Updated: May 3, 2020
One the most important yet commonly understood basics of cooking is cooking temperature. Just how hot should a pan be? This is a more complicated question than you may have initially believed. When deciding how hot is hot enough you should ask yourself a some questions. 1. What am I cooking? The first thing you want to consider when deciding how hot your pan or grill should be, is what you’re actually cooking. Proteins and vegetables respond differently to varying levels of heat. For instance, Fish cooks exceptionally fast compared to land locked proteins like beef and pork, or the avian options of poultry. Therefore, to get any browning on fish without overcooking it, requires very high levels of heat, which is why most fish recipes call for exactly that. I'm sure it also aids in the popularity of fried fish, which takes away the need for such extreme cooking temperatures and provides an easier medium to obtain a properly browned and textured product that's much more difficult to overcook. Likewise, some veggies cook faster than others. For instance, potatoes take much longer to cook tender than broccoli. When ingredients take such varying times to cook, with so many different possible textures, you must ask yourself the following question... 2. What internal temperature am I trying to achieve? It may seem counter-intuitive at first, but higher internal temperatures (well done, or fall apart tender) correlate with lower cooking temperatures, and lower internal temperatures (rare, textured and chewy) are most often associated with higher cooking temperatures. So, to get a properly colored medium rare steak requires more heat than a properly colored medium well steak. Let me be clear about what I mean by “properly colored.” When steak is cooked over too low a temperature it takes on an unappetizing gray color with no char. When chicken is cooked on too low a temperature it takes on a flavorless ghost white exterior. Pork takes on a very similar look as the poultry-geist chicken (I’m not sorry). When proteins are cooked with sufficient heat, they turn to a beautiful golden brown, have a crisp textured exterior, and retain their moisture.
You should even think of vegetables in this way. Veggies with lower internal temps after cooking retain more texture and moisture. Popular options in this category are broccoli, asparagus, and peppers. Most people prefer a certain amount of chew and firmness from these vegetables. As opposed to veggies that have been thoroughly cooked through, which tend to be very soft and a bit mushy, such as carrots, southern green beans, and potatoes. Whatever temperature or texture you mean to achieve with whatever food you are cooking, it is largely achieved by cooking temperature. But remember, lower internal temperatures (Rare, texture) are achieved with high heat, (sears, broils, ect) whereas high internal temperatures (fall apart tender) are achieved with the “low and slow” methods (smoking, baking, braising). To further explain low and slow consider the next question... 3. How thick is the cut? A critical aspect of deciding a cooking temperature is the thickness of the item being cooked. Breakfast steaks (usually about ½ inch thick) will require a much higher cooking temperature for a properly colored medium steak than a 1 ½ inch thick steak also cooked medium. This holds true for every protein. As cuts get more and more thick, the cooking temperature continues to drop with increased thickness. This drop in cooking temperature also directly correlates to longer cooking times. Hints the expression, “Low and Slow.” So in essence, large pieces of meat (or veggies) require longer cooking times at lower temperatures to achieve both the desired internal temperature, and the desired external color and texture. Smaller pieces of protein and chopped veggies require higher amounts of cooking heat, but cook for shorter amounts of time. The last major thing to consider is… 4. Is sugar involved? When seasoning food it’s important to know if sugars are present in the spice mix. This is important because sugar burns very easily and usually doesn’t react well to high heat. When sugar burns, it gets very unpleasantly bitter and can ruin dishes. Not to mention it smells horrible. So, if you are using sugar, honey, or sugar based glazes or sauces, it’s best to add them at the end of the cooking process, just before you take the cooked item out of the pan or off the grill. Most sugar rich spice mixes, whether liquid or dry, tend to caramelize and brown in seconds rather than minutes when cooked in a pan or over a grill. So, if you're outside grilling and you're tempted to put that brown sugar BBQ sauce on those raw ribs, I would refrain. You’ll be left with pork that looks like it was cooked in a volcano, and it’ll taste like it too. Sugar based seasonings can also lead a cook to believe a food item is further along in the cooking process than it really is, leading to raw proteins and hard starchy vegetables. However, the rapid caramelization of sugar does have its perks. Chiefly among them, it can add a lovely flavor and gorgeous color to a dish in seconds. Suppose you mess up and cook your chicken over too low of heat. You can simply apply some sugar based seasoning or sauce over medium heat to expel the ghostly white exterior in favor of a rich, brown, slightly charred family favorite.
When you find yourself standing in your kitchen, looking at the dial trying to decide how high to crank the heat up, you should practice going through these questions in your head. This post will not include charts or cooking times, because this lesson is best learned through experience. The formula can seem abstract and complicated at first, but once you develop your abilities to zero in on the perfect cooking temperature, everyone who eats your food will thank you. I prefer to look at it like a pair of sliding scales in my head. The answers to the questions above lead me to slide the scales from a low cooking temperature to a high cooking temperature and a long cooking time to a shorter cooking time, and vise versa. Knowing how far to slide these scales for each contributing factor is just something that comes with time and experience and rely greatly on instincts that involve smell, color, feel, and sound. Hopefully this at least gives you something to think about next time you cook. If you are having difficulties achieving the desired textures, juiciness, and flavor, altering your cooking temperatures could have fantastic implications on your food.