Cast iron is designed to hold heat throughout the Dutch oven, and cooks evenly throughout the vessel. Regulating cooking temperatures is by far the hardest thing to master when learning to cook with a Dutch oven.
First, choose your fuel well. High quality briquettes like Kingsford are the best, in my opinion. Kingsford’s briquettes are packed tighter, don’t pop and split, and burn longer than other brands. Kingsford charcoal generates heat for about an hour. Match Light charcoal burns hot very quickly and therefore, turns to ash faster. It is good to use to start a group of briquettes, but I would not use it exclusively as your cooking charcoal as you will go through a lot of it in a very short time.
A good rule of thumb to remember is that one briquette equals about 20 to 25 degrees F.
If you are converting a dish you have baked in your oven at home, the following conversion chart offers some guidelines for the number of briquettes.
Oven Temperatures to # of Coals
300 degrees = 12 to 15 coals
325 degrees = 13 to 17 coals
350 degrees = 14 to 18 coals
375 degrees = 15 to 19 coals
400 degrees = 16 to 20 coals
425 degrees = 17 to 22 coals
450 degrees = 18 to 23 coals
475 degrees = 19 to 24 coals
These are general conversions, but keep in mind that other factors like wind, hot and cold temperatures, humidity, and altitude can cause your dish to cook slower or faster, and you will need to adjust your number of coals accordingly. That’s the art and sometimes, tribulation, of Dutch oven cooking.
For cooking styles, just think about how you cook something on your kitchen range or oven at home and apply the same technique to your Dutch oven.
When roasting, you want equal heat on top and bottom.
When baking, you want more heat on top than the bottom, so a 1-to-3 ratio or 1 coal on the bottom to 3 coals on top should be used.
When stewing or simmering, a 4-to-1 ratio or 4 coals on the bottom to 1 coal on top should be used.
When frying or boiling, all the heat goes underneath.
For example, if you are baking at 300 degrees, you need a total of 12 to 15 coals. Place 5 to 6 coals on the bottom and 8 to 10 on top. (15 divided by 3 = 5; 5 coals on bottom, 10 on top. If using a deep-sided oven, add 2 to 4 extra coals to the top.)
Other ways to control your temperature while cooking is the placement of your coals. Arrange your coals in a checkerboard pattern beneath your oven and atop the lid, based on the ratio for your recipe or cooking temperature. The idea is to space them out equally to ensure even heat on both surfaces.
Avoiding Hot Spots
A good way to avoid “hot spots” is to rotate your oven a quarter turn every 15 minutes to maintain an even oven temperature. Rotate your lid a quarter turn in the opposite direction. When your briquettes turn to ash, replace them to maintain even heat and to avoid some areas from cooking slower than others.
Mastering temperature control takes some practice…just like everything in life. So, turn up the heat and get cooking!
Stay tuned for the next Dutch Ovens 101: The Necessary Accessories…