High Temperatures and Dry Cooking Methods

Appears in
On Food and Cooking

By Harold McGee

Published 2004

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Both caramelization and Maillard browning proceed at a rapid rate only at relatively high temperatures. Caramelization in table sugar becomes noticeable at around 330°F/165°C, Maillard browning perhaps 100°F/50°C below that. Large amounts of energy are required to force the initial molecular interactions. The practical consequence of this is that most foods brown only on the outside and during the application of dry heat. The temperature of water can’t rise above 212°F/100°C until it is vaporized (unless it’s under high pressure in a pressure cooker). So foods that are cooked in hot water or steamed, and the moist interiors of meats and vegetables, will never exceed 212°F. But the outer surfaces of foods cooked in oil or in an oven quickly dehydrate and reach the temperature of their surroundings, perhaps 300 to 500°F/159–260°C. So it is that foods cooked by “moist” techniques—boiling, steaming, braising—are generally pale and mild compared to the same foods cooked by “dry” methods—grilling, baking, frying. This is a useful rule to keep in mind. For example, one key to a rich-tasting stew is to brown the meat, vegetables, and flour quite well by frying them before adding any liquid. On the other hand, if you want to emphasize the intrinsic flavors of the foods, avoid the high temperatures that create the intense but less individualized browning flavors.