Preheat the oven to 400°F. Heat pan over medium heat. Turn the heat to low. As you run through a recipe, you’ll see that many of the directions deal with temperature. Heat is one of the fundamental factors of cooking, and its interaction with your ingredients is one of the most important ways you influence the final dish. But how much heat should you use for cooking different foods? Well, there’s no magic temperature when it comes to cooking heat, but there are a few cues you can take.
The first step deciding what temperature to use is what you want the food to be like when you’re done. Let’s say you have a piece of salmon to make for dinner. There are so many different ways you could cook salmon, each requiring a different temperature.
Would you like a seasoned crust on the outside with a tender interior? Searing at high heats may be the way to go. Want the fish cooked evenly, with a flakey consistency? Baking in the oven at a medium temperature is perfect. For a super moist and healthy fish, try steaming the salmon, which cooks it at a lower heat. Each has a place on one end of the temperature spectrum, each with its own tasty result.
You can do this for virtually everything you cook, whether it’s vegetable or protein, but there are other factors that may favor one temperature range over another.
The robustness of an ingredient can and often does influence how high of a temperature it can handle. This differs for proteins versus other ingredients.
Many vegetables, for example, are tender and don’t handle extreme heat well. The same is generally true of dairy and eggs. These can all burn or scorch easily, which is why a lower cooking temperature is advisable. For meat, you need to identify how tough the cut is. The easiest way to determine the toughness of meat is to figure out where the cut is from on the body. Cuts of meat from areas that work harder, generally lower on the body, are tougher than cuts from the top of the animal.
For tough cuts of meat (think a brisket or chuck), extreme heat would make them chewy and even tougher. Instead, braise or roast the meat, which uses low temperatures or liquid over a long period of time to break down the collagen in the meat and turn a tough piece of meat into fall-off-the-bone tender meat. For more tender cuts (like sirloin or tenderloin), a high-temperature sear would quickly cook the protein without make the meat tough.
Unlike some of the earlier examples, fish can be a bit of a wild card that depends largely on the thickness and cooking style of the fish. We’ve included different examples throughout this article. White fish is a more delicate protein that should be cooked at a higher temperature for a shorter amount of time. This is because white fish is more akin to the tender cuts of meat and has shorter muscle fibers than tougher cuts. If you cook it at lower temperatures for too long, it easily overcooks and dries out. Fatty fish like salmon or thicker cuts of fish are more versatile.
Aside from the ingredient you’re cooking, the cooking fat or medium can also define the heat you use. Certain oils or butters can only handle a certain level of heat before they burn and ruin the dish. This is why you’d never deep-fry using an oil or butter with a low smoke point, or the temperature where it begins to smoke. You’ll also need to monitor temperature when boiling or simmering ingredients in liquid, since boiling or simmering too vigorously can cause your dish to overcook or boil over.
So, let’s say you want to cook fish and add a delicious buttery flavor to it. You could butter poach your fish, which cooks food at a low temperature to really infuse the buttery flavor. Butter begins to burn at 350°F, so you shouldn’t go too high. Whatever you’re cooking, account for the type of fat you’re using to figure out the heat.
As you cook a dish, there are times when you’ll need to adjust the cooking temperature. When you simmer a soup, you need to bring the pot to a boil and then lower it. The temperature of a cream sauce needs to be watched closely and adjusted to prevent scorching. It’s important to remember that the temperature you’re cooking at is rarely entirely consistent. Even something as simple as adding new ingredients to the pan can change the temperature. This is why it’s important to monitor your food for signs of how it’s cooking.
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It can be difficult to decide how to cook your food, and that’s not even including the temperature. There are so many different styles and techniques, but many rely on heat. That’s why understanding cooking temperatures and why we use specific ones is so key to becoming a better home cook.