Dutch Oven Cooking Temperature Control

The mysteries of controlling Dutch oven cooking temperature can be understood with a couple of easy to follow guidelines.  This article discusses guidelines for temperature control when using charcoal as the heat source in the type of Dutch oven that has three legs on the bottom and a flanged lid for placing coals on top.

You may have seen some very detailed charts of tabulated data that show the number of coals to be place on the top and bottom of an oven for various oven sizes at different desired temperature.  Carrying this chart is inconvenient and it always seems to be misplaced at the most inconvenient time.  It could be memorized, but 6 different oven sizes and 8 different temperatures is 48 different combinations.  If you’re like me, you’d rather save room in your brain for things like the ingredients of what you’re cooking.  Fortunately there are guidelines and techniques that eliminate the need to carry charts or memorize a bunch of data points.


One method that is effective for any size oven is the Ring Method.  Under this method, charcoal  is placed under the oven a ring pattern.  Figures 1 and 2 below show two basic ring patterns.  The ring pattern in Figure 1 is called the Solid Ring.  The Solid Ring is constructed by arranging the hot charcoal in a ring the same diameter of the bottom of the oven such that each coal is just touching the coal on either side of it.  The Spaced Ring shown in Figure 2 is constructed the same way as the solid ring with the exception that every other coal is removed leaving a space the size of a charcoal in between each charcoal. 


Figure 1:  The Solid Ring


Figure 2:  Spaced Ring for a typical 12” Dutch Oven


Most oven recipes call for an oven temperature of 350 degrees.  To achieve 350 degrees for any size oven, a spaced ring is constructed under the oven.  To determine the number of coals placed on the top of the oven, count the number of coals in the spaced ring under the oven and double that number.  This result is the number of coals that are placed on top.  Spread the top coals uniformly.  The result is 2/3 of the total number of coals will be on the top and 1/3 will be on the bottom.

Using this method, you don’t have to memorize the number of coals.  The correct number of coals is easy to determine.  Larger ovens with larger diameters require more coals to complete the spaced ring.  The smaller diameter ovens require less.  If your recipe calls for a higher temperature, to increase the oven temperature, add one coal on the top for every 25 degrees desired.  To decrease the oven temperature, remove 1 coal from the top for every 25 degrees required.

A typical charcoal lasts about 30 minutes, and you may want to replace it every 20 minutes.


Another method is the +3 UP /-3 DOWN method.  This method works well, but only for a limited range of pot sizes.  It is effective on 8, 10 and 12 inch diameter ovens, but is less effective for the larger ovens.

To achieve a 350 degree oven using this method is a simple matter of addition and subtraction.  The number of coals placed on top of the oven is the pot diameter plus three, while the number of coals on the bottom of the oven is the pot diameter minus three.  For example a 10 in oven would have 7 coals under the oven while 13 coals are placed on top. The coals under the oven are still arranged in the ring pattern with no coals in the center of the ring and the coals on top are spread uniformly across the top.


Some compensation for weather conditions may be required.  On cold days, add a couple of more coals on the top and on a hot day remove a coal or two. Direct sun can also increase the temperature 50 degrees.  If it is a windy day, the windy side of the pot will be cooler than the side away from the wind.  To compensate for this, just rotate the pot 180 degrees about every 15 or 20 minutes.  Also a wind break can be used. 


A hot spot in the bottom center occurs when coals are spread evenly under the oven.  This is because those coals on the edge radiate toward the middle adding the heat of those coals located in the center.  This results in you cobbler being either done in the middle and raw on the edges, or burnt in the middle and done on the edges.  Neither is a desired result.  But, by placing coals in a ring then this center hot spot is eliminated and the bottom cooks uniformly.

When baking something such as a pie, cobbler or biscuits another method that produces more even heating can be employed.  This trick is to rotate the oven and lid every few minutes.  Rotate the entire pot one direction 1/3 turn and the lid the other direction 1/3 turn relative to the pot every 15 minutes.  This will make for very even cooking.


When a sustained moderate boil or faster simmer is required, the solid ring can be used on the bottom.

For a roaring boil, crowd hot coals under the oven as closely as possible.

Deep frying requires a very hot bed of coals underneath.  To achieve this, crowd hot coals under the oven as closely as possible.  In this situation, counter to the explanation of the center hot spot, the coals in the center will cool quicker because the receive less air than those on the edge.    To counter this, every 10 minutes or so, layout another spread of hot coals and move the pot onto that spread and alternate between the two beds of coals.