Many people prefer certain dishes and drinks to be hot (or cold). I can understand the impact it has on mouthfeel for some foods (cold pizza has a very different texture than hot pizza, for example), but for liquids like soup and coffee that doesn't seem to be a factor. But both of these are often seen as disgusting when they're at room temperature.

Why do we prefer food at a certain temperature? Is it just conditioning? Does it impact taste? Is there some physiological reason?

(Obviously, some foods, like ice cream, can only exist at certain temperatures. This isn't what I'm asking about)

  • 1
    To some extent you like what you are used to. We grow up with certain foods prepared a certain way, and these are passed from generation to generation. Given that, keep in mind that before ~100 years ago there was no refrigeration, and various preparations such as cooking and preserving were matters of food safety and storing foods for the off-season. – user3169 Aug 26 at 5:26
  • Most of our food needs to be prepared at a certain elevated temperature to make it safe to eat. Even if it was properly cooked and was safe to eat, you cannot be sure it is safe to eat when cold. Heating it up again does kill bacteria. – Johannes_B Aug 26 at 11:27
up vote 9 down vote accepted

I'm assuming you're asking why food is often served hot, not why food is often cooked. Cooking can obviously have a major transformation on food. While people often debate whether cold pizza is better than hot pizza, I haven't heard anyone arguing uncooked pizza is the best.

The main reason why foods are often served hot is because higher temperatures increase our perception of taste. However since this increase not uniform across different compounds it can also alter the balance of tastes increasing some more than others, possibly creating a better or worse overall flavour. Temperature can affect how the texture of foods is perceived and even the amount of pain felt when eating spicy hot foods.

Probably the easiest way to test this yourself is would be to compare either soup or coffee served hot as normal and cooled down in a refrigerator. You should notice when served cold the soup has less flavour, and the coffee is noticeably less bitter.

Another thing to try would be beer. It's hard not to notice the difference between an ice cold beer and a room temperature one. While most people prefer their beer as cold as possible, the recommended temperature for craft and specialty beers is often somewhere in the cool range. That's so you actually taste the beer you spent more money on.

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    To add to the point about taste uniformity - most of the foods we consume hot have been developed that way, so it's no surprise that most people think they taste best while hot. I'd suggest that the biggest reason many foods are served hot in the first place is because otherwise you'd have to wait for them to cool after cooking. – logophobe Aug 27 at 15:10

Taste can definitely be influenced by temperature. It's easy to experiment. Cook something, eat half of it at the intended temperature, then chill the rest and eat that. Notice the difference. Then repeat that with a dish that doesn't require heating. Eat half of it cold, then heat the rest and eat that. Notice the difference.

Which of these flavours you prefer is probably in part cultural, part personal preference.

If you mean why we started heating our food in the first place, it's largely to do with food hygiene. Cooking meat and plant material kills a lot of the harmful bacteria in it, meaning you're less likely to come down with food poisoning. Freezing has a similar effect, but is far harder to achieve in most climates in a pre-technological society (even in Europe for example, ice was a very expensive luxury in summer until around the 1940s and the advent of electrical freezers. The only ice people had was what was stored in underground ice cellars during winter after being hacked out of rivers and lakes, and slowly melted during the year.

Another reason, one probably discovered by accident in many cases, is that some plants (and probably animals) that are poisonous/toxic before cooking can be safely consumed if heated to a high enough temperature for long enough. This increases the selection of available nutrition, which can be very important for survival as groups grow in size.

By heating or cooking food, you increase the caloric value. Nutrients become available that would otherwise remain locked up.

Sources: https://www.quora.com/Does-warm-food-contain-more-calories-than-cold-ones

Furthermore, if we eat or drink a substance colder than our body core temperature, our body has it to heat it ourselves to 38c/100F. This means cold food will request more calories (or extract heat from your body) than warm food.

  • "By heating or cooking food, you increase the caloric value. Nutrients become available that would otherwise remain locked up." These statement are not entirely true across the board. Heat is energy and remains energy, not added calories you consume. And while some nutrients increase, others are greatly reduced by heating. And while your last statement (about cold substances) is technically true, the amount is negligible. Kind of like the celery thing where the claim is made that it takes more energy to eat it than you get from it. – Cindy Aug 27 at 12:50

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