pan, but significantly easier than most people make it out to be. Yes, you can get it wet (just dry it carefully). Yes, you can use soap. You can even use metal utensils or cook acidic chili in it with little to no ill effect. For more on care and maintenance, check out our guide to cast iron.

What do you like to cook in a Dutch oven?