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Ambiguous Stove-top temps

When we bake or roast, we use temperatures to specify heat and assuming our ovens are accurate and we temp our food we are working with something we can measure. When you cook on the stove-top, you are told "high" or "medium-low," etc. and not given a temperature. I know sometimes you can tell your temperature by how food reacts such as with a simmer or a boil, but mostly I feel like I am left guessing and I can tell you that the medium on my mom's Viking stove top is a lot hotter than the medium on my run-of-the-mill Whirlpool. Infrared thermometers are relatively cheap these days; what temperature is "medium" vs. "medium-high" vs. "medium-low"? It's easier than ever to measure surface temps these days and while you might not always want to get your gun out, if we could at least come to know if a recipe says "medium" that means 300 degrees and on my stove that means a tick past the medium mark, etc. etc.


  • The easier method is to place a tablespoon or two of oil in the pan before heating and when it starts to ripple AND JUST STARTS TO SMOKE, the pan is ready for sautéing. Use an oil with a relatively high smoke point - I prefer Grapeseed oil as my go-to cooking oil although a refined olive oil will also have a high smoke point (roughly 450 degrees). All that being said, I do not preheat my pan when cooking garlic or onions - I prefer gentle heat which I think draws out the flavor better and avoids burning. I avoid canola oil since I find that it has a slightly fishy flavor. And, you are correct, heat levels for stovetops are completely meaningless. Barbara Lynch, a local Boston chef, once told me to LISTEN to the food as it cooks - that is the best way to judge heat level. Onions need a gentle sizzle whereas searing a steak will be louder and more aggressive. Two other suggestions. Make sure that the bottom of your pan is perfectly flat otherwise the oil will pool around the perimeter. This makes the pan unusable. Second, use enough oil. Hot oil will coat the food much better than the metal of the skillet, creating more even cooking.

  • Thanks for finally clearing this up. This should be the first thing a cook learns. I have always used the trial and error method to find the settings for each burner.

  • I asked the same question on another website and got much the same answer as Chris gave. I did some research and the best I could come up with for temperatures in degrees was this:

    low: 200-300F(93-148C), medium: 300-400F(148-204C) and high: 400-600F(148-315C)

    That's still a pretty wide range but at least it gives you a starting point.

  • Just bought a convection oven How do I convert temperatures from old recipes?

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