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Understanding heat

I'm a slave to the dials on my stovetop, the ones that say "medium", "low", "medium high", etc. If a recipe says to cook something at "medium high" that's the setting I use, without question. But I often burn things, or things take longer to cook than the recipe says.

Is there a way to guage heat without relying on stovetop dials? If I didn't have them, how would I know when my pan had reached low, medium, high heat? Is there a way to tell by the way the oil looks, by how water reacts to the pan, by how meat or other ingredients react?

I've read tons of cookbooks but haven't found any that help me understand how to guage heat, on my own. I want to be a cook who understands why things cook at certain temperatures, and not one who follows recipes to the letter because I don't trust my own understanding of how heat works.

Any suggestions out there for really practical cookbooks or other references that will help me with this? I'm looking for something that's going to give really good tips on the visual/olfactory/sensory clues that will tell me when something is at the exact right temperature.

BTW, I have an electric stove.


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  1. At it's simplest?

    High Heat = let 'em rip, 11 if you've got it
    Med. High Heat = High smoke point oil in the pan just begins to smoke
    Med. Heat = High smoke point oil in the pan just shimmers
    Med. Low Heat = Water is simmering, not actively but clearly visibly
    Low Heat = Water barely simmers

    These are my back of envelope calculations, YMMV.

    1. Sometimes recipe books are off. Like, a recipe yesterday wanted me to reduce 2.5 C wine by half in FIVE minutes...

      Visual cues: if your oil is smoking, that's too high. Look for slightly shimmering oil. If you poured wine or other liquid in, and it violently bubbles and evaporates quickly, your pan is too hot.

      Olfactory: again, tells you when your oil is good to go. also, when I'm doing veggies over low heat until the beginning of caramelized, sometimes, I'm not sure. Here, I rely on smell.

      1. My stove sucks so much that if I followed those things slavishly, nothing would ever finish cooking.

        1. A good way to tell is with a drop of water in a dry pan. If the drop just sits there and sizzles...not hot enough. If the drop becomes a ball and rolls around like a marble on a plate....just right. If the drop separates into a hundred little balls....too hot.

          1. In making friends with med-hi heat, I had to make friends with thicker cookware. The use of thin, low grade pans caused things to over cook rapidly (turn your back and thick black smoke is rising from the bacon FAST) and I cook a LOT so it made sense to trade up.

            I have a new glass flat top electric- if I go above 6 for cooking anything like pork or chicken (which take longer than say an egg) - it will burn outside before it cooks inside. Now I can get a great sear on 6 and crank it down to 4 and be fine, but if I leave it on 6, I'm screwed-it's black and burnt.

            I use the chopstick in oil method to know when oil is ready- here is a good thread to read:

            1 Reply
            1. re: Boccone Dolce

              I have a 30-yr old electric cooktop range and an unmatched collection of cookware of various brands and construction, and absolutely concur about the cookware - I need to use different settings and preheating times depending on what material and thickness the pot/pan is. I know what to do through trial and error. If I were to get a new stove there would be a new learning curve. Recipes can supply basic instructions along the lines of "when oil starts to shimmer", but that doesn't get you very far unless you know how well your pan retains heat. The temperature of ingredients is vital, as well. Room temp vs. refrigerated makes a world of difference.

            2. Welcome to the electric stove club, Megan. We all understand your frustration. Every cook experiences it at one point or another to some degree. I always found gas stoves easier to gauge with respect to the heat I could expect by simply watching the flame height and flame color. But that took some time to learn. Then I cooked with a propane gas stove. Propane puts out more BTU's than natural gas; I had to learn all over again. When I was introduced to the electric range I was right back to square one. First of all, keep in mind that electric ranges aren't as responsive as gas ranges. When you raise or lower the temperature on an electric range it takes some time for the heating element to adjust. Raising the temperature is easier than lowering it because when you want to cool things down on an electric range it's better to lower the temperature setting on the control and remove the pan from the burner, returning the pan to the burner when the temperature balance you want materializes. The indicators on the knobs of any range are only approximations. You'll even find that some ranges vary to some degree from one burner to another. We all have to practice with heat settings to get things right. The water droplet test works fairly well if you're frying or finding out when a pan is hot enough for you to drop the pancake batter in, but it's not universally applicable. If you're frying, try putting cold oil in a cold pan and turning on the heat. When you see the oil begin to develop ripples and spread easily about the pan you're usually hot enough to put something you're frying on to cook. If the food doesn't sizzle a bit you probably acted prematurely; it it sizzles and pops with oil spattering all over the place you acted too late. Cooking in oil (e.g frying, sauteing) should produce some visible activity between the edges of the frying food and the oil and you should generally hear some degree of sizzling sound. Remember too that the author of the recipe you're working with wasn't using your stove and "medium" on his or her stove could be medium, medium low, or medium high on your stove. Hope that, along with the other very good information that's been offered previously helps you build confidence to keep trying. Good luck ....

              1. Use the old hand trick that people use for BBQ grills.

                Place your hand, palms facing down, over the pan.

                If you need to pull away between 2 to 4 seconds, your heat is “high.”
                If you need to pull away between 5 to 7 seconds then the heat is “medium”.
                If it takes 8 to 10 seconds to pull your palm away then the heat is “low”.

                At least that's the way my mom taught me how to do it for stir-fry dishes using a wok.

                1. There are a lot of things that determine grades of heat better than the setting on your stove. My cooktop simply has numbers that range from L (low) to High with numbers 1 to 9 in between. But I prefer no labels at all and learning from experience. And whatever the markings say, every stove is a bit different, so "Medium High" on one may not be the same temperature on another. Best to ignore them.

                  It is not solely the heat setting that determines what works in a given dish. The material the pan is made from, how well the bottom of the pan makes contact with heat, and a whole bunch of other things come into the formula. For example, many pans develop warped bottoms with use over time. Those pans will have full contact when used on a gas burner or on an induction cook top (assuming they're made of ferous material), but that same pan will struggle on an electric burner.

                  In time, experience will be your best teacher on what works best for the particular food you're cooking. With pancakes, for example, you want a heat setting that will cook the interior of the pancake in the same amount of time it takes to brown the outside. Too high a heat will burn the exterior while the interior remains batter. Too low a heat and you may never get a browned pancake.

                  Trial and error over time really is the best teacher, in my book. Is there any way you can block out all of those settings? Maybe a Magic Marker, or some nail polish? '-)

                  3 Replies
                  1. re: Caroline1

                    I always laugh because on my gas stove, I have both high heat burners and lower output ones. They have the same dials with the same settings at the same places. Now I *know* that ain't the case; medium high on the high heat burner is way hotter than on the low heat burners. So I just judge by what I'm trying to do. If I'm trying to brown meatballs, I want it sizzling but I sure don't want to scorch them. So regardless of what the recipe says, you have to figure what you're trying to accomplish.

                    1. re: Caroline1

                      And where can I get your book?
                      You have to make things complicated, don't you?
                      I agree there are many factors to getting the heat "in there" and it being consistent and predictable. Having different pots and pans, in different condition, will give very varied results. Variations in bottom flatness, thickness, bottom construction (some have multi-layered bottoms), etc., will all cause differences. It would be helpful to have them all be the same construction/brand and replace ones with badly warped bottoms.
                      If you have an old electric stove or one that is not properly maintained and cleaned, you may get unpredictable heat. For example, my 26 YO Jenn-Air recently got totally unreliable. Sometimes the coils would heat and sometimes they were just dead. I took it all apart and found the heating coil receptacles to be worn out; the contacts burnt, dirty, misaligned and the springiness gone. The connecting ends of the coils were crooked, too. My attempts to refurbish the connectors helped a little, but last week I replaced all of them with better, new ceramic ones. I have no issues now and more energy is being transferred to the coils than ever. Before, some of the energy went into burning up the connector contacts, if they made connection at all.....
                      I like the knob's setting numbers as a reference, but they need to be reliable. For instance I know "6" is the setting for cooking pancakes, once the griddle is up to temp. You need to know when it has reached that magical 375, though. Then, batter applied to it knocks it down for a while and I may need to wait a minute before the next batch. Practice makes perfect!

                      1. re: Scargod

                        What you really need, Sweetie Pie, is a little old wood fire in your back yard with a couple of concrete bricks, a cast iron grate, some matches and a lot of dry wood. You'll be cooking first class in no time at all! '-)

                    2. Thank you so much, guys. Now I have a few pointers and some ways to guage heat that are divorced from my stove knobs!

                      1. Don't forget the instant read IR thermometers. Best investment I have ever made. I give them as gifts!
                        OR http://www.amazon.com/Raytek-MT4-Mini...
                        OR http://www.amazon.com/Mastercool-MSC5...
                        I have the Raytek. I like the laser sighting/aiming feature.

                        7 Replies
                          1. re: Scargod

                            I think they all have laser sights. My OEM (the first one you linked to) certainly does. But how 'bout going one better:


                            It's like the love child of a Raytek and a Thermapen - a remote IR sensor plus an instant-read Type K thermocouple probe thermometer!

                            Do I need this gadget? No way. Do I want it anyway? Oh, yeah...

                            1. re: alanbarnes

                              Oh, you shouldn't have shown me that... I'm getting an oral erection (my tongue's hanging out) and salivating at the same time. Plus, it's only $155!

                              1. re: Scargod

                                Hey, they're throwing the probe in for free - it's only $99!

                                1. re: Scargod

                                  Oh, WOW! With that toy, you guys could cook a pot of beans, then use the probe to find out if the interiors or every bean are exactly the same! What could be more fun than that?

                                  And what exactly do you guys cook that gets close to1999°F? That could easily require a heavy duty pot holder! '-)

                                  1. re: Caroline1

                                    Re: "what exactly do you guys cook that gets close to1999°F?"

                                    Whatever it is, it gets done FAST.

                            2. The instructions in recipes for High, Medium, Low, etc., are very rough guidlines and it is totally dependent on the output of your burners (I'm assuming your's are electric if you actually have settings that say High, etc.). Most home cooktops have burners of differing output, from maybe only a few thousand btu's to 12,000 or higher, so it is totally dependent on which burner you are using. IMHO, you know how high to set the heat based on experience. If you are trying to sweat onions and the recipe says this should take 5 minutes and you see them turning into crispy critters, then the heat is too high. The more you cook, the better you get. Most recipes that involve a saute pan on the cook top ask you to oil the pan and then heat to a specific point (e.g. until the oll shimmers, or until the oil begins to smoke), so this makes it pretty easy to at least get the initial temperature right.