Grilling up a few hamburgers and hotdogs can make a perfectly pleasant campfire meal.

Grilling up a few hamburgers and hotdogs can make a perfectly pleasant campfire meal.

Cooks who pack in a few pieces of cast-iron cookware, however, can expand their everyday recipe repertoire into the great outdoors.

"This is a way for you to get together with your family ... get outside," says Jacksonville resident Will McLaughlin.

Primarily using Dutch ovens, McLaughlin, 54, has perfected the art of camp-out cooking, teaching classes and conducting demonstrations around the state over the past year. Yet the avid cook says he was slow to warm up to his first Dutch oven, a gift from a friend that gathered dust in McLaughlin's garage for almost a year before its consecration by fire.

"We were going camping, and I said 'I'm gonna use this Dutch oven,' " McLaughlin says.

When he realized the pot wasn't seasoned yet, McLaughlin was forced to scrap his menu. A few more months went by before McLaughlin finally scrubbed the Dutch oven and baked on a coating of oil in preparation for the pot's debut dish: pineapple upside-down cake.

"In the Dutch-oven world, the pineapple upside-down cake is a classic," McLaughlin says. "Everybody's got this stereotype of Dutch-oven cooking being just biscuits and beans.

That a raccoon filched the finished cake before its cook could have a taste hardly put a damper on McLaughlin's enthusiasm. He joined the International Dutch Oven Society and soon put up a Web site, www.thatsgoodcooking.com, dedicated to his new culinary pursuit. Holding classes at several venues around the valley, McLaughlin plans to play host to guests beginning this month at his Sterling Creek Road property and release a Dutch-oven cookbook by the end of the year.

"It started off as a hobby, and then it became ... a passion," he says. "Once it started, it just really snowballed."

McLaughlin and his troupe of 20 Dutch ovens have been introducing visitors at local state parks and Central Point's Hanley Farm with a method of cooking that sustained American settlers for hundreds of years. Dutch ovens, some claim, are so named because the Dutch perfected a sand-casting method to manufacture such pots. Others say Dutch salesmen sold the kettles to American colonists, some of whom likely were Dutch immigrants living in Pennsylvania, who also may have popularized the term.

"A lot of people say 'I've never seen one,' " McLaughlin says. "They buy it, and they're intimidated by it."

Made of heavy cast iron or lighter aluminum, Dutch ovens are small and squat with flat lids and three stubby legs. Coals are spaced on top of the lid and between the legs, heating the oven evenly so it cooks like a traditional home oven. But Dutch ovens are more versatile than their name suggests, and an open fire isn't even necessary.

"You can fry; you can saute; you can do anything you want with them," McLaughlin says. "If you have a Weber grill, you can do it inside a Weber grill."

Formed as a Dutch oven or a simple skillet, cast iron is revered by many chefs as a superior cooking surface, allowing for even cooking that can be transferred in a single step from stove top to oven. Aluminum Dutch ovens are popular with backpackers and rafters who need to keep loads light, but the pots don't hold heat as well as cast iron.

A basic, 12-inch Dutch oven can be purchased new for about $50, McLaughlin says. Many are sold pre-seasoned. Used pots can be picked up for much less at thrift stores, flea markets and yard sales. Even rusty or grease-encrusted Dutch ovens and skillets can be cleaned and reconditioned for regular use, provided they have no nicks or cracks, McLaughlin says.

Try McLaughlin's Pineapple Upside-Down Cake and the following recipes using cast-iron cookware.

Reach Food Editor Sarah Lemon at 776-4487, or e-mail slemon@mailtribune.com.