Photo by Eric W. Pohl

The Texas State Parks system marks its 100th anniversary this year. With 89 parks, natural areas, and historic sites to choose from, visitors can experience all kinds of outdoor activities. Each month, we’re highlighting one of these activities based on the season and special occasions around the state.

When it comes to Dutch oven cooking at a state park, there are a few good rules to follow. First, ditch the oven mitts and bring welder’s gloves instead. You’ll want to keep them nearby, too. “Cast iron retains heat a long time, so always put a glove on to move the oven and the lid,” says Lisa Henderson, outdoor education supervisor for Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. She often teaches Dutch oven cooking classes as part of the department’s Texas Outdoor Family workshops, and she likes how the cooking method allows creativity. “You can roast a chicken or make King Ranch chicken casserole,” she says.

100-Year Celebration Dutch Oven Cookoff

Where: Lake Tawakoni State Park
10822 FM 2475,
Wills Point
When: Nov. 18, 11 a.m.-4 p.m., check-in for competitors begins at 8:15 a.m.
Park entrance fees: $5 for adults, free for ages 12 and under

Judging and voting runs from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., and winners are announced at 4 p.m. All cooking must be done on-site.

This month, Lake Tawakoni State Park is celebrating 100 years of state parks with a Dutch oven cookoff. Participants will compete for prizes awarded in five categories: most creative, main course, vegetarian, side dish, and dessert. A fan favorite award will be decided by vote, so those who forgo any cooking can still take part in the fun by sampling the dishes. (See sidebar for more information.)

Located about 50 miles east of Dallas, the 376-acre state park encompasses Lake Tawakoni, a reservoir constructed in 1960 on the Sabine River. People first settled along this river in northeast Texas back in prehistoric times, and the many native tribes original to the area include the Tawakoni, now part of the Wichita and Affiliated Tribes. No doubt those early residents cooked food over campfires. They likely would envy modern-day visitors to Lake Tawakoni, including local members of the Lone Star Dutch Oven Society, who often can be found plying their craft here.

“Dutch ovens are cast-iron pots that originated in England and were brought to this country by Dutch traders, hence the name,” says Beth Jones, president of the society and a member of the local Purtis Creek Dutch Oven Cooks. “They were of paramount importance to the pioneers, and the great Texas cattle drives could not have happened without them.” She adds that she has yet to find anything that you can’t cook in a Dutch oven.

Lake Tawakoni assistant superintendent Jena Bailey agrees. “Anything you can make in your oven at home, you can cook in a Dutch oven,” she says. “But a Dutch oven is better.”

Recipes can be quite simple. Take a cobbler, for instance. “Pour pie filling in the bottom of the pot, dump a box of cake mix on it, and put slices of butter on top,” Henderson says. “Or make it like a dump cake. Put in a box of cake mix, pour a can of soda into it, and dump a can of pie filling right in the center. It just bakes around it.” Any soda will do, she adds, as long as it has carbonation. An orange or red soda creates cool colors that kids like.

Along with those welder gloves, Henderson has more tips for those heading to the park to cook in a Dutch oven:

Pack everything you need. That includes the oven, tongs for coals, serving utensils, a can opener, a bucket for water to put out the fire, ingredients for the dish, and those welder’s gloves.

Charcoal makes timing easier. “Some people cook over coals left from burning wood, but there are formulas online telling you how many charcoal briquettes to use to get a specific temperature,” Henderson explains. Or do what Jones does and just look at it while it cooks. “There’s not a one of us who haven’t burned something. It’s just trial and error figuring it out,” she says.

Rotate the oven about a quarter turn every 15 minutes and the lid a quarter turn in the opposite direction to ensure even cooking. Many recipes provide specific timing.

Have a backup dish. “Sometimes you mess up and you need something else to eat just in case,” Henderson says, suggesting beginners start with casseroles like layered lasagna, shepherd’s pie, or chili with cornbread on top.

Clean the Dutch oven. “A big argument is soap or not soap,” Henderson says. She chooses not to soap and goes with a salt scrub if needed. “Just wipe the pot out, rinse it, and put some oil in to season it, but not so much that the oil puddles. I typically wrap it in a brown paper bag for storing.”

Lastly, be safe. Keep a potholder on top if you set the Dutch oven in the middle of the picnic table, so no one accidentally grabs the hot lid.

To fill the time between meals, Bailey notes that Lake Tawakoni State Park is a popular fishing destination. The reservoir has striper, bass, and “some really big catfish.” There’s a small pond stocked with channel catfish. Best thing? Any fish you catch can be cooked in a Dutch oven.

The park has lodging options that include 56 campsites with electricity and 16 with full hook-ups. Roughly five miles of hike and bike trails loop through the park. Bailey’s favorite is the Spring Point Trail, a half-mile loop with views of the lake and a good place to spot birds (more than 200 species have been identified here). The longest route is the 1.5-mile Blackjack Trail, named for the blackjack oak trees along it. Kayaks are available for rent from a self-serve kiosk, with paddles and lifejackets included.

Near the park entrance is a prairie restoration site. Wild animals that call the park home include red and gray fox, bobcat, turtles, armadillos, mink, and white-tailed deer.

When all that exploring works up an appetite, fire up the coals. “Dutch oven cooking is a great community thing,” Bailey says. “You get to hang around the campfire and enjoy time together.” Not to mention tuck into something hot and tasty.

Dutch Oven Blueberry French Toast

Cooking spray
3 cinnamon roll tubes with icing
4 cups fresh blueberries of 2 bags frozen (drained)
1 ½ cups of milk
3 large eggs
2 tablespoons maple syrup
1/4 cup flour
1/4 cup packed brown sugar
1/4 cup cold butter cubed

Line a 12-inch Dutch oven with foil and spray with cooking spray. Cut cinnamon roll slices into six pieces each and place half in the pan, covering the bottom. Layer in 2 cups of blueberries. Add another layer of cinnamon roll pieces, topped with the rest of the blueberries. Whisk together milk, eggs, and syrup in a small bowl, pour over bread and blueberries. Heat oven to 350 degrees (10 coals on bottom and 16 on top). In small bowl, combine flour, brown sugar, and butter cubes, and use your fingers to work together until consistency of coarse crumbs. Sprinkle evenly over the prepared dish. Bake 45 minutes or until golden brown.

Recipe courtesy Purtis Creek Dutch Oven Cookers

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