Cooking Over Coals

I first met Chef Lou Lambert in Marfa, Texas, at his sister Liz’s iconic hotel, El Cosmico, where he was giving a demonstration on cooking over coals using a Dutch oven. He graciously agreed to be interviewed further on the subject, and invited me to visit him back in Fort Worth at his own space. When I arrived, Lambert and his crew (playfully known as “Young Larry,” “Sweet James” and “Sweet Chris”) had already been busy stoking the fires, arranging hot coals and properly placing the various ovens atop. Trying my best not to be distracted by the intensely fragrant and already bubbling green chile pork stew, I set out to learn a little more about my host and why he’s so drawn to this cooking method. 

Lambert grew up in West Texas, 30 miles from New Mexico, as a seventh-generation West Texas rancher. Summers on the ranch were always a busy time and additional cowboys were hired to help with the roundup. Nearby ranches practiced an old tradition called “neighboring,” wherein all the additional cowboys worked on one ranch at a time, taking turns with the various roundups. The ranch at which the cowboys were currently working would hire a chuck cook to feed everyone. Because the ranch kitchens were rarely big enough to prepare enough food for all the hands, the cook often had to shift some of the cooking outside. This is where the Dutch oven came in handy—to prepare everything from bread and dessert to meat chili and stews. Lambert says he watched closely and has never forgotten the exceptional taste of those meals from his childhood.  

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Years later, and already an established chef, Lambert was catering a large event and needed to feed 300 people, but he had barely any kitchen space. He remembered the chuck cooks of his youth, built some fires and pulled out his trusty Dutch ovens to great success. And at another big catering event in West Hollywood, he had all the kitchen space he needed, but he decided to prepare all the food for the fancy event in Dutch ovens over hot coals anyway—and it blew everyone away.

Lambert says he loves the way cooking over coals forces you to slow down, connect and be more in tune with the process, and he swears that food cooked this way tastes better. He notes that the fire can be built with wood reduced to coals or with store-bought charcoal, and he swears by the time-tested (but not so scientific) method of determining the correct heat level by holding a hand roughly two feet over the fire: If you can hold your hand there for 10 seconds, that’s medium heat, five seconds is medium-high and no time at all indicates very high heat. For long-cooking recipes, Lambert suggests maintaining an area of prepared coals as well as a separate area for the actual cooking—that way there’s a steady supply of hot coals ready for transport to the cooking area. The pork stew that’s calling my name, for example, needs to be cooked for four to five hours, thus requiring a consistent supply of hot coals. But he notes that breads and cobblers can be baked with only one run of coal.  

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Lambert uses old metal barrels for preparing and maintaining the coals but says that a barbecue pit can be used just as easily. For the cooking surface, however, he recommends using bricks, gravel or packed dirt over a flat piece of ground as a foundation for the bed of coals, as well as making sure there’s nothing nearby, such as dried weeds, that can catch on fire. For most recipes, he uses a 6-quart cast-iron Dutch oven with legs (for stews he uses a deeper 8-quart oven) found at many outdoor, hardware, sports and camping stores, and says the best quality for the money is the Lodge brand. To create even heat from both the top and the bottom, he places the oven directly on the hot coals and puts hot coals over the lid, so he suggests purchasing an oven with a lid designed for this purpose. Lambert also uses a special clamping device to place and lift the oven over the hot coals. And as for the common warnings to never wash cast iron? Lambert says with a scoff, “Try cleaning 100 Dutch ovens after a catering event without soap or water!” A cleaning, followed immediately by time in a very hot oven until smoking hot, does the trick for him. Once the pot cools slightly, seal it with a high-quality, neutral oil such as canola or olive. (The oil is pulled down into the pores to prevent water from seeping in and causing rust, and as the pot continues to cool, the oil will form a protective film.) If the Dutch oven has been sitting unused for a while, the oil may develop a rancid taste. Lambert suggests heating it in the oven again and wiping it with a lightly oiled rag.

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Tips for Cooking on Coals

• Use only a non-enameled, heavy-duty cast-iron Dutch oven with legs and with a lid that’s designed to hold coals.

• Using a special oven lifter and lid lifter makes oven transfer and lid lifting over hot coals easier and safer. Find them where Dutch ovens are sold.

• If using charcoal briquettes, let them burn down 20 to 30 minutes before beginning the cooking process. If using wood, let the fire burn down to coals at least 45 minutes to an hour before beginning the cooking process. 

• Set the Dutch oven directly on the bed of coals—do not use a raised grate or hanging device.

• Rotate the Dutch oven pot and the lid a quarter turn every 10 to 15 minutes to ensure even baking and cooking. 

By Elif Selvili