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Both baking and roasting refer to cooking things in the oven. The only foodstuff I am aware of that can be either baked or roasted is potatoes, and the distinction is that roast potatoes are cooked in fat/oil while baked are cooked "dry".

Meat is always roasted, but that comes with its own fat. Vegetables are always roasted, even when cooked without fat, or even alongside baked potatoes treating them identically (eg. squash). Cakes and bread are always baked, and are not generally cooked in oil.

Is there any particular rule about what makes cooking in an oven roasting or baking, or is it one of those english words for which logic does not apply?

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I hazard a guess the two words exist side by side similar to how we have pig and pork, cow and beef, sheep and mutton. The animals themselves are Germanic words of the earlier inhabitants of England. The cooked meats have the French names of the later Norman settlers.

In French the words for animals and meats are the same. Similar to how in English the word chicken can refer to the live animal or the meat from the same.

For the same reason we have the functionally identical words Bake which is a Germanic word, and Roast is the French equivalent.

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I don’t know if there’s a true separation, as they’re fuzzy categories. (Ie, the edge isn’t a hard separation)

They’re both applications of dry heat, but baking typically assumes it’s in a relatively contained vessel (an oven, which may have a door or other way to access it that doesn’t close).

Roasting can be done over a fire, such as a rotisserie, in a fairly open environment. (It’s also worth noting that a ‘pot roast’ is braised, not roasted, as ‘roast’ also refers to a large hunk of meat)

Roasting implies high heat. It’s never done over low heat. As such it usually implies browning the surface of the food.

Baking tends to be a more controlled heat. The vessel mentioned earlier tends to be clay, metal, or other material with thermal mass so that the heat being applied can remain constant.

Roasting tends to have a high proportion of radiant heat, while baking tends to be more heat from the air (either conductive or convective)

Roasting implies fat to some degree, but it might be coated in fat or oil (such as potatoes), or just a hunk of meat dripping its own fat as it renders. But you can also brush butter onto bread before baking, so this isn’t a clear boundary.

Roasting also tends to be more hands-on. You have to baste, or flip or stir items while it’s cooking.

Baking usually implies that something is cooked all the way through. Although there are dishes that intentionally aren’t (such as ‘lava cakes’), we have expressions such as ‘half-baked’ to describe things that weren’t done correctly. Roasting can brown the outside of vegetables while leaving it crisp in the middle, or cook meat to medium rare.

… and then we get into the even fuzzier issues.

People often assume that baking a batter or dough being cooked (cakes, breads, cookies, or what we collectively call ‘baked goods’, although that category also includes pies and things that may be filled or otherwise processed after baking). And this potentially includes techniques that are closer to roasting (such as a creme brûlée, broiling a meringue)

So… baked Alaska is roasted, not baked.

I’m not sure if naan is baked or roasted. And I would say that campfire bread (wrapped around a stick, then cooked near the fire) is roasted.

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  • And I should have mentioned: these are the differences that I’m aware of in the mid-Atlantic area of the United States, and based on usage on American cooking shows. I’m not aware of there being differences in British or other English dialects, but We would likely need native speakers to confirm if these terms are polysemous between British / Australian / etc
    – Joe
    Jun 16, 2022 at 0:54

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