You got your deer or elk just in time for the holiday meal. The whole family is coming, and you want to share your good fortune with them by providing a great meal that is healthy, tastes good and is something different from the norm. Maybe you have a hankering to go old school and try Dutch oven cooking. Here’s how to put together a cowboy Christmas elk roast over an open fire.
A buddy of mine from Clark, Wyo., Ron Reed, has been cowboy cooking for years. He has an authentic chuck wagon that he often uses for demonstrations and outdoor banquets. I used to cook with a Dutch oven regularly but sort of got out of the habit. Ron agreed to give me a refresher course. Recently we headed onto some public land on a beautiful, sunny 28-degree day with an elk roast, some fixin’s and a box of firewood and a few briquettes.
Dutch oven cooking requires coals; rarely do you actually cook over an open flame. So the first thing to do is get a fire started. Ron doesn’t use any rocks or a pit for his cooking fires. He simply clears off a spot of vegetation and builds a fire directly on the dirt. In this case the ground was so rocky he didn’t have to clear much of anything at all. An advantage is that such a fire site quickly returns to its pre-fire status sans blacked rocks or anything much else to give away that a fire was built there.
The best coals come from hardwoods, but Wyoming is pretty barren of traditional hardwoods. Out here we have to build a fire with soft woods, but we are allowed to cheat. Softwoods burn hot and relatively quickly. They are also easier to start and provide a near perfect fire for getting charcoal briquettes started. Ron simply splits some pine into a small stack, tosses on a splash of kerosene—something every chuck wagon had a supply of—and sets a match to it.
Notice the iron rig Ron sets up over his fire. These were a part of every “Cookie’s” (a universal term for camp cooks) truck. These are simple pieces of steel rods used to hang pots and such over the fire. They are available commercially, but most of us in Wyoming make our own. The two main vertical components are about 4' long and made from 1/2" round hot-rolled steel. Another piece is heated, bent into a “U” shape and welded to one end. These are pounded into the ground about 10" or so. The “U’ parts must be at the same height to keep the crosspiece level. Several “S” hooks made from 3/8" round hot-rolled steel allow Ron to adjust the height of his pots and such over the fire. Some cooks keep a short length of chain to micro-adjust the height.
Once the fire gets going, Ron adds some briquettes to get them ready. The softwood fire burns so hot that the briquettes become ready to cook in a fraction of the time of wood being lit in a regular BBQ chimney.
No cowboy camp is complete without a coffee pot, so as everything heats up we might just as well cook a little coffee. Notice also that Ron pre-heats the Dutch ovens by setting them by the fire, and as the briquettes become ready he begins to place them on the Dutch oven lid with a few under the oven. This gets rid of the chill and makes cooking a lot easier.
While the coals and coffee get ready, it’s time to prepare the meat. This is a dry roast, so Ron has a premixed rub made of coarse sea salt (about 60 percent by volume), pepper (30 percent), garlic powder (5 percent) and onion salt (5 percent). Before rubbing the roast he covers it with some corn oil.
He then hand rubs the mixture to thoroughly cover all sides of the roast. It is important to ensure the rub is thorough and even around the roast. Before you put the roast in the oven put 2 to 3 tablespoons of oil in the bottom of it, making sure that it covers the entire bottom. This keeps the meat from sticking to the oven.
Before putting the roast into the Dutch oven, Ron puts a blanket of bacon strips over the top of the roast. Some cooks prefer beef tallow. Because game meat is so lean, the fat is needed to keep the roast from drying out and becoming too tough.
Notice that the Dutch oven is not on the main fire. It’s off to the side. A dry roast needs most of the heat to come from the top so Ron only has six to eight briquettes under the oven; the top is pretty much covered with briquettes. What you are seeking is approximately a 300-degree temperature inside the oven.
For about a 5-pound roast like this it will require about 1 1/2 to 2 hours cooking time. It’s best to have a meat thermometer and check the meat every 15 minutes or so after it has been cooking for half an hour.
About every 10 minutes, rotate the oven and the lid separately about half a turn. This helps keep the heat even in the oven. Rare is 110 to 120 degrees F; medium rare is 130 to 140 degrees F.
About halfway through the cooking, add the spuds or other raw vegetables to the oven for roasting. Watch the wind so that you don’t get ashes blown into the oven. Likely you will need to add briquettes during this time. As the main fire dies down, replenish it with softwood to hurry up the briquettes to be ready.
When the roast’s internal temperature is to your liking, it’s done and ready to serve. Set the Dutch oven aside near—but not too close—to the fire to keep it warm.
Slice up the roast to suit your dining companions. You can stir in a bit of flour to the drippings to make up some nice gravy.