Mike Atchley, of Moscow, is a competitive cowboy cook.
From the Chuckwagon
By Mike Atchley
In 1866, when cattleman Charles Goodnight needed a way to keep his drovers fed while trailing cattle from Texas to points north, he merely took an old army wagon, and bolted to its back a wooden box divided into different compartments. He covered the box with a hinged lid that, when opened and supported by a single leg, could serve as a work table. The chuckbox was a simple contraption but it revolutionized the cattle industry. Food and cooking utensils were stowed in the pigeonholes of the traveling kitchen cabinet.
By the next century “chuck” became a catch-all phrase for good, honest warming food. The term encompassed meat, vegetables, bread, desert, coffee, and anything else that could be eaten. Goodnight’s all purpose compartment on the back of the army wagon became the “chuck” box and a wagon with a chuck box became a “chuck” wagon.
Along with the chuckwagon came the “Dutch” oven. This is a simple cast iron skillet with legs on the bottom and a flanged lip on top. Dutch ovens come in a variety of sizes from 8” to 20”. A Dutch oven can be used to bake, fry, or stew any type of food. Heat in the form of wood or charcoal is used under the bottom of the oven to fry or stew and on the top and under the bottom of the oven to bake.
This is just a brief history of the chuckwagon and description of the Dutch oven. The articles in this column will deal with cooking with a Dutch oven over coals but all recipes will be also adapted to the modern kitchen stove.
A Dutch oven is made of cast iron that is practically indestructible if handled with even a minimum of care. The Dutch oven eliminates the need for a stove, because it is made for cooking over an open fire or with hot coals. The Dutch oven can be used for frying, searing, and braising everything from fish to fowl to steaks and chops. Pies, cakes, cobblers, biscuits, breads, or cookies all can be baked to a golden brown perfection. Whether it is stewed, boiled, or roasted any meat is made tender because Dutch ovens are self-basting.
Hardware and sporting goods stores offer Dutch ovens for sale in sizes ranging from 8” to 20”. The size of the ovens are designated in raised numerals on the top of the oven lid. There are other iron pots on the market called Dutch ovens that are not suitable for cooking with coals. If the oven is not flat-bottomed with three stubby legs, and if it doesn’t have a lid of the same heavy metal with a 2 inch flange for holding coals, it is not a camp oven.
With normal care a Dutch oven lasts for years. I feed and care for my Dutch ovens exactly like I do cast-iron skillets in my kitchen. When storing Dutch ovens make sure they are dry, greased with oil, and stored where they’ll not get wet.
You can’t cook with Dutch ovens without a pot hook, or goncho. These hooks are used to lift the lids on top of the ovens. These hooks are made of steel and have a ‘T’ shaped handle on one end and are ‘U’ shaped on the other end. You simply hold the T shaped end and use the U shaped end to lift the lids on your pots or ovens.
Dutch ovens, pot hooks, and all other equipment can be purchased at Academy or similar sporting goods stores and most hardware stores.
We will start out with simple recipes and work into more complex recipes later. Remember – ANYTHING can be cooked in a Dutch oven.
3 lbs round steak – cut into pieces
Salt, pepper, flour
1 yellow onion
1 lb mushrooms
2 pkgs mushroom soup mix
1 can golden mushroom soup
Place 12” Dutch oven on hot coals and pour 2” of cooking oil in bottom. Salt and pepper steaks and dredge in flour. Fry until brown and crusty on outside. After steaks are fried discard any remaining grease from oven. Prepare soup mix according to package directions. Add can of golden mushroom soup and one can of water. Cook until incorporated together over medium heat. Cut up onion and add to gravy mixture and put steaks back into oven. Place lid on oven and cook on low heat for one hour. Steaks will cook and become very tender. Check often or they will cook into pieces. Ten minutes before serving place sliced mushrooms into oven.
This is a tasty but simple recipe that we use a lot in chuckwagon cook-off competitions. So give this recipe a try and next issue we will go more into detail about the different foods and ways to prepare them in a Dutch oven.