Inputs of dissolved organic carbon (DOC) to lakes derived from the surrounding landscape can be stored, mineralized or passed to downstream ecosystems. The balance among these OC fates depends on a suite of physical, chemical, and biological processes within the lake, as well as the degree of recalcintrance of the allochthonous DOC load. The relative importance of these processes has not been well quantified due to the complex nature of lakes, as well as challenges in scaling DOC degradation experiments under controlled conditions to the whole lake scale. We used a coupled hydrodynamic-water quality model to simulate broad ranges in lake area and DOC, two characteristics important to processing allochthonous carbon through their influences on lake temperature, mixing depth and hydrology. We calibrated the model to four lakes from the North Temperate Lakes Long Term Ecological Research site, and simulated an additional 12 ‘hypothetical’ lakes to fill the gradients in lake size and DOC concentration. For each lake, we tested several mineralization rates (range: 0.001 d−1 to 0.010 d−1) representative of the range found in the literature. We found that mineralization rates at the ecosystem scale were roughly half the values from laboratory experiments, due to relatively cool water temperatures and other lake-specific factors that influence water temperature and hydrologic residence time. Results from simulations indicated that the fate of allochthonous DOC was controlled primarily by the mineralization rate and the hydrologic residence time. Lakes with residence times <1 year exported approximately 60% of the DOC, whereas lakes with residence times >6 years mineralized approximately 60% of the DOC. DOC fate in lakes can be determined with a few relatively easily measured factors, such as lake morphometry, residence time, and temperature, assuming we know the recalcitrance of the DOC.