WILD NZ: Camp oven cookout!

WILD NZ: Camp oven cookout!

Probably the most versatile – and underutilised – utensil in a camping situation is the camp oven (aka dutch oven). It’s a piece of equipment every camping Kiwi should own, and it’s worth the time and effort learning to use.

by Mike Cooney

Cooking with fire. Nothing quite speaks to our inner wildman (or wildwoman) like it! Imagine (if you will) creating a delicious meal … cooked on an open fire … fuelled by the wood you’ve gathered … using the most basic of utensils … and nary a freeze-dry meal, piezo-ignitioned gas-cooker or titanium pot to be seen! It’s primitive – it’s raw – it’s dangerous – and it’s a great skill to have during a zombie apocalypse!

There aren’t too many things more satisfying than successfully preparing, cooking and then serving a meal in the great outdoors. Frankly, it’s one of life’s simple pleasures. Unless you burn the food. Then it’s one of life’s greatest irritations. Oh, and it’s not really dangerous. 

Probably the most versatile – and underutilised – utensil in a camping situation is the camp oven (aka dutch oven). It’s a piece of equipment every camping Kiwi should own, and it’s worth the time and effort learning to use. The most common camp oven is a large cast-iron pot with a heavy, tight-fitting lid. It should have a rimmed lid you can heap coals on, and a wire handle so it can be hung over a fire pit. 

Did I mention versatile? You can bake, braise, roast, fry, boil and burn in them – and cook everything from roasts to biscuits to stews to puddings. But, the most iconic food of them all is camp oven bread. 

Learning to master this sometimes elusive fodder will earn you bragging rights for days and the awe of all your mates. For there’s nothing quite like fresh-from-the-fire camp oven bread, served with lashings of butter, honey or jam. Oh yeah!

You can thank me later, but here’s a recipe (and some excellent tips) for the above bread, taken from an old Forest Service booklet produced in the ‘60s for government deer-cullers. These tough men lived deep in New Zealand’s most remote bush for months on end, and were known for their skills with a camp oven. And while there are plenty more delicious recipes worth printing, we’ve only got room for one … 

So, go take a leaf out of their book, grease up your oven and have a crack at this backcountry delicacy!
You won’t regret it!


Camp oven bread is often spoiled through poor preparation, and the following tips will assist in making a good loaf:

  • Ingredients must be kept warm but not too hot or too cold, otherwise the yeast will be destroyed. Blood heat (37°C) is ideal.

  • Too much kneading will cause split crusts.

  • Too little kneading causes holes in the loaf.

  • Too much salt will result in slow rising of the dough.

  • Too little salt will result in the loaf rising too quickly and forming holes in the loaf.

  • Too much yeast and the loaf will have a strong taste. Too little yeast results in a slow rising loaf and a tough one.

A good bed of coals is essential in bread making. While waiting for the dough to rise (about 1/2 to 1 hour), heap the fire up with good firewood (preferably round pieces because these leave a better ember than split firewood). By the time the bread is ready to go on the fire, the ashes should be ideal. Place the camp oven about 45cm above the red hot embers and also cover the lid with red hot embers (using a shovel or other implement). Do not put any more coals on while the bread cooks.

When the bread is cooked (usually after 1 hour), carefully remove the lid. If the loaf is stuck inside the camp oven, take a firm hold of the wire handle of the oven (use a cloth) and give it a sharp, circular twist. If two or three attempts still fail to shift the loaf, stand the camp oven on a well-soaked cloth for a minute. It should, however, come out quite easily if the camp oven was well greased before placing the dough in.

A loaf may be inspected during cooking by slipping the edge of a knife under the lid and raising it slightly. As a rule, the bread cooks quite thoroughly in one hour. When ready, the loaf should have a hollow sound when knocked on the bottom and should be well risen and nicely browned with a crisp crust. To make sure it’s cooked in the middle, push a thin, clean stick through the centre of the loaf. When withdrawn, it should be clean if the loaf is cooked. If it has wet batter sticking to it the loaf is not cooked.

Basic Bread Mixture – Full Camp Oven Loaf

  • half a camp oven (standard size) of dry flour

  • 2 heaped dessertspoons sugar

  • stir in 1 level teaspoon salt

  • 2 tablespoons (heaped) milk powder

Mix together thoroughly in a warm basin or camp oven. 

Yeast Mixture

  • 1½ mugs warm water (blood heat)

  • 1 heaped dessertspoon sugar

  • 2 level dessertspoons yeast (dry)

To check yeast for freshness place a little in a mug half full of warm water with a little sugar; the yeast should begin to ‘erupt’ in a short time; if not, discard the whole bottle of yeast and use a fresh one. Check the date stamped on the yeast bottle (it usually states a date after which it may no longer be expected to work).

Make the yeast mixture first and while it is working prepare the dry ingredients. Add the yeast mixture to the dry ingredients after it has ‘erupted’ (about 20 minutes). Mix to a firm dough, adding more flour or warm water if necessary, and knead by turning the dough and pressing the knuckles firmly into it. Do this for a good five minutes. Place the dough into a greased camp oven (lid greased, too) and allow to rise in a warm place until mixture is about 3cm from the top of the camp oven. (It is important that the dough is not bumped while rising, otherwise, it will have to be kneaded again and allowed to rise once more.) Place oven carefully above a good layer of embers, cover lid well with red hot embers, and allow to cook for 1 hour.

Turn loaf out onto a clean cloth when cooked and cover with cloth to absorb moisture for ½ hour before eating. There are numerous other bread-making methods, but the above one is best for camp cooking.

Extract from Camp Cookery, D.M. Cowlin, New Zealand Forest Service, 1966.