Dutch Oven Tips! Cooking River-style with Confluences River Expeditions

Dutch ovens (D.O.’s) are a staple of many river kitchens.

The Confluences river kitchen is no exception. We usually employ 3-4 dutch ovens a night, each specifically tasked with creating a delicious part of our elaborate river meals. They allow us to turn any camp into a five star restaurant!

Dutch ovens have a long, storied history. They are beloved on the river because they allow a cook to create anything one would want to bake in a conventional oven. Pizzas, loaves of bread, tasty sweet desserts, anything is possible. You’re limited only by your imagination. If you’ve ever been inspired to learn the ways of a dutch oven then there’s no doubt you have also been intimidated. In this post we will show you some of our best practices for cooking with these versatile kitchen tools. If you follow a couple easy steps, we are sure dutch oven cooking will become your new favorite way to prepare a meal. 

There’s a lot to cover in the world of dutch ovens. In this post we are going to focus on the basics of preparing, cooking and serving in a dutch. Stay tuned for recipe ideas in later posts! 

Types: Aluminum vs. Cast Iron

This topic is hotly debated in the dutch oven community. There are pros and cons to both types, with the major considerations for us being weight and cleaning procedures. On the river we choose cast aluminum dutch ovens because they weigh less than cast iron. A medium sized 14” aluminum dutch weighs in at 8 pounds, where a similarly sized cast iron dutch weighs 25 pounds. We typically carry 5 D.O.’s with us on our river trips, choosing cast aluminum saves us around an 85 pounds. Also note the different cleaning practices recommended for differing styles of D.O.’s. Aluminum can be cleaned like a normal dish, with soapy water and a sponge, whereas cast iron should not be cleaned with soap as it strips the “seasoning” off the oven. You can read more here.

Preparing and Placement

At Confluences we are meticulous about cleanliness in our river kitchens. Dutch oven preparation is no exception. You always want to make sure the D.O. is cleaned out and fresh for whatever delicacy you choose to create next. Depending on what that is, you will want to oil the inside of the dutch to avoid any sticking during the cooking process. Parchment paper works great too! One side note: some recipes inherently contain a lot of oil, particularly desserts. Avoid adding excess oil as much as possible. 

Dutch oven placement is a crucial aspect to the process. Especially when cooking outside where flat surfaces are hard to come by. Cooking on an uneven surface may result in an uneven final product! We like to use the metal lid of the fire pan as the base for our dutch ovens. But a metal pizza pan or D.O. lid works great too. The trick is creating a barrier between the bottom layer of coals and the ground, you want the heat to rise into the oven, not escape into the earth. 


Coals are the fuel of choice for dutch oven cooking. To activate the coals we put them over an open flame in the firepan, allowing them to light. Be sure that the coals don’t sit too long, they’ll turn to ash and not provide enough heat for your soon to be delicious D.O. creation. Our trick is transferring them with a small shovel or tongs to the dutch oven when the coals are roughly 2/3rds lit (not smoking anymore, color turning grey and red).

Quantity of Coals

There is some debate on this topic within the D.O. community. Even between river companies we’re sure there exist many “right” ways to number and place your coals. We will share our method that works well for our menu. Make sure to understand the heat requirements for what you’re trying to cook. You want to avoid drying out desserts, so typically less heat is fine. If you’re cooking meat or potatoes more heat may be required. 

Confluences River Expeditions dutch oven method:

  • We use the 1/3rd method, taking the number of coals we place on top and dividing by three for the bottom. 
  • We evenly disperse the coals. We create a ring of coals around the brim of the D.O. lid and place 2-4 coals in the middle of the lid. We also spread the coals evenly under the dutch oven.
  • We make sure to use less heat on the bottom. 

Checking the Dutch

Channel locks are a great tool for a dutch oven professional. The oven will be hot and the coals are dangerous. You’ll want to confidently grasp the D.O. while keeping a safe distance. Before you lift the lid be sure to know what you’re looking for. Is your meal golden brown, crisp, pulling back from the edges? Does it jiggle when you tap the side of the D.O.? You’ll lose valuable heat from the oven the longer you look so lift the lid prepared!


If your meal is fully cooked use the channel locks to slide the coals off the top lid back into the fire. Carry the D.O. to a “landing zone.” Somewhere safe and stable where your meal can rest. You want to make sure all the flavors in your delicacy have time to meld together. Once your meal has had time to cool slightly, dig in and enjoy!

We hope these tips give you confidence to explore the exciting world of dutch oven cooking! Don’t hesitate to reach out if you have questions or want some recipe ideas!

IPA Poached Salmon

Salmon Poached in Sierra Nevada Torpedo Extra IPA

We love to catch salmon and especially love to eat it. If you have been a guest on our whitewater raft trips, you have tasted this wonderful and easy preparation for salmon. Our secret: poach the filet in a fantastic craft beer. We make our salmon poached in Sierra Nevada Torpedo Extra IPA.  Great news – you can now buy Torpedo in cans, perfect for on the river.

This recipe is meant to be cooked on a grill or over an open fire.

Cut heavy duty-foil long enough to double its thickness with enough room to fold over and completely encase the filet. Brush olive oil on the foil where the filet will lay. Put the filet, skin side down, towards one end, and fold up the edges a bit to catch the marinade. Drizzle lemon juice and honey sparingly over filet. Sprinkle with salt, dill and black pepper. Cut a lemon into thin slices and lay atop the filet. Pour Sierra Nevada Torpedo Extra IPA, about 1/4 cup per filet, over the fish. Sprinkle capers on top and seal the packet tight.

preparing salmon poached in Sierra Nevada Torpedo to cook over an open fire
Season the salmon with salt, pepper, dill, honey and lemon

Continue reading “IPA Poached Salmon”

Spare Ribs and Sauerkraut in Scotch Ale

Mom’s Spare Ribs and Sauerkraut With a Scottish Kick

Spare ribs and sauerkraut make me think of my mom, Dorothy Wright. Her recipe – with my Scotch Ale twist – is a definite comfort food.

I very seldom use a recipe, or I start with a recipe and soon make it my own with additions and changes. All amounts will be approximate. Taste as you cook and decide what you like. Continue reading “Spare Ribs and Sauerkraut in Scotch Ale”

Refried Beans from Scratch

Nothing Like It – Refried Beans Made From Scratch

There is nothing like the taste of refried beans made from scratch – just writing about them gives me cravings… I first learned how to make refried beans at Trini and Carmen’s, a wonderful Mexican restaurant I worked at in Pontiac, Michigan in the 70’s. I will give you general instructions here, I do not use a recipe so amounts are approximate.

I use a pressure cooker to cook the beans since I do not have to soak them overnight using this method. Wash 1 lb. of dried pinto beans and cover with water approximately an additional 2 – 3 inches of the pan above the beans. Add about 1 tsp. of salt and a fresh clove of garlic crushed just enough to release the juices. Cook the beans for one hour after the top of the pressure cooker starts to rock – I keep the heat just high enough to make the top rock but not go crazy. Once the pressure cooker has cooled enough to release all of the steam, drain the beans, reserving the liquid.

Alternate method: clean the beans, soak them overnight in water to cover them and drain off the water the next morning. Add fresh water to cover above the beans by about an inch, 1 tsp. of salt and a bruised fresh garlic clove. Boil for two hours until soft. Drain and reserve liquid.

Heat a large frying pan on med high and add lard. You can use olive oil, I have in the past but the lard adds a flavor component that cannot be beat. Melt the lard or oil and add the drained beans, I use one of those screens that reduces splatter when I do this.  Make sure all of the beans are coated with the lard or oil. Simmer for about 10 minutes stirring to prevent sticking.

Add enough of the reserved liquid to make the beans creamy and slightly soupy when mashed. Bring to a simmer and cook for about five minutes. Reduce heat to very low and mash the beans. If the mixture is too thick, add more reserved liquid. If you run out of liquid, add water. Taste. Add salt as needed. I add a pinch of cloves at this point. Keep on very low heat until you serve. Enjoy!

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Chicken enchiladas

Chicken Enchiladas – Heavenly

My son, Duncan, ordered up chicken enchiladas for his 16th birthday. I do not make them very often since they are a lot of work and it doesn’t take long before they are just a memory…but I have to say that the best part of making the meal was working with Duncan from start to finish.

Chicken Enchiladas – The Recipe

We used grilled chicken breasts that Duncan chopped into bite sized pieces and grated Monterey Jack cheese for our filling. You could use roasted chicken or any preparation where the chicken is juicy and succulent.

I heated the corn tortillas in the microwave until they were pliable and then dipped them in enchilada sauce. The traditional method is to fry the tortilla in oil just until it is soft and then dip it into the enchilada sauce. I love them prepared this way but wanted to make a lower fat version.

Your enchilada sauce can be as simple as water and chili powder combined, store bought or made from dried chilies.

Our good friend, Juliette Gutierrez, makes hers from scratch and it is to die for. She uses New Mexican dried chilies. Remove the stem, membrane and seeds from the chilies and rinse them. Soak in hot water, preferably overnight. Strain and discard the soaking water. Put chilies in a blender or food processor; add fresh water approximately to the level of the chilies being careful not to dilute the chilies with too much water.  Process until smooth. Saute fresh garlic in olive oil and then add the chilies – you can add stewed tomatoes if the sauce is too hot. Cook until bubbly. Delicious.

Using a plate, I laid the tortilla flat for Duncan to fill with the chicken and cheese and then rolled each up. We lined them up in a large baking pan that was sprayed with olive oil to keep the enchiladas from sticking.

When the pan was full, we spread extra enchilada sauce over the top and then covered with cheese. Bake in a 350 degree oven until bubbly and the cheese is browned. Cool for at least 5 minutes before eating. Serve your chicken enchiladas with Spanish rice and refried beans.

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Ham and Bean Soup – the perfect comfort food…

Ham and Bean Soup – Step_by-Step Instructions

The first hint of cold weather makes me itch to make ham and bean soup. I love to fill the house with the mouth-watering smell of bones cooking to make the broth. This is true comfort food. My first pot of soup this year was ham and bean. Yum… I had two ham bones in the freezer, one with quite a bit of meat on it, and several containers of frozen stock from the last few hams I had cooked. I put all of this in a pot to simmer for about 4 hours.

I have used a pressure cooker for years to cook beans – do not soak the beans overnight if you employ this method. However, I do not make the soup in the pressure cooker, you can impart so much more flavor to your soup by cooking it in a pot.

Use the stock to cook the beans in, whatever method you use, and cook until tender. Do not salt the beans since the ham stock will be salty – you can adjust seasoning when you assemble the soup. While the beans are cooking; chop onions, celery and carrots and sauté them in olive oil. Clean the meat off the ham bones and chop it into bite-sized pieces. Once the beans are cooked, add the vegetables and meat.

Season with bay leaf, black pepper and 1-2 whole cloves. I use whole pepper corns and put them with the cloves in a tea ball so they do not end up in someone’s bowl. Simmer for at least one hour, stirring occasionally. Taste and adjust seasoning.

Homemade bread or cornbread is all this soup needs as an accompaniment to make a hearty meal. Pair this soup with either a stout or a bourbon barrel aged strong beer – either will complement the smoky flavors from the ham. Enjoy!

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