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Recipes call for cooking food over varying amounts of heat on the stove burners - medium, medium-high, low, etc. How can I compare what the person who wrote the recipe calls "medium" with what (I think) is "medium" on my stove?

With baking, it's easy because 400F in your oven is the same as 400F in my oven. But medium on your burner may be different from medium on my burner (or my burner may be labeled 1-10, and 5 may be different than your medium). Even on my own stove, the four burners are all different sizes and the flame on one is a different size than the flame on the rest, even if the knobs are all turned to 5. How can I ensure I'm using the right amount of heat on the burners?

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    If you really want to measure things, get an infrared thermometer that can tell you how hot your pan is. (Note that if you have a thin pan, adding something heavy and cold, like a piece of meat, will cool it down rapidly. This is why "retained heat" is something you want. Heaving pans tend to "retain more heat," meaning simply that they don't cool down or heat up as easily.) – flies Mar 22 '18 at 17:02
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    "With baking, it's easy because 400F in your oven is the same as 400F in my oven." Only when measured using the same oven thermometer. I know for a fact that you can't trust the dial setting on most ovens (the analog ones at least). I move from apartment to apartment fairly often and I carry an oven thermometer from place to place so I can "calibrate" my cooking temperatures to the variance between the setting on the dial and the actual temperature of the oven. – Todd Wilcox Mar 22 '18 at 20:23
  • @ToddWilcox - I can assure you that the digital readouts on ovens are no better, and in some cases worse. When my oven hits the target temperature, it simply reports that number forever, lying about the actual interior temperature (which obviously moves up and down) – Michael Kohne Mar 23 '18 at 15:46
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It is not a property of the stove (or the markings on it). Words like "medium heat" actually refer to the speed at which your food is cooking, and there are a lot of factors which contribute to that. Beyond the energy output of your burners, there is the type of stove (electric, gas, induction), the thermodynamic properties of your pan, the relation of pan size to burner size, how you preheated the pan, the amount of food you put in the pan, the quality of your raw ingredients, and other such stuff. So you cannot calculate it or compare it.

The only way to "calibrate" is to observe how your food is cooking. I can only give you very rough guidelines, since the words are not (and cannot) be defined precisely. "Slow heat" is the setting at which the food can be left alone for at least several minutes without much risk of burning. "High heat" is the setting at which you end up with a very crisp/charred outside and raw-ish middle. "Medium" is somewhere in the middle between the extremes.

Any of these will tend to correspond to a somewhat narrow range of stove settings, because when the same person cooks in the same kitchen, there is rarely too much variation in the other variables of the process (which make it so diverse in general). So you have to be able to recognize the current level of "heat" when you cook (I was tempted to say "by looking", but it actually also involves smell and hearing and sense of time). Once you see that your food is cooking at "medium", you can see which setting you are using, and after a few trys with your own stove you will know which setting to try the next time you cook.

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    Some years ago I had a recipe that called for toasting garlic cloves on the lowest possible heat. I don't think they realized that some electric stoves are capable of extremely low heat: the garlic wasn't even warm after the recommended time. – Joshua Engel Mar 22 '18 at 18:27
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Fortunately, temperatures don't usually need to be as precise in stovetop cooking as in baking. When you do need precise temperatures, you can stick a thermometer in the pan. This can be useful for tempering chocolate, scalding milk, deep frying, candy making, etc.

The real problem with stovetop heat settings is that the knob on your stove only controls one of many variables that affect the temperature of your ingredients. Other important variables include the materials used to make the pan, the thickness of those materials, the height to diameter ratio of the pan, how full the pan is, the water content of the ingredients, whether it's covered or not, agitation of the ingredients due to convection or stirring, etc. You really just need look, listen, and fiddle with the knob until it's right. It will get easier as you get used to your stove, pans, and recipes.

You can eliminate some of the guesswork by matching the burner size to the pan size. Also, most of the recipes I've used seem to have been written for gas stoves, which tend to deliver heat at a faster rate the electric versions. So, if you have an electric stove, plan on turning it up a bit higher than what the recipe calls for.

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Judging stovetop heat is difficult which is why many just learn the stove tops they uses.

I believe your asking about the heat output, in BTUs, of a burner. As electric stoves usually have a slower response, as the "coils" heat up or cool down I assume the coils are at their final temperature. I'm not sure on heat response on newer electric burners (induction or other technologies).

You can get a proxy of a BTU by using the same pan and a measure of "room temp" water (1/4 cup). Once the burner is at its full power place the pan and water on the burner and time how long it takes to boil. Note the time. Let the pan cool and replace the water. This can help you calibrate a small burner to a large burner on the same stove top. A little harder when calibrating your stove with a friends this way, unless they agree to perform the same test.

I did see, but can't find it now, one magazines temperature calibration using a similar process. Their stoves were set so that a Medium in their recipes, was 5 on their stoves, which would start to boil X cups of water a pan Y inch pan in Z minutes. I don't remember what magazine was and can't find a similar calibration.

  • I would suggest refining this test by using refrigerated water (should be around the same temperature every time), taking the temp of the water beforehand, and weighing the amount of water instead of using volume. – Todd Wilcox Mar 22 '18 at 20:25
  • Using room temperature water should work as well. Set the tap as close to room temp as possible, fill a set amount, then let it sit out for a couple hours (depending on the volume of water). – music2myear Mar 22 '18 at 20:59
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You could use a contact less thermometer to check your burner temperature.

But that would not help you deciding what is the temperature that a medium setting is.

The burner size exists mostly to fit different pan sizes; use a burner size as close as possible to your pan size to not loose efficiency.

Oh, and an oven temperature is never precise either; even if the display says 400F, the inside might be above or below, you need to use a thermometer to verify your oven temperature;

for example you might find that at lower temperature settings, your oven runs warmer (for example from 100F to 250F it runs lower than what is displayed, and after that, from 250 up to 500F it runs lower)

  • The burner temperature doesn't correlate very well to the pan temperature because the burner has to be significantly hotter than the pan in order to transfer heat energy quickly, some of the heat energy never makes it into the pan, and much of the pan's heat is lost into the room. – mrog Mar 22 '18 at 17:32
  • Also you'd have to measure the burner area or somehow the effective flame surface area and multiply for the temperature to be meaningful. Much easier to measure the heat output by using the same pot and the same amount of water at the same temperature and time how it heats. – Todd Wilcox Mar 22 '18 at 20:29
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    And (empty) pan temperature does not say much about what how much temperature will drop and how quickly and to what temperature it will climb again if cold ingredients (which can bring additional heat dissipating surfaces, or consume heat either to evaporate water or to feed chemical transformations) are added to it... – rackandboneman Mar 23 '18 at 7:46
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There are ways to measure the energy output of your stove and a given combination of pan and cooking material.

A simple way would be to fill a pan with water at a specific temperature, and then graph the rate of temperature increase at given settings of the burner.

Different burners on your stove have different purposes as well. There is usually one or two larger burners that are for doing most cooking, and a smaller or lower-output burner for warming, and possibly and in-between burner as well for smaller pots.

However, while this information is interesting, it it essentially useless when it comes to what you appear to want: An empirical way to compare your own stove with the stove the recipe anticipates.

I've read plenty of recipes and not one of them has mentioned a specific model of stove.

Without knowing the relative measurements of a target stove your detailed information about your own stove means nothing. It is relative, and there is nothing to compare it to.

This is why most descriptions of stove-top cooking describe the appropriate outcome. This outcome is the standard you are trying to meet, the desired target: the time and temperature are just guidelines that should get you close.

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