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When I need to know if a pan is above or below 100 Celsius but don't have a thermometer handy, I squirt some water on it. Say I want to check for another temperature, e.g. for the Maillard reaction or killing Trichinella parasites.

What are some ways for estimating other specific temperatures? How accurate are they?

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3 Answers 3

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Well, when you're just below the smoke point of an oil, it'll shimmer ... but that's only useful if you know what the smoke point for that oil is, and you actually want to use oil for cooking.

I can't remember if it was an episode of Good Eats or on Alton Brown's first book that he recommended that if you had an automatic ice maker, so had consistent sized ice cubes, that you time how long it takes them to melt at different temperatures, so you could use that to judge how hot a grill is.

For grilling, and campfire cooking, I've always gone with the hand near the cooking surface to gauge how hot it is, but I don't know that it's all that accurate ... and people have a different tolerance for pain, so you'd have to do some tests to calibrate. It doesn't work as well for cooking on a stove; I think it requires a more radiant heat source.

For frying, I like the wooden spoon test -- dip something wooden into the fire, and as there's moisture in the wood, you should see small bubbles form if it's hot enough.

... and then there's always just listening as you add food ... try touching down a piece of whatever you're cooking, and if it doesn't sizzle, the pan might not be hot enough yet, if you're attempting to sear it.

If I need warm water for bread, I'll run the hot tap against the inside of m wrist ... once it feels slightly warm, but not hot, it should be good.

None of these are going to be completely precise, but there's lots of ways to gauge temperature other than a thermometer.

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You can get a remote-sensing thermometer (they have a laser that shines on the object to show you where you're pointing it). They read reasonably accurately without touching the heated object, and come in various sensitivities. Mine reads as high as 700 degrees F, but there are cheaper ones that don't go as high.

Apart from that, I would think you'll always be just estimating and not very accurately at that.

Don't forget also that the temperature of your cooking surface must be higher than strictly required for the Maillard reaction. If the meat needs to get to 155C for it to occur, you will probably need to heat your pan higher to account for heat lost to the meat on contact.

And for killing bacteria, you may also need to get the entire piece of food to the required temp, so a regular food thermometer is a better bet than trying to measure the heat of the pan.

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I recently got an infrared thermometer and now that I have it, can't imagine how I lived without it. You can get a decent one cheap and they're useful for so much more than just pan/food temperature - I use mine to regularly check the temperature differences between the top and bottom of my fridge, freezer, and oven, as well as computer equipment, air vents in the house, and tap water temperature. Also, great suggestion on a food thermometer, for many meats (poultry, for example) you need to know the interior temperature and there's no other way to know for sure. –  stephennmcdonald Feb 16 '11 at 22:20
    
I love my infrared thermo too. I probably use it the most to check that my pizza stone is up to temperature when preheating the oven. –  bikeboy389 Feb 16 '11 at 22:28
    
I've always assumed that infrared thermometers were terribly expensive and never tried. Looks like they are not! Anyway, I was interested in ways of finding the temperature when I don't have a thermometer handy. Even if I had one, I wouldn't carry it with me wherever I went. –  user4697 Feb 16 '11 at 22:58
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I guess, then, that my extended point that knowing the temperature of your surface won't help much in actual cooking is probably the operative part. There's a lot of latitude there, and "hot enough" is probably all you really need--and guesswork is fine for that. –  bikeboy389 Feb 16 '11 at 23:19

Here's one example: The Rouxbe cooking school has a video lesson demonstrating how to check that a pan is at the right temperature for pan frying to prevent the food from sticking to the pan. Their method is to make use of the Leidenfrost effect. The effect is that as the pan heats up, at some point a drop of water put into the pan no longer immediately evaporates, but forms a ball that glides on the surface of the pan. The video is also available on YouTube:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CB-SCA1reqE

This may be reliable enough for the intended goal of preventing the food from sticking to the pan, but I'm not sure whether this indicates a very specific temperature, as it says on Wikipedia:

The temperature at which the Leidenfrost effect begins to occur is not easy to predict. Even if the volume of the drop of liquid stays the same, the Leidenfrost point may be quite different, with a complicated dependence on the properties of the surface, as well as any impurities in the liquid. Some research has been conducted into a theoretical model of the system, but it is quite complicated. As a very rough estimate, the Leidenfrost point for a drop of water on a frying pan might occur at 190 °C (374 °F).

It certainly looks cool though.

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My mom would always use that as a test when cooking pancakes ... but don't ever do this for non-stick, as you don't want to preheat a non-stick pan dry. –  Joe Feb 18 '11 at 12:17

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