Ever noticed how certain foods seem to get a lot hotter than others? I almost never burn my tongue or mouth... except on tomatoes; Pizza sauce, tomatoes in panini sandwiches or spaghetti sauce.

Tomatoes always seem to get hotter and retain their heat longer than almost any other food I've encountered. And they are nearly always the culprit when I succeed in burning my mouth.

Why would that be? Is there something about their chemistry that causes them to have a higher heat capacity? Do they hold their heat longer? Or is it simply a figment of my imagination and bad luck with hot tomatoes?

  • There's a later duplicate on Physics. – msh210 Nov 14 '12 at 7:31
  • @msh210 How is it a dupe if it's later? – MikeTheLiar Dec 12 '12 at 0:53
  • @Mong134, it's a dupe in that it asks much the same question. I don't understand the last three words of your question. – msh210 Dec 12 '12 at 1:05
  • @msh210 This question was asked almost two years before the other (Physics) one. That question is a dupe of this one, not vice verse. It occurs to me now that is what you meant all along, if that is the case, then ignore my comment. – MikeTheLiar Dec 12 '12 at 2:50
  • Which is the dupe and which is the original is NEVER based on date. The one with the answers is kept and the other marked as a dupe. If both have answers they can be merged. None of which applies here because cross site dupes aren't a thing. – Kate Gregory Feb 24 '16 at 13:33
up vote 35 down vote accepted

Another physics digression.

All cooked food gets hot, and everything in any given dish will have the same temperature {*}. The tomatoes don't get hotter than the other ingredients. But they do have a tendency to burn more than certain other substances, so the question is "Why?".

You get burned when a portion of your flesh reaches a high enough temperature{+}. The food warms your tongue, lips, etc. by heat conduction until either you move the food or your mouth parts and the food reach the same temperature (a condition known as thermal equilibrium). What that common temperature is depends on the amount of heat (i.e. thermal energy) in the system. Some of the factors that come into play are:

  • How much (mass of) food there is.
  • How much (mass of) your mouth is involved (see below).
  • The initial temperature of the food.
  • The "heat capacity" of both the food and your mouth parts, which is a property of each substance that appears as a coefficient in the thermal equilibrium equation. (Don't worry, I'm not going to make you read any math.) Water has a (very!) high heat capacity, so watery foods tend to drive high final temperature and thus to burn you more easily. There is an added complication for the extra heat needed to establish a phase change (i.e. melt solids or vaporize liquids) called the heat of fusion or heat of vaporization. Again water has a high value for both of these numbers.

How fast the common temperature is reached depends on

  • The area of contact between the food and the mouth.
  • Another coefficient called the thermal conductivity. This one is complicated, but liquids tend to have a high thermal conductivity and solids less so. This is where soups, sauces, and melted cheese really get you. Note that your mouth parts has a pretty low thermal conductivity, so you only get to count the surface layers in finding the equilibrium temperature. Sorry.

Some consequences of all this:

  • This is why you can peel the aluminum foil off of a pan that has just come out of a 400 degree (F) oven without trouble, but if you get your hand stuck in the steam plume (which is only around 212 degrees F) you get scalded: Aluminum has a low heat capacity, and steam has a (very, very!) high one.
  • Small bites help in two ways: less total heat means a lower common temperature, and may allow you to move the food around in your mouth, reducing the temperature of any one part.
  • Some foods are just dangerous this way. You know what they are from experience: steam, hot soups and sauces, melted cheese, etc.

{*} Well, sort of. But take that as true for any particular region of any particular dish.
{+} What temperature is that? Good question. Maybe there is a medical professional around, 'cause I don't know. I'd guess around 140--150 degrees F (call it 60--65 degrees C), but don't quote me.

  • 1
    That could have come out of my old physics textbook. Well done. – Sobachatina Aug 29 '10 at 22:02
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    Look at this link for temperatures: rochesterhills.org/city_services/fire_department/… – Wizard79 Aug 29 '10 at 22:33
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    @dmckee Great answer. I was a physics major and am aware of water's extra high heat capacity. However, it has a relatively low boiling point. And in my experience, boiling water will cool off pretty quickly -- take a spoonful of soup or tea and blow a couple of times and you're good to go usually. So I wonder if there's something about tomatoes that either raises the boiling point of the water contained, or prevents it from cooling as quickly. Any ideas? – Daniel Bingham Aug 30 '10 at 10:52
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    Mixing almost anything with mater will change the boiling point slightly, but I suspect the deal is that you can't get access to most of the mass of an object like a tomato to blow on it. It has to cool by conduction, which is pretty slow. Especially a biological stuff (like tomatoes and people) tends to have a low coefficient of thermal conductivity. – dmckee Aug 30 '10 at 11:23
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    The temperature your flesh has to reach is going to be more complicated than just a constant. It depends greatly on how long its held at that temperature. Similar to how bacteria reduction is both time- and temperature-dependent. @Lorenzo: 130°F is way too high, they're just figuring that you'll pull your hand out before getting a burn. – derobert Aug 31 '10 at 22:37

It is simply water content. Water has a much higher heat capacity than anything else we eat. You might think fats have a higher heat capacity, but that is an illusion - they can get much hotter because they don't boil at 100 C, but they hold considerably less heat than water in a given quantity. Tomatoes are almost all water, thus they can burn your mouth quite easily.

  • Water has a much higher heat capacity that pretty much anything full stop. And the heat of vaporization is just insane, which is why steam is such a risk. – dmckee Aug 29 '10 at 20:43
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    Hmm, now I wonder how hot could be a steamed watermelon! – Wizard79 Aug 29 '10 at 22:29
  • Great answer, but I'm a physics major so I'm a sucker for a good physics based answer ;) – Daniel Bingham Aug 30 '10 at 10:48
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    @dmckee - you should try cooking on a griddle made of neutron star material sometime! – Michael Natkin Aug 30 '10 at 21:47

@Michael touched on a big part of it -- tomatoes are mostly water, and the specific heat of water is rather high. (the specific heat of salt water is even higher).

But in the case of pizza, there's another issue -- melted cheese is a good insulator. So, you bring up the temperature of the sauce to near boiling, but then the cheese keeps it from cooling off. And for microwaved pizza, it's even worse, because it's the fat and water that are excited the most by microwaves, so the pizza ends up heating from the inside (sauce layer) out.

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    True that. :) ...Extra characters... – Daniel Bingham Aug 30 '10 at 12:00
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    I'm worried about your 450°F pizza sauce. You use charcoal as pizza sauce? (Remember, to get above ~212°F, all water needs to be gone. By 450, things are burning.) – derobert Aug 31 '10 at 22:39
  • @derobert : good point ... 450F oven wouldn't get the sauce that hot, unless you had an autoclave. – Joe Sep 1 '10 at 2:24

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