Through comments posted in this question, I'd like to expand the commentary on the definition of cooking. Specifically, is heat an essential stipulation?

According to the wiki article on cooking:

Cooking can also occur through chemical reactions without the presence of heat, most notably with ceviche, a traditional South American dish where fish is cooked with the acids in lemon or lime juice.

Another example is cooking with liquid nitrogen. Am I wrong in calling this cooking?

NOTE: I could not find a duplicate question, but please let me know if you find otherwise.

  • 1
    This question might be more suitable for one of the English Language StackExchange sites, anyhow: When someone uses the English verb "cooking" (or in Dutch, my language, "koken") in most contexts I would interpret it as "preparing a meal", regardless of the method (let alone heat). In Dutch the verb "koken" can indicate both the act of "preparing a meal" and the state of a fluid reaching the boiling point, which (AFAIK) is not the case in English. Oct 7 '16 at 17:29
  • While I'm sure folks on English would have helpful things to offer, I do think this kind of question is fine here too. Cooking terminology is part of cooking, and it's reasonable to want answers specifically from people on a cooking site, rather than a general language site.
    – Cascabel
    Oct 7 '16 at 21:55

Neither "yes" nor "no" is a suitable answer to that question.

First, there is no "the definition" of cooking. I am sure you can turn up several formal definitions, and my best guess is that some will require heat and others won't.

Second, and probably more important, humans don't think in definitions. You are asking if a given action belongs to the category "cooking methods". A definition works by ticking off features some element has to have to belong to a category. Real human categories (in everyday thinking, as opposed to formally defined ones in the sciences) depend on the closeness of an element to a prototype element. This closeness is gradual, and there is no demarcation to say where the category ends.

Keeping this in mind, all prototypical forms of cooking clearly involve heat, so the ones which don't involve it have a weaker membership in the "cooking methods" category than those which do. But it is impossible to pronounce whether they fall inside or outside of the category. Different people will answer that question differently, and I suspect that even the same person may give different answers in different contexts.

To make it even more complicated, "apply heat" is not the single thing which makes a food-related action resemble stewing (or whatever you take the prototype cooking method to be). So different things you do to food without heat will have a different grade of belonging to the "cooking" category.

People tend to not be aware of all that, and usually trust their intuition to take one side or the other. So you'll find people on both sides who insist they are right, and can rationalize it with some kind of plausibly sounding argument. Reality is more complicated than that, and if you try to prove one of the sides wrong, you will end up in a flame war going nowhere.

  • Don't agree "all prototypical forms of cooking clearly involve heat". You can cook with an acid. A fish cooked in acid (lemon) versus heat has the same chemical characteristics / tranformations.
    – paparazzo
    Oct 7 '16 at 17:46
  • "Prototypical" elements are the ones which define the category. They are the one which are the "poster children" of the category, which come to mind first, and about which there is no doubt that they belong to the category. Cooking fish in acid is most certainly not a prototypical cooking method, at least in the English language and among the cultures which speak English as a primary language.
    – rumtscho
    Oct 7 '16 at 17:51
  • So now this is about language. Is this site limited to cultures which speak English as a primary language? I bet a majority of English speaking people have had crevice or another acid cooked food. Don't get your sense of logic and not going to argue with you. If you have never had fresh trout crevice out on the water you are missing out.
    – paparazzo
    Oct 7 '16 at 17:58
  • 3
    @Paparazzi prototypical items are the ones that are the most 'typical' of items in a fuzzy category. So, dogs & cats are prototypical mammals; a platypus is not. Likewise, sparrows & hawks are prototypical birds; ostriches and penguins are not. Roasting and sautéing are prototypical cooking techniques. Denaturing through acid, sous vide or fermentation are in the fuzzy boundary -- they're at that point where someone has to think for a second about if it's in the category or different people may have different answers. Because of this, acid is not prototypical, even if is cooking.
    – Joe
    Oct 7 '16 at 20:45

Read that article. They are not cooking with liquid nitrogen they are freezing. If you dropped a chicken in liquid nitrogen you would get a frozen chicken.

Another example is cooking with liquid nitrogen. Am I wrong in calling this cooking?

As a chemical engineer if you define cook as a chemical reaction then yes you are wrong. Freeze is only a state change. If you freeze and melt H2O you get water. Oxidize with an acid is a true chemical reaction.

Traditional cook is oxidation. Heat will oxidize most (if not all) food. Acids will also oxidize and cook. The term acid burn.

Nitrogen is neither an acid or base.


The culinary use of liquid nitrogen is mentioned in an 1890 recipe book titled Fancy Ices authored by Mrs. Agnes Marshall,[14] but has been employed in more recent times by restaurants in the preparation of frozen desserts, such as ice cream, which can be created within moments at the table because of the speed at which it cools food.

  • 1
    -1 for defining cooking as oxidation. I cannot say that no cooking method involves it, but the typical ones do not include it, and when it does happen, it is frequently undesirable. Fats taste unpleasant after oxidation, and vegetable matter looks brown. Heat can even stop the oxidation in vegetables by destroying the enzymes which cause the browning. Also, just because there is one method for food preparation involving acid, this does not mean that every non-heat cooking method must involve acid, so nitrogen's acidity is irrelevant.
    – rumtscho
    Oct 7 '16 at 17:47
  • @rumtscho Not going to get into the chemical definition of oxidation nor your logic with you.
    – paparazzo
    Oct 7 '16 at 17:51
  • 2
    Traditional cooking involves things like cell wall breakdown, starch gelatinization, protein denaturation/coagulation, caramelization, malliard reactions... certainly there are chemical bonds breaking and so on, but are you really saying that all of those are oxidation reactions?
    – Cascabel
    Oct 7 '16 at 19:04
  • @Jefromi But it is always a debate with you so I am not going to start. The stated question is does cooking imply heat and I feel my answer does address that question.
    – paparazzo
    Oct 7 '16 at 19:52

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