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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.

Megan

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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:
            http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/588565

            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.