Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: a character in a tv show or movie, typically a child or a man, needs to cook something. They’re either impatient or crunched for time, so they make a bold mathematical decision: “If it bakes for 250 degrees for 40 minutes, then we can cook it for 20 minutes at 500 degrees.” The result, predictably, is inedible. But why exactly is that? Well, I’ll tell you. But first, an introduction! I’m Jon O’Guin, and this is Kitchen Catastrophes. Today we’re going to talk about the number one cinematic catastrophe in cooking, the TV Tropes dubbed “Oven Logic”, and how to avoid it in your own life. We’ll do so on the stove, in the oven, and in the microwave…And now I wonder why there are Vs in all those words. NO TIME FOR ETYMOLOGIES, JON, FOR TODAY, WE MUST MATCH WITS WITH MATH!
First, Learn Why You Are Wrong
So, if this idea is wrong, let’s first figure out why. After all, the math SOUNDS right. Doesn’t it? Cooking is the application of heat for a length of time. Increasing the heat should, logically, reduce the amount of time it takes. And it would, if we were dealing with Math. But, despite my many references to having to face it today, we’re not. Because cooking isn’t math, it’s chemistry. Specifically, heat transfer, oxidation, and several other components. But let’s talk about the first one, since it’s the key point.
Key POINT, Jon. This is KeyPORT. Very different.
Now, for those who’ve forgotten their chemistry/physics, let’s have a very quick refresher on what heat actually is: the vibration of the molecules of a substance. As things heat up, this vibration either causes greater and greater fluidity in the substance, moving it from solid to liquid, to gas, OR, as is often the case in organic substances, the vibrations cause molecular separation, forcing different parts to respond differently. This is how wood burns: compounds in the wood reach a gaseous state, and combust outward as flame.
So heating something is essentially just putting it in a place where you can subject it to the vibrations of another object, in order to create those same vibrations. Like trying to break into a chest by sliding it under someone else’s jackhammer, to use a needlessly cartoony example.
With that out of the way, let’s jump to our first case study!
Stoved In The Head with a Steak.
You’ve got yourself a steak, and you want it nice and seared and medium rare for a dinner for two with a lovely (INSERT PREFERRED SEXUAL PARTNER HERE). You’d grill it outside, but there’s currently a blizzard going on, because you didn’t check the weather report before setting up this steak dinner. Or maybe you did, and your dating tactics are worryingly predatory. I have neither the time nor legal expertise to be sure, but I will warn you you’ve made me feel slightly dirty about helping you.
Oh, it's you, Mr Bublé. I'm...not sure I feel less worried.
So you want to cook your steak fast as the dickens, to get straight to dinner, because let’s be generous and assume you missed the forecast, so the snow on the way home slowed you down, and you’re worried about your date’s ability to get home, and/or your ability to set up the house before the power dies.
First, do you have any idea just how hot the “High” setting on your stove-top is? Because, let me tell you, I’ve been cooking for over a decade, and writing this blog for a year, and I sure as hell didn’t. So you’re either worryingly well-informed about the capabilities of your stovetop, or ignorant. Let’s assume the latter: a frying pan on a standard range stove-top can reach temps of up to 600 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s…real damn hot.
It's a technical term.
So, you want to get the inside of your steak to 140 degrees, you have a 600 degree pan, this should be easy, right? Well, here’s the thing: see, your steak is more than a couple molecules thick, so it’s not all being directly affected by the pan. Instead, the middle of your steak is being cooked by the layer of meat further from the center, which is being heated by the next layer out, until you reach the outside, because secretly, all food is technically onions.
This is why you have to let any meat that’s been cooked by high heat rest for a little while after cooking: you’re literally waiting for the rings of heat to equalize. So, you’ve got all these rings cooking for you, and you’re waiting for the middle one to get to the right point.
"You said you need the middle point, Jon?"
No, tiny cherub. But thank you for the offer. Please put down the trident.
Except, at the same time, you’re hitting the outside real hard. And while, in this specific case, you’ll be pretty fine, in many you will not: Because the compounds that make up steak are reacting to the heat. They’re browning and crisping on the outside, as that intense heat drives out the moisture of the outermost layer, and causes chemical reactions that generate flavor.
Now, luckily, steak normally cooks somewhere around 550 degrees on a grill, so a 600 degree sear on the stove isn’t too different. But imagine if you had a super high-power heat source, something in the 1000 degree range: you’d over-sear the outside LONG before the inside was anywhere close to ready, because the meat rings just can’t transfer the heat fast enough.
Shit, am I really that close to one thousand words already? Goddamn, okay, well, you've got the basics, so let’s blow through the rest of this pretty quick.
THE SOUFFLE SHUFFLE
When cooking in an oven, you have the same kind of ideas as the stove-top: the permeating heat shakes the outside, shaking inward and inward to a core. The biggest difference (Other than, you know, the heat being omni-directional instead of mono) is that many baking projects have gluten (or gluten like structures) and high water content. This is important because those structures form, in essence, balloons that are then filled with the steam from the evaporating water content.
Souffles are a great example of this, because of how drastic the difference in texture can be: you already know what happens when you heat mixed-up eggs directly and on high heat: you get rubbery scrambled eggs, full of rigid protein structures. By reducing the heat and maintaining temperature equality by stirring, you can get eggs that are softer and lighter, and still unmistakably done. With Souffles, the added flour and protein form a net that catches whipped egg white gases. This is why soufflés are so poofy when they come out, and why they inevitably slump over time: the structures are held up in part by the pressure of the gases.
A group of hippos is called a "Bloat". Don't know what made me think of that.
As such, putting a soufflé in at too high of a heat will just create a ball of scrambled eggs around a gooey center. And, to show the reverse: putting it in at too LOW of a heat will let gluten/protein structures solidify far before the steam has the strength to inflate them, forming a sort of egg-cake-brick.
Ovens are actually much worse at the "Cooked outside, raw inside" issue of trying higher temps, because gases, being less dense, have less vibratory power than solids. This is normally a good thing: the gentler heat of the oven keeps the outside softer longer as the heat conducts to the center, so you don't burn the outside of a roast over an hour or more of cooking. That same gentleness ends up hindering them in the "Blast it real quick" method. BUT, they do provide a fun and useful example I probably shouldn't try and explain, but will, because bad ideas are my specialty!
Your standard oven cooks somewhere in the 500 degree range as its top knob position. (hehe) IN that time, using a pizza stone, you probably cook a pizza from somewhere between 7-15 minutes, depending on the thickness of the dough, the quirks of your specific oven, etc. However, in authentic wood-fired Italian pizza ovens, the temperatures are regularly 900 to 1000 degrees. They do legitimately double the heat! So, logically, the pizza should cook in like, 3-7 minutes, right? No. Place with 1000 degree ovens cook their pizza for 1-2 minutes.
Then again, 2 minutes of Pizza Hell is more than enough for most pizzas.
This is because for roughly every 20 degrees you increase an external temperature, you’re going to accelerate the chemical reactions taking place on the outer edges. Steaks will sear quicker, chicken brown faster, cheese melts quicker, dough sets faste, etc. And it’s a geometric progression. Doubling the heat doesn't halve the time, it reduces it almost to 1/8th! Which, honestly, is an interesting number, because of physics that I BARELY HAVE TIME FOR: Thanks to the Square cube law, we know that doubling something's AREA increases its VOLUME by 8. Are these phenomenon connected? Probably! But we have to move on
Get it? got It? Good. ONTO MICROWAVES
Microwaves so rarely have nano-surfers
Microwaves work almost exactly like an oven, except for a CRUCIAL part that makes them totally different: the magnetron pulses are not heat. Instead, for reasons apparently still slightly unknown to science (worrying), the pulses MAKE food heat itself: then the radiation from a microwave hits food, the food EXPERIENCES it as heat. Remember when I talked about heat pounding on stuff like a jackhammer? Now it’s getting shaken by like, a booming AMP or a really high-pitched opera singer.
Actually, that last line is a really good analogy, because when glasses explode from a high note, it’s because the GLASS vibrates in tune with the note, damaging itself. Same idea: a microwave sings really high, and the food shakes itself to death. The heat still has to work by conduction, but there’s no loss in converting substances: now, it’s the outer food ring that is the direct heat source.
Cheating with Physics
So how do you avoid Oven Logic and still get food done in a hurry? Well, since all heat has to go by conduction, the thinner your food is, the faster it will go. Taking a 1” steak and cutting it into two½” steaks WILL cut the cooking time tremendously. (Thanks again, Square-Cube Law!)
"Thanks, Jon. Now, stop bringing me up!"
However, in most cases, the best answer is the one with nothing to do with cooking: you can easily get away with just breaking things up. You have a steak dinner with a date? Sear the outside of the steak, and finish it in an oven while you serve the salad and wine. Go sit and talk with your company while the soufflé “Finishes up”. Remember, in the majority of cases, what people truly appreciate is personal investment: The knowledge that you cared enough to make something. They’ll forgive your food being a little late, as long as you’re clearly trying, and trying to make their time more enjoyable.
And if all else fails, just laugh about it, and make a Plan B. Order Delivery, or just pump up a salad. Again, you will gain so much more by showing you can remain calm under pressure and adapt to poor circumstances than you ever would by barely pulling off a mostly-done steak.
What? Y'all think I learn NOTHING from the number of Catastrophes I find myself in? Man, I burned EASY MAC when I started cooking. Trust me, I've had to cover for some real humdingers in my day.
MONDAY: JON REVISITS SOUTH AFRICA FOR A SANDWICH OR TWO.