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How do you figure out the exact time how long to cook something?

Do you use binary search?

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I like the image of someone putting something in the oven, waiting an hour, taking it out and trying it, then throwing it away when it's overdone, and trying half an hour instead.... and so on. –  Jefromi Aug 18 '11 at 4:11
    
@Jefromi: That's a great way to make sure that your food is almost always over- or under-cooked. –  Aaronut Aug 18 '11 at 13:47
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2 Answers

Cooking is not an "exact science" in my view. You're not always using the "exactly" same temperature, "exactly" the same amount of oil/water, or cooking a cauliflaur of "exactly" the same size as before.

I think that lots of it comes from experience, sometimes you just "know" that something is ready even though you cooked it 30 seconds less long than the last time you prepared it.

EDIT

Expanding on Jefromis comment, I didn't mean to dispute that, of course, you should have an idea of how long you approximately need to cook something. I usually use recipes off the internet or from one of our hundreds of cookery books as a starting point, whenever we try something new for the first time.

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I of course agree - I'm not much for precise timing or measurement. But on the other hand, it sure is nice to know that you need to put each one of those five batches of cookies in the oven for 11 minutes! –  Jefromi Aug 18 '11 at 16:34
    
@Jefromi Sure is, I didn't mean to dispute that in any way. I'm editing my answer to make that more clear. It's just this perception of "exactness", which I found to be almost nonexistant when it comes to cooking. –  takrl Aug 19 '11 at 8:27
    
@Jefromi I've burned more batches of cookies by waiting exactly 11 minutes. Experience tells me to start watching like a hawk at about 8 minutes. (times not at all accurate and are not intended to be taken as guidance) –  Chris Cudmore Aug 19 '11 at 18:30
    
@chris: I don't mean to do that without checking. I mean watch the first batch or two, then for the other four, trust the time that you just calibrated. –  Jefromi Aug 22 '11 at 0:05
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It is very simple.

  1. Note the time you start cooking it, and the flame/power setting/temperature.
  2. Check periodically to see if food is cooked
  3. When food is done: record time and subtract from start time.

If you cook the same dish a few times, you can average it out. A lot of cook times are approximate anyway; you have to check the dish a bit before it should be done to make sure it hasn't cooked faster than expected.

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There is also a touch of opinion. Do you want it 'al dente', done or overdone? –  BaffledCook Aug 18 '11 at 5:43
    
Yeah, it's very much a subjective judgement when something is cooked, even at the professional level. The sous chef wants his potatoes roasted until evenly golden brown, where one line cook likes them with just a few golden spots. –  BobMcGee Aug 18 '11 at 5:54
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