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How is heat transferred in cooking?

Understanding how heat transfer can affect your cooking can be important in deciding the method used in cooking. Most food is cooked using one of several methods: baking, frying, boiling, steaming. Although new methods allow for combinations e.g., combi ovens.

What is Heat?

All matter is made up of molecules and atoms that are always in different types of motion (translation, rotational, vibrational). It is this motion of atoms and molecules that creates heat or thermal energy. The more motion the atoms or molecules have the more heat or thermal energy they will have.

What is temperature?

Temperature is an average value of energy for all the atoms and molecules in a given system. Temperature is independent of how much matter there is in the system. It is simply an average of the total energy in the system.

What are the differences between temperature and heat?

The units of temperature is degrees (Centigrade or Fahrenheit). Another primary difference is that energy can be transferred without the temperature of a substance changing. An example would be latent heat -- where ice water remains at the freezing point even as more energy is brought into the system to melt the remaining ice. In general however as heat energy increases, the temperature will increase. The more massive a body is the more heat must be added to increase it's temperature.

How is heat transferred?

Heat can travel from one place to another in three ways: Conduction, Convection and Radiation. Both conduction and convection require matter to transfer heat. As long as there is a temperature difference between two systems heat will always find a way to transfer from the higher to lower system.

What is the role of specific heat capacity on heat transfer?

Heat capacity is the ratio of the heat added to (or removed from) an object to the resulting temperature change. Water has a high specific heat which means it will take a long time to heat up. The high specific heat of is because water is from its tight bonding structure.

What are the three fundamental modes of heat transfer?


Conduction is the transfer of heat between substances that are in direct contact with each other. The better the conductor, the more rapidly heat will be transferred. Metal is a good conduction of heat. Conduction occurs when a substance is heated, particles will gain more energy, and vibrate more. These molecules then bump into nearby particles and transfer some of their energy to them. This then continues and passes the energy from the hot end down to the colder end of the substance. Conduction occurs when we put a steak onto a very hot cast iron pan. The better the pan is in holding the


Convection occurs when warmer areas of a liquid or gas rise to cooler areas in the liquid or gas. Cooler liquid or gas then takes the place of the warmer areas which have risen higher. This results in a continuous circulation pattern. Water boiling in a pan is a good example of these convection currents.

A convection oven is an oven that has fans to circulate around the air. Conventional ovens, which do not have fans, rely primarily on radiation from the oven walls, and to a lesser extent, on natural convection caused by temperature differences. The fans in convection ovens allow more heat to be transferred via convective heat transfer.


Radiation is a method of heat transfer that does not rely upon any contact between the heat source and the heated object as is the case with conduction and convection. Heat can be transmitted though empty space by thermal radiation often called infrared radiation. Examples of radiation is the heat from the sun, or heat released from the filament of a light bulb. In traditional ovens transfer of heat is via radiation.


BOILING - is the method of cooking food in boiling water, or other water-based liquids such as stock or milk. Simmering is gentle boiling In poaching the cooking liquid moves but with minimal size of bubbles. Boiling relies on convection of liquids for transfer of heat.

BAKING- is a method of cooking food that uses prolonged dry heat, normally in an oven, but also in hot ashes, or on hot stones. The primary source of heat is radiation. Fans within the oven will increase cooking times via convection of the air.

BROILING- is cooking by exposing food directly to radiant heat. Broiling differs from roasting and baking in that the food is turned during the process so as to cook one side at a time.

STEAM--Steaming works by boiling water continuously, causing it to vaporize into steam; the steam then carries heat to the nearby food, thus cooking the food. The food is kept separate from the boiling water but has direct contact with the steam, resulting in a moist texture to the food.

PAN FRYING- Pan frying is a form of frying characterized by the use of minimal cooking oil or fat (compared to shallow frying or deep frying); typically using just enough oil to lubricate the pan. In pan frying or sauteing the intensity of the flame and type of pan used is critical.

DEEP FRY-- Cooking in oil has many advantages and is a fast method. Oil not only reaches much higher cooking temperatures than water but also it has a lower "specific heat capacity than water". This will allow it to heat up much quicker than water.

PRESSURE COOKING--Pressure cooking is the process of cooking food, using water or other cooking liquid, in a sealed vessel, known as a pressure cooker. Pressure cookers are used for cooking food faster than conventional cooking methods, which also saves energy. The increased pressure under a sealed environment allows for higher temperatures.

MICROWAVE COOKING-A microwave oven cooks food because the "water molecules inside it absorb the microwave radiation" and thereby heat up and heat the surrounding food.

COMBI OVEN-- is an oven with three functions: convection, steam and combination cooking.Combi ovens in the convection mode, the oven circulates dry heat. The steam mode injects water into the oven to keep the food moist

SOUS VIDE- In sous vide cooking food is vacuum sealed in a plastic bag and then cooked in water that is a specific temperature. Heat is transferred from the water to food via conduction. Sous vide devices that have the ability to circulate the water (convection) are more effective.

Readings and References

Heat Transfer and Cooking -- Cooking for Engineers

Science of Pressure Cooking

Why is Humidity Important in Cooking

Cast Iron Cooking

Cooking with a Blowtorch

Cooking Fish in a Microwave


Greenmarket Recipes

Recipes using local
Greenmarket Ingredients


Culinary Schools


U.S. Culinary Schools

Questions or Comments?

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