I was talking about home cooking techniques with a friend of mine the other day, and an interesting question came up. “I almost always use high heat when I cook,” she said. “Am I doing it right?”
Good question indeed. Many home cooks go for the highest settings on their cooktops whenever they use the frying pan. But should they? In this post, I’ll try to summarize the most important things from the conversation that followed.
Should you always cook on high heat?
High-heat cooking is for searing meat, sautéing vegetables, and evaporating liquids to make gravy or thicken a sauce. Use medium heat for cooking food all the way through. Low heat is suitable for slow-cooking foods, so that they come out soft and tender.
Don’t cook all of your food on high heat. Otherwise, most of your home-cooked meals will come out burnt on the outside and more or less raw on the inside.
Cooking on high heat is best done in short bursts of time, usually at the beginning (for example, searing steak before you put it in the oven) or somewhere in the end of the cooking process (or reverse-searing steak after you’ve cooked it in the oven).
You cook food on high heat to trigger the so-called Maillard reaction, a complex chemical reaction that starts at 285°F (140°C) and is optimal at any temperature between 285°F and 320°F (140°C and 160°C).
As Science of Cooking explains, the Maillard reaction is a chemical reaction between the amino acids and the reducing sugars in your food, which happens above the boiling point of water and only at high heat.
“The reactive carbonyl group of the sugars,” the website writes, “interacts with the nucleophilic amino group of the amino acids.” Simply said, the Maillard reaction produces hundreds of new molecules that add a richer aroma and deeper flavor to your food.
The Maillard reaction is so complex, it turns out, that scientists are still studying it. Many of its aroma- and flavor-inducing characteristics remain a mystery to this date.
When most food writers and TV chefs talk about “browning a steak,” they refer to the browning process that happens thanks to the Maillard reaction. This is why steak tastes so good when you sear (briefly brown it before cooking) or reverse-sear (briefly brown it after cooking) it.
And it doesn’t end with just steak. Whenever you use a toaster, you’re triggering the Maillard reaction. It’s the reason why toasted bread is so addictive! And when you sauté veggies over medium-high heat in your frying pan.
High-heat cooking should have a place in your repertoire. As long as it isn’t your main cooking technique.
I cook most of my food on medium to medium-high heat, no matter if in the frying pan on my cooktop or in a baking sheet in my oven.
And—knowing that browning is what actually adds that distinct aroma and flavor you get at the best restaurants—I only use high heat as a technique to start or finish off whatever I’m making.
Remember this the next time you make steak, sear asparagus, or toast bread at home.
What Is Considered “High Heat” When Cooking?
High heat is any cooking temperature between 400°F and 600°F (approximately 205°C and 315°C). Apart from evaporating liquids to thicken a sauce, high heat is also suitable for searing meats and sautéing vegetables quickly.
When most people say medium heat and low heat, they usually refer to cooking temperatures between, respectively, 300°F – 400°F (≈ 150°C – 205°C) and 200°F – 300°F (≈ 95°C – 150°C). Medium heat and low heat are most suitable for cooking food all the way through.
Low-heat cooking requires significantly longer than any other cooking technique and is best for breaking down hard foods and bringing out the flavor in them. Smoking meats, a popular way of making barbeque in the U.S., is also considered a low-heat cooking technique.
|Heat||Temp. Range||Best For||Cooking Time|
|High heat||400°F – 600°F |
(≈ 205°C – 315°C)
|Searing meat, sautéing veggies, and thickening sauce||Quick|
|Medium heat||300°F – 400°F|
(≈ 150°C – 205°C)
|Cooking food all the way through||Normal|
|Low heat||200°F – 300°F|
(≈ 95°C – 150°C)
|Slow-cooking or smoking food till soft and tender||Slow|
I prepared this neat chart that you can use as a cheat-sheet for when you’re not completely sure what kind of heat to use.
Just add this post to your browser’s bookmarks—and feel free to come back to it whenever you need it.
Why Does Cooking Oil Smoke at High Heat?
As my friend and I were talking, she asked me another really good question: “Why does the oil in my pan start to smoke when I turn up the heat dial on my cooktop?”
Which reminded me of the smoke point of cooking oils; another important piece of information that every home cook needs to know.
When a cooking oil exceeds a certain temperature, you see, it shops to glisten and shimmer and starks to break down and smoke. This is what food scientists call the “smoke point” of a cooking oil. When it comes to smoke points, not all cooking oils are made alike.
You should only use cooking oils with a high smoke point when cooking at high heat. And, contrary to what most people think, extra-virgin olive oil is not in that list. In fact, extra-virgin olive oil starts to break down and emit toxic fumes at temperatures higher than 375°F (190°C). Unlike canola and soybean oil which have smoke points of, respectively, 400°F (205°C) and 450°F (230°C).
I’ve made a comprehensive chart of the smoke points of most cooking oils carried at supermarkets in my post, “The Complete Guide to Smoke Points of Cooking Oils.” Take a look at the chart and, the next time you cook, tailor your choice of cooking oil to the heat that you’re about to cook on.
After all, burnt oil is just as bad in your food as it is on your frying pan.
The Bottom Line
No, you shouldn’t always cook at high heat. High-heat cooking is best for quickly browning meat, sauteing veggies, or thickening a gravy, sauce, stew, or soup.
To make tasty food at home, understand how to combine high-heat cooking with medium- or low-heat cooking. Usually, high-heat cooking is used as the starting technique, then food is cooked through on medium or low heat.