Camp ovens are an important part of any Australian caravanner’s setup, and rightly so. There are few things better than settling down to a great baked dinner with a few friends, or taking a break in the middle of the afternoon to enjoy some damper drizzled with golden syrup.
Camp ovens are a time-honoured method of cooking. There are records of iron cooking pots with lids, much as we would know them today, going back centuries. They were a standard piece of equipment for early Australian explorers, cattle drovers and bush settlers. They are still as useful and still producing uniquely enjoyable food today.
Camp ovens come in a variety of forms but the most common is the cast iron, flat-bottomed oven with the wire handle. Increasingly popular, however, are the spun steel ovens, which are a bit bulkier but also much lighter, and in some ways a little more adaptable. There are ovens with legs which have their own unique cooking styles, or Bedourie ovens, which evolved to meet the needs of travelling cattlemen in the 19th century, and, more recently, the appearance of the Cobb ovens from South Africa.
We chose to look at three of the more traditional form of camp ovens: a standard cast iron, flat-bottomed oven; a Hillbilly spun steel oven; and a cast iron South African Potjie Pot from Oztrail.
Cast Iron Camp Oven
Walk around any bush camp area and you’ll see at least one flat-bottomed cast iron camp oven. These are seemingly produced in their thousands, generally do a great job, and are sold by most camping outlets.
They are also available in a range of sizes. Camp ovens are usually sold according to their volume, measured in the old scale of quarts, and come in sizes ranging from 2qt to 12qt (1.8L to 11.5L) – and range in size from 26cm in diameter and 11cm in depth, to 45cm in diameter and 23cm in depth.
Prices range from around $30 up to $150, though you can pay more for some Australian-made ovens.
Your choice will be governed by what you cook and how many you want to cook for. Keep in mind that these are relatively heavy, so large ovens will be hefty items both to manoeuvre around hot coals and fires and to transport.
There are several features to look out for when buying one of these camp ovens. The lid should have a good lip around the top to assist in retaining coals and prevent ash from falling over into the meal whenever it is removed for inspection or rotation of the contents. It should also have a positive seal so that it locates back on top easily and firmly and there’s no rocking motion, which means that heat and moisture can escape the interior while cooking. The best handles have a coiled wire bail to reduce the transmission of heat so that it can be handled when the oven is hot with minimal chance of burning your hand.
The walls and base should be reasonably thick for even heat distribution, and the inner walls should not have any metal ‘dags’ or lumps, which will make cleaning a problem. A smooth surface will be easier to clean.
The shortcomings of these types of oven are that they are brittle and will crack if dropped onto a hard surface, such as a stone, or can crack if cold water is added to them when hot.
On the positive side, their mass means that they retain heat well in cold or windy conditions. It also helps to distribute the heat more evenly.
There are several theories on cast iron camp ovens that come fitted with legs. Those who favour them with legs claim that this permits the coals underneath to get more oxygen and to provide better heat. Some feel they just get in the way and that you are better off with the oven sitting flat on a bed of coals. Our experience is that both theories have merit – it really is a matter of personal preference.
Some ovens come with small lips or protrusions on the lid, which are designed to permit you to stack your ovens, one above the other, with the coals on the lid acting to also heat the bottom of an oven above. This can be a handy option if you cook large meals, so that you can have, for example, a large joint of meat in one oven and vegetables in another, and perhaps dessert in a third oven on top. But for many, the management of this many ovens by one person becomes a full time job and there’s little time for socialising while it’s being done.
Hillbilly Spun Steel Oven
Hillbilly is an Australian brand that produces a wide range of camp cooking items in blue steel, including excellent spun steel camp ovens.
These are an excellent option to consider when purchasing a camp oven. They come in two sizes – 12.5L and 7.5L – and are much lighter than a cast iron oven. The 12.5L Hillbilly weighs 4.5kg, compared to around 15kg for a similar-sized cast iron camp oven. If you do need two ovens, the smaller one fits neatly inside the larger.
Because they are spun steel they do not have a porous surface and are thus much easier to keep clean. They won’t crack if dropped nor crack if you put cold water into them while hot. They are slightly larger than an equivalent-sized cast iron oven – 415mm wide and 210mm deep for the 12.5L Hillbilly version, compared to 380mm wide and 165mm deep for a similar cast iron model. Since there is less mass in the metal, retaining and distributing heat around the oven is a little more critical but you can get used to that.
However, there other advantages. The lid can be used as a frypan, using the removable handle to shift it about. And Hillbilly makes an excellent range of optional extras. Its Bushranger kit includes a stainless steel trivet, a vegie ring, a height extension ring, a pot stand and a canvas carry bag, priced, including the oven, lid and carry handle, at $260. Any or all of these items are available separately.
Hillbilly also manufactures a KingCooker gas ring, which gives you freedom from dependence on firewood and coals, for example in a caravan park where fires are usually discouraged or banned.
We highly recommend these products.
Oztrail Potjie Pot
A unique newcomer to the Australian caravan and camping scene is the Potjie Pot (pronounced ‘pot-chee’), which is marketed here by Oztrail.
The Potjie Pot ($159.95 RRP) comes from South Africa, where it evolved from Dutch ovens brought in by early Dutch settlers. It is similar to a flat-bottomed cast iron camp oven, except that it has three tall legs which permit it to stand over hot coals.
The 8L volume and round bottom, along with the legs, make it ideal for cooking meals such as curries or stews.
Made from cast iron, it is relatively heavy at 10kg and, at 230mm wide and 280mm high, it is larger than most camp ovens. However, it comes in a wooden carry box that makes it quite portable.
The Oztrail Potjie Pot comes pre-seasoned, so there is little pre-use work required other than giving it a wash with warm water.
Potjie pots are traditionally used for cooking ‘potjiekos’, a South African cooking style in which meats and vegetables cook slowly with little stirring so that the individual flavours do not mix, each retaining its own texture and taste and steam doing the cooking. However, we have used our Potjie Pot to cook damper and desserts, so it is really a versatile product.
Seasoning Your Camp Oven
All camp ovens must be seasoned after use in order to seal the porous surface and effectively make it as close to non-stick as possible.
To season your camp oven, wash it out thoroughly with warm water (without soap – it will leave a residue of its taste in the metal pores) and leave it out to dry (or place over low heat for about an hour). When dry and able to be handled, wipe over the interior of the oven and lid with a vegetable oil, such as olive or peanut oil. Remove any excess oil and place it into an oven for an hour on maximum heat.
When cooled enough to handle, wipe over the interior and lid once more with oil, wipe out any excess, and again heat it at maximum temperature in an oven for an hour. When cooled sufficiently to handle, wipe out any left over oil. The interior should now have a black glossy surface and be ready to use.
After each use, renew the oil coating after cleaning out all signs of food. If food is resistant to being simply wiped away, add some water (not hot to a cold oven or cold to a hot oven) and bring to the boil. When cleaned out dry, promptly re-oil it to prevent the formation of rust.
If you ever burn a meal and have to scrub out the interior with steel wool or a wire brush to get it clean, simply repeat the above process to renew its surface.