The Art of Coal Counting: Using a Dutch Oven for Outdoor Cooking

Among the many tools of the modern outdoor cook, the Dutch oven stands out as a timeless classic, embodying both tradition and utility. Originating from the Netherlands in the 17th century, Dutch ovens have evolved into a camping staple worldwide, used by seasoned chefs and recreational cooks alike. The essence of Dutch oven cooking lies in its simplicity and versatility. What might not be as straightforward, though, is understanding the dynamics of heat management — primarily, how many coals are required to reach and maintain a desired cooking temperature.

Why Coal?

When we talk about Dutch oven cooking, we generally reference charcoal briquettes rather than traditional coal. This is because charcoal briquettes burn at a consistent and predictable temperature, which is paramount for efficient Dutch oven cooking. The uniform size of briquettes also allows for more precise control of the cooking temperature, as the number of briquettes used determines it.

Counting Coals: The Basic Rule of Thumb

The most common formula used to determine the number of charcoal briquettes needed for Dutch oven cooking is known as the “Rule of Three.” This rule states that you take the size of the Dutch oven in inches, add three to get the number of briquettes for the lid, and subtract three to get the number for underneath. For example, a 12-inch Dutch oven would require 15 briquettes on top and 9 underneath.

This formula aims to achieve a temperature of approximately 350°F (175°C), which is a general-purpose cooking temperature used in a wide variety of recipes. This rule provides an excellent starting point, but it’s worth remembering that other variables like wind, air temperature, and the heat retention properties of the specific Dutch oven used can affect the final temperature.

Advanced Coal Counting: Adjusting for Temperature

For more refined temperature control, one can adjust the number of coals based on a simple calculation: each charcoal briquette adds about 10-15 degrees Fahrenheit to the Dutch oven. This means, for instance, if you need to cook something at 400°F in a 12-inch Dutch oven, you would need 17 briquettes on the lid and 11 underneath.

Another advanced strategy is to place more coals on the lid than underneath the oven. This emulates the heating dynamics of a conventional oven, which has more heat radiating down from the top than rising up from the bottom. This can prevent burning food on the bottom of the oven while still cooking it thoroughly.

Understanding Environmental Factors

While counting coals provides a general guideline, successful Dutch oven cooking also requires understanding and adapting to environmental factors. For example, colder air temperatures will cool the oven more quickly, requiring additional coals to maintain the desired temperature. Similarly, windy conditions can cause briquettes to burn out faster, so you might need to replace them more frequently.

Keeping Track of Cooking Time

In Dutch oven cooking, cooking time also plays a crucial role. As the briquettes burn, they gradually produce less heat, affecting the oven’s temperature. To maintain a steady heat output, replace one-third to one-half of the briquettes every 30-40 minutes.


Mastering the Dutch oven is a blend of art and science. Understanding the number of coals required for different temperatures and environments is crucial for achieving optimal results. However, every outdoor cooking scenario is unique, so these guidelines should be paired with practice, patience, and a willingness to experiment.

As your familiarity with your Dutch oven grows, you’ll develop a sense for when to add or remove coals to maintain the perfect cooking environment, turning each meal into a testament of your culinary skills in the great outdoors.

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