In the world of physics, heat is understood as the transfer of the kinetic energy of molecules between bodies. In the world of cooking, heat is viewed as the method by which raw ingredients are transformed into delectable cuisine. Although both perspectives deal with the same phenomenon, their interpretations are much different.

Those who study physics are interested in heat on a microscopic level, observing the mechanics of energy transfer between particles and molecules. Students of the culinary arts, on the other hand, are concerned with the macroscopic nature of heat, which could be described as the role that heat plays in our lives. Both of these approaches are valid, with each exposing a unique truth about heat, but there is something that physics cannot teach us – something that every chef knows – that all heat is not created equal.

For a moment, imagine that you’re going to bake a delicious chocolate cake in celebration of a special occasion, such as an anniversary. The process begins with the collection of the necessary ingredients: flour, sugar, eggs, baking soda, baking powder, cocoa and vanilla. The components are then thoroughly mixed together, resulting in a sweet, yet noxious sludge that any sane person would deem inedible. Without the essential component of heat, the cake cannot become a cake. However, there are many ways in which heat may be added to the ingredients, and only one of them will produce a cake worthy of serving. We must choose the right heat for the job. After all, we don’t boil our bacon, and we wouldn’t bake an egg.

Although each method by which heat is imbued into our food serves a purpose, some methods are considered unfavorable or even unacceptable, regardless of circumstance. Here is a list of the most common ways that we heat our food, including a brief description of the typical result of each method, loosely ranked from most to least prestigious:

  1. Braising: moist, luscious.
  2. Sautéing: rich, succulent.
  3. Roasting: scrumptious, savory.
  4. Grilling: slightly charred, moist.
  5. Steaming: fresh, humid.
  6. Baking: savory or sweet, sometimes dry.
  7. Barbecuing: smoky and charred, sometimes dry.
  8. Frying: greasy, crispy.
  9. Slow cooking: savory, soft.
  10. Deep frying: extremely greasy, crunchy.
  11. Boiling: damp, often bland.
  12. Microwaving: soggy, tasteless, often unevenly cooked.

The precise order of the list is debatable, but its spirit is undeniable. This is why, when browsing a restaurant menu, we would choose the roasted vegetables over the boiled vegetables and the braised ham over the fried ham. The lack of credibility attributed to certain forms of heat also explains why some folks refuse to microwave their coffee. Practitioners of coffee snobbery would rather see their sacred liquid poured down the drain than blasphemously irradiated by the most depraved form of heat.

The quality of heat we use is directly related to the quality of food we wish to create. When whipping up a quick bite, we may choose to boil or microwave, but we wouldn’t consider consuming boiled steak or microwaved salmon. Sure, there are recipes to follow and general rules for cooking, but we cannot ignore the aura of shame attached to certain heating methods. Heat choice is important. In fact, in many cases heat is actually more important than the ingredients themselves.

It’s strange to think that microwaves were originally expected to replace traditional ovens, allowing housewives to cook roasts to perfection with the push of a button. Some advertisements went so far as to claim that the microwave was the greatest cooking invention since fire. If only we recognized the poor quality of the heat they produced, perhaps we wouldn’t tolerate microwavable packaged meals.

Would you rather eat a braised hot dog or a microwaved filet mignon?

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