One of the challenges we face living a small and simple RV life is we have no oven. And yet we are committed to preparing nutritious and economical meals. How do we do this? Not everything can be prepared in a saucepan or skillet. Some things can go on a grill, however, that will be the subject of a future blog post. Today I want to talk about another category of cooking, the type of cooking one would normally do in an oven if one had an oven. We don’t.
One of things I often prepared when we lived in a house was roast chicken. I find the rotisserie chicken from the supermarket to be mushy and over cooked so I would rather do it myself. When you little butter and some poultry seasoning, pop that baby in a hot oven for an hour or so, you have a juicy and tasty little treat that can give a couple as many as 4 meals, at least the way I do it. First meal, breast and thigh. Second, the other breast for chicken salad for lunch. Numbers three and four will be a delicious and tasty chicken soup.
Okay, Great! Let’s Have Roast Chicken!
Oh wait, HaRVey doesn’t have an oven. Bummer. It seems like there are a few solutions to this. I know Coleman and Camp Chef have oven attachments that fit their gas stoves but let’s go a little simpler and more versatile here. For items for which I would have previously used an oven I now use a Dutch oven. I like and use cast iron Dutch ovens for the same reasons I like it for frying pans. It’s tough, it retains heat and cooks evenly, and the finish is nonstick and easy to maintain and repair. Because cast iron is nearly indestructible and will last forever with a minimum of care it is my go to material of choice.
In fact, I have two Dutch ovens.
Why Would I Have Two?
We’ve all heard the saying that one size doesn’t fit all. Similarly, the same goes for cookware. I would use a frying pan for bacon and a sauce pan for soup. Even though the distinctions are smaller for Dutch ovens, there are some differences.
Here are two Dutch ovens.
They look different. The one on the left is shallower, has legs and a top with a rim. The one on the right is deeper, and has a lid that is domed without a rim. Also, it has no legs. These different ovens have different functions.
The primary purpose of the oven on the left is baking as in biscuits and bread. In use it sits in a bed of hot coals and more coals are placed on the lid. This is the reason for the legs and the rim around the top. In this way the heat gets applied from both top and bottom which allows even baking. Without the lid this oven can be used for sauté or frying. The large handle bale gives it a way to be picked up and moved around safely when there are hot coals on the lid.
The oven on the right is more often used for stews, chili and soups, things that require boiling or simmering and are heated from the bottom. It’s more likely to sit on a grill or stove while in use. Hence the smooth bottom. You wouldn’t normally pile a bunch of hot coals on the lid and they aren’t likely to stay there either. Another difference is evident when we examine the interior of the lids.
Notice one is smooth and concave and the other has little pointy things. The lid on the left is associated with the baking oven and it tends to be a relatively dry heat environment. But why concave? One of the nice things about designs that have had time to mature over hundreds of years are elements of multitasking. The lid used upside down functions well as a small griddle.
It seems to me you could do a fair range of things just with one of these, some better than others.
The lid on the right is markedly different. Since the primary purpose of this Dutch oven is stews, soups and the like, these types of things generate lots of steam as they cook. The steam contacts the lid which is not heated, condenses and flows down one of the little pointy things, dripping back onto whatever is cooking. The lid on my cast iron frying pan is the same way. Good for low heat recipes.
When Two Can Equal Four
When I was buying the second Dutch oven (which, ironically is the first one pictured) I had the choice of buying the same size or bigger. This wasn’t a hard choice to figure out. Using the same diameter makes the lids interchangeable. Voila! I have essentially four useful configurations. Worth the extra weight in iron. The main thing I was after was an increase of volume combined with the rimmed lid because the size and shape would be good for roasting. I couldn’t fit a whole chicken in the shallow one. (Bonus hint: meat loaf fits!) Because the deep oven doesn’t have legs, I use a stand to elevate it enough to sit over hot coals.
Enough! Stop Talking About The Ovens! Get To The Chicken!
Start a fire ahead of time for a supply of hot embers. Actually I find it easier to use charcoal. Both work. How much charcoal? About a chimney’s worth seems to work fine for me. Get that going first because it gives you time to do the next steps. I tuck a couple of paper towels with some olive oil under the chimney. (This hint came from Alton Brown! Thanks, Alton!) That’s good to start the coals without buying anything special or using lighter fluid. Now is a good time to go and prepare the chicken.
Spicing That Chicken
Chicken. I look for a whole chicken that weighs about 4 to 4 1/2 lbs. also, get some fresh thyme or rosemary. Either is good. Unwrap the chicken, take out the giblets and clean it. Pat it dry with some paper towels. Since the next step is doing some initial browning you will need to apply some kind of fat to the outside. I generally use olive oil. I suppose butter works too. Brush plenty on there.
This is the time to add spices. Salt, pepper and poultry seasoning are good spices to start with. I occasionally add other things depending on my mood. Curry powder or some barbecue spice mix might end up making an appearance.
Check the charcoal. Not ready yet? No problem. Get out the Coleman stove or equivalent. Don’t forget to stuff some fresh herbs into the cavity. Take the deep Dutch oven (the one with no legs. This is why.) set it on the burner and preheat it. Add some oil to it. I find it helps me see when it’s hot. When it is, set that chicken in and rotate it every few minutes till it has some browning all over it. It not only makes it look nice, it’s important for developing flavor later.
Now For The Roasting!
After that part is done, check the coals. They should be close to ready by now. Choose a spot for the cooking. Inside the fire ring works, a patch of ground next to it is good also. I use a little table made for use with Dutch ovens. I’m hard core like that. Just make sure you’re not going to catch anything on fire. Set up the little stand. Like this:
And tuck some of the coals underneath, the rest on top. Say about two thirds on top. Heating from underneath is easier is why the majority of the coals go on top.
Sit Back And Wait
When I cook a chicken it generally takes just over an hour. One round of coals usually lasts long enough. If you’re dipping embers out of a fire they will have to be replenished ever so often. About every 15 to 20 minutes it would be good to rotate the oven and the lid separately a quarter of a turn to promote even heating. I’m sure someone will ask how hot is it? Hot enough. How many briquettes? There are charts available on the internet that say things like: use 24 briquettes for 350 degrees, 9 on the bottom, 15 on the lid evenly spaced. I tried that in the beginning. It works. After a while you look at the amount you have and say “yeah, that looks about right.” Repetition and following a general plan helps you develop the intuitive.
Part Way Through, it should look something similar to this:
Is It Done Yet?
Here’s a surprise. I do use a meat thermometer because I would rather get it done right. After all, if it’s not, I can’t go stick it in the microwave. We have one but we use it for storage in between shore power hookups. That doesn’t look like it will be changing in the near future.
I’m hoping that after all that, it looks something like this:
I would say more, but this post is already much longer than I anticipated. Enjoy your chicken. I’m hoping next time to talk about something other than food. Sheesh, I’m in danger of turning into the Food Network.