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Cooking 101: Heat Levels and Cooking Speed

For our second installment of the Cooking 101 series one reader asked that I talk a bit about heat levels on the stove and cooking speed. She said that she has always wondered what the different levels mean and how to know if you are doing it right.

So let’s dig in!


The first thing that is important to note is that many stoves nowadays have different burners that have different levels of power. Usually you have one or two that are the most powerful and is labeled with a term like “power boil” or “high output.” These are the burners that you are going to want to use for bringing things to a boil, frying, and cooking on high. These burners are not good for low and slow simmering as usually their lowest setting will leave your food cooking just a little too fast. Then there is usually one burner that is less strong and labeled something along the lines of “low output” or “simmer.” This is the burner you are going to want to use if you are supposed to cook something at a simmer for a long period time or if you are going to want to cook something on low. This burner will not be good for the higher heat cooking because either it will take a much longer time (like bringing a pot of water to a boil) or it just won’t get hot enough.

But what if a recipe goes through different levels of heat? Let’s say a recipe asks you to start out on a higher heat to bring something to a boil and then turn it down to a low heat. Usually, all of that can be done on one burner. For these, I tend to use my stronger or medium level burners and follow the recipes directions for high heat, medium-high heat, or low-heat. I do not use my low-level burner for these.

A note on electric stoves: electric stoves can be really tough when you need to change heat levels as they are much slower to respond than gas stoves are. So, one trick is to use different burners. For instance, if you need to first sauté something and then turn it to low or bring something to a boil and then turn it down to a simmer, start with one burner and then switch to another for the low part.

Ok, but what do those heat levels mean? So here’s my rule of thumb for the different heat levels, but please know that everyone’s stoves are different so there may be some testing out that you need to do.

High Heat: right at the top of the heat level. This is what you will use for bringing liquids to a boil and getting the heat up quickly.

Medium-High Heat: This is usually around the mid-point on the dial. The idea here is that you still want the food to be cooking quite quickly, but not so quickly that it is burning and not so hot that the oil starts to smoke. This is likely where you will do a lot of your cooking such as sautéing, browning meat, and frying.

Medium Heat: This is usually about 2/3 of the way around towards Low. This is for a gentler cooking. This is where you will likely put the dial when vegetables need time to soften or when you want a rapid simmer.

Low Heat: This is all the way around on the dial. This is where you simmer.

stove flame

The other thing I will say about this topic, is that, like many things in cooking, over time and with practice you will start to get a sense of things. Maybe you will notice that your onions are browning too quickly, then you’ll know to turn it down a little more next time. Or maybe you’ll find your sauce didn’t reduce as quickly as they said it would, then maybe you need to crank it up a bit to a faster simmer next time. For me, there were many times when my onions got too browned, the sauce stuck to the bottom of the pot, and the rice didn’t fully cook and it was usually that my heat was cranked up too high (yes, I have an impatient streak), so I had to learn to slow things down.

Do you have a tricky stove or have you found tricks to help you regulate the heat accurately? I’d love to hear your ideas and experiences!

And, please, let me know what topics you would like me to cover in future Cooking 101 posts!

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