To cook your food the right way, no matter what the recipe said, you need to know the differences.
Baking, roasting, and broiling are all dry-heat cooking methods that take place in your oven.
That’s where the similarities between them end. Each method uses a different amount of heat and produces different results for the same reasons. And, as you will see in a moment, they can not be used interchangeably.
If you and I were riding in an elevator, and you asked me about the long and the short of it before you had to get off, I would tell you the following:
Baking (250-375°F) and roasting (400-450°F) use moderate heat from the top and bottom heating panels of the oven, with the food on the center rack. In contrast, broiling (500-550°F) uses high heat from the top, with the food directly underneath.
For a rectangular appliance with heating elements on the top and bottom paired with a fan in the back, the oven can be a surprisingly intimidating appliance to use, particularly for the novice cook.
Until you see that, no matter how many settings your oven overwhelms you with, using it comes down to understanding these three cooking methods, and the subtle but important differences between them.
First, there’s the difference in cooking temperature:
- Under the high heat of your broiler, your food will brown and caramelize quickly. But, left unattended, it won’t take long to dry out, then blacken and burn;
- Surrounded by the moderate heat of your oven’s baking and roasting settings, your food will cook slowly and evenly, with enough time to cook through on the inside. But it will not brown and caramelize as well as when cooked at high heat.
Second, there’s the position of your food:
- When baking or roasting, you place your food on the middle rack because you are using the continuous flow of hot air, a.k.a. convection currents, in your oven to cook it;
- When broiling, you place your food on the top or second-top rack because you are using the direct heat of the top heating panel to cook it.
Essentially, when you are baking and roasting, you are using moderate and uniformly-distributed heat. When you are broiling, you are using intense heat from above.
This has certain implications for the types of food that you can prepare with each of the three cooking methods, which I describe below.
Baking is a cooking method that uses a moderate heat of 250-375°F (120-190°C), coming from the heating elements on the top and bottom of the oven, to cook loaves of bread, desserts, baked pastas, casseroles, pastry, and pies (sweet or salty).
Baking uses the least amount of heat, which is also why it is the best cooking method for large slabs of meat, such as the brisket, which take a long time to cook in the center.
Quite a few recipes use a combination cooking technique: Firstly, the meat is roasted or broiled to give it a golden brown color and a crispy, flavorsome crust. Then, the meat is moved to the middle rack and baked low and slow to come out evenly cooked and fall-apart tender.
Russets and sweet potatoes taste their best when they are baked whole. The heat is enough to make them creamy, almost buttery on the inside, without being so intense that it burns and chars their skins.
The same is true for white onions. When baked whole, the onions brown and caramelize, which mellows out their pungency and brings out their inherent sweetness.
Roasting is a cooking method that uses a relatively high heat of 400-450°F (200-230°C), coming from the heating elements on the top and bottom of the oven, to cook whole chickens or turkeys; beef, pork, and lamb roasts; fish fillets; as well as more compact (or halved) vegetables.
Roasting is a particularly good cooking method for fattier cuts of meat, such as the pork knuckle. The relatively high heat yields a crispy rind and tender, delicate meat underneath enjoyed by the Bavarian Germans and their tourists during Oktoberfest.
For the same reasons, roasting is a better cooking method for chuck roast, a juicy cut of beef blessed with plenty of intramuscular fat, than for the brisket, where the fat is on the outside of the meat and often gets trimmed off.
Roasting is also the default cooking method for whole birds, such as Thanksgiving turkey and Turducken, or three-bird roast, as it is known outside the United States and Canada.
Certain vegetables such as russets, sweet potatoes, carrots, celery sticks, and white onions or red onions roast well, especially when they have been halved or cut lengthwise.
Smaller vegetables, such as Brussels sprouts and cauliflower, are also good choices for roasting, as they brown well and cook relatively quickly, which means that they won’t burn.
Broiling is a cooking method that uses a very high heat of 500-550°F (260-290°C), coming only from the top, to cook thin-cut meat or to give thick-cut steaks and large slabs of meat a crispy, golden brown, supremely tasty crust.
Generally speaking, there are two use cases for broiling:
Use case #1 is cooking steaks, pork chops, chicken breasts, and fish fillets, usually less than 1½ inches thick, under the high and direct heat of the broiler. This cooking style very much mimics the effects of firing up a gas grill and is a good substitute for grilling when the weather is bad.
Use case #2 is to give birds, roasts, and vegetables a golden brown color and a crispy crust—which, thanks to the Maillard reaction, greatly improves their texture, aroma, and flavor—before fishing them with a gentler cooking method such as baking or roasting.
The thing to remember is that, by itself, broiling is unusable for thick-cut steaks, large slabs of meat, and whole vegetables. By the time they are done on the inside, they will be burnt badly on the outside.