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Alexander B.

Rivera oven" has a fan and an extra heat source near the fan and uses
forced airflow. A convection oven cooks 25% to 30% faster. It's
Thermodynamics T1:00-4:00PM like wind chill in reverse. The moving warm air transfers more
energy that stagnant warm air. In either case, airflow only cooks
The Thermodynamics of Cooking and How Different Cooking
the exterior of the meat, the interior of the meat is cooked by
Methods Work
conduction as the heat travels through it.
"If you saw a heat wave, would you wave back?" Steven Wright
3) Radiation is the transfer of heat by direct exposure to a source
By Meathead Goldwyn of light energy. Put a hot dog on a coat hangar and hold it to the
side of a campfire and you are cooking by radiation. This is how
You may have thought you left physics and chemistry behind most charcoal grills cook.
when you left school, but if you want to eat well, you need to
understand that cooking is all about physics and chemistry, with To be complete, I need to mention that indoors there are two
a little magic mixed in. Here are some foundation concepts every other methods heat is applied for food:
outdoor cook needs to know.
4) Excitation is how microwave ovens work. Microwaves are
What is cooking? Foods are composed mainly of water, fat, radio waves that penetrate the food and vibrate the molecules
protein, and carbohydrates. Cooking is the process of changing inside the hot dog until it gets hot without heating the air around
the chemistry of food usually by transferring energy in the form it. Water in the food heats first in the microwave. Technically,
of heat to the food long enough so that it is safe and digestible, this is a form of radiation. As yet, I haven't seen a grill that cooks
and achieves the desired flavor, texture, tenderness, juiciness, with microwaves.
appearance, and nutrition.
5) Induction is the latest technique for stove tops. A copper coil is
The three ways heat cooks food. Food gets hot when molecules placed under a smooth cooktop and an alternating current is sent
vibrate so fast that their temperature rises. when cooking through the coil creating a rapidly changing electromagnetic
outdoors, heat is transferred to food by three methods. Which field. Electrons in steel or cast iron pots on the cooktop above
one you use is crucial. These processes have been described this the electromagnet are jostled by the rapidly changing
way: magnetism, but they resist and the resistance heats the pot. The
pot then transfers the heat to the food without the cooktop or
Conduction is when your lover's body is pressed against yours. the air around it getting hot. Induction is the most efficient way
to convert energy to heat on a cooktop, and it very responsive to
Convection is when your lover blows in your ear.
the control knob, but it does not work with aluminum, glass, or
Radiation is when you feel the heat of your lover's body under copper pots.
the covers without touching.
The difference between heat and temperature
Let's be a bit more precise:
Put an empty frying pan and pot of water in a 200F oven for an
1) Conduction is when heat is transferred to the food by direct hour. Open the door and stick your hand in the warm air of the
contact with the heat source. Cooking a hot dog in a pan is oven and count how long you can hold your hand in there.
conduction. Heat from the burner is transferred to the pan Perhaps a minute? Then plunge one hand in the 200F water and
whose molecules vibrate, and pass the vibe on to the wiener. As place the other hand on the frying pan. After you get back from
the surface of the meat gets hotter than the interior, the heat the hospital, ponder the fact that not everything that is 200F
transfers to the center through the moisture and fats. That's also transfers energy at the same rate.
conduction. Grill marks are a good example of conduction. Heat
Cooking by convection air in a hot oven is a lot slower than by
is transferred to the grill grates and the hot metal brands the
conduction from a pan because steel is 8,000 times more dense
meat.
(it has more molecules in a cubic inch) than air which conducts
2) Convection is when heat is carried to the food by a fluid such heat at 1/50 the rate of steel. You can speed the process a bit by
as air, water, or oil. Cooking a hot dog in your kitchen oven adding a fan to the oven and moving the air around as is done in
where it is surrounded by hot air is convection cooking. So is a "convection oven", but all ovens are really convection ovens.
boiling it in water, or deep frying it in oil (you really need to try a Water is more dense than air and it holds more energy so it
deep fried hot dog once). If you get one side of your grill hot and cooks faster than in the oven, and oil cooks faster still.
put the food on the other side, it is cooked by natural convection
According to the AmazingRibs.com science advisor, Prof. Greg
airflow. Most gas grills cook by convection. A conventional indoor
Blonder, "Temperature measures the average energy of each
oven uses natural convection airflow to cook, but a "convection
atom. Heat is the total for all atoms. It's like money. If the are ready. But for most meats, there is no substitute for knowing
average income in the US is $40,000 per family, the total wages precisely what temp the food is.
are in the trillions."
How heat moves within meat
Also, radiant heat delivers more energy than convection heat.
Let's say you have two gas grills. On one grill, the two burners on The most important thing to understand is that when you put
the right side are on full and two burners on the left are turned food in an enclosed vessel like a grill, smoker, or an oven, the hot
off. The air temp on the left side, the indirect heat side, might be air, which has lots of vibrating molecules, transfers some of its
325F as convection flow of air from the right side circulates over energy to the exterior of the meat. The energy in the air excites
the left side. Let's put a steak and a big honkin prime rib roast on the molecules on the surface of the meat and then they transfer
the left, indirect side. heat to the molecules inside it and so on, slowly passing the
energy towards the center of the meat like a wave of heat. It
On the second grill you have all four burners on medium and the takes time because meat is about 75% water, and water is a good
air temp on the both sides is also 325F. Let's put a steak and a insulator, especially when trapped inside muscle. The heat moves
roast on this grill too. The steak's bottom will brown better on inward because physics dictates the the meat seeks equilibrium
the second grill because it is above direct radiant heat which is in an effort to make the temperature the same from edge to
imparting more energy than the first grill where the heat is from edge. So most of the meat is cooked by the meat, not by the air.
convection air. But by the time the roast is done, it will be
blacker than a mourning hat. edges cook faster

more charcoals means more heat


Heat also cooks points and corners more because it can attack on
multiple fronts. That's why the brownies and lasagna in the
On a charcoal grill, you can increase energy simply by increasing corners are crunchier. And bones heat at a different rate than
the number of coals. The distance from the energy source is also muscle tissue because they are filled with air or fat, so in most
an important factor. Energy dissipates as you move away from cases they warm more slowly than the rest of the meat. Click
the heat source. In a $800 grill made of ceramics the heat source here to read more about the effect bones have on cooking and
may be 2' from the cooking surface while on an $89 Weber Kettle have some myths debunked.
the charcoal is only 4" away, and on a $30 Hibachi the coals may
be as little as 1" away. The walls of a ceramic cooker are thick, When you remove the meat from the heat, it continues to seek
they absorb huge amounts of heat, and then release it evenly equilibrium and continues to cook because the heat built up in
making a very efficient oven with very steady cooking temps and the outer layers of the meat continues to be passed down
very low fuel use. Perfect for roasts. But a steak on the cooking towards the center while some is escaping into the air and
surface will not brown as well as on the Weber or even the cooling the exterior. This phenomenon is called carryover
Hibachi because the coals are so far away and because much of cooking.
the heat comes from the ceramic side walls and dome, not
A thick piece of meat such as a turkey breast might rise as much
glowing radiant hot coals right below the meat.
as 10F in about 15 minutes after removing it from the grill
When is food ready to eat? because of carryover. A thinner piece of meat such as a thick
steak might only rise a couple of degrees, and chicken breast may
Food is ready to eat when it is safe and the target temperature is not rise at all. This is important to know this because 5 to 10F
reached. A medium rare steak is 130 to 135F in the center can make the difference between moist turkey and cardboard, a
regardless of how thick, how much it weighs, or what medium rare steak and a drier medium steak. To compensate,
temperature it is cooked at. The single best way to tell if it is time use a good digital thermometer and remove thick cuts of meat
to eat is with an accurate digital thermometer. You cannot tell by about 5F below your target temp.
poking the meat unless you're a pro who has cooked the same
steaks on the same grill for years. The single thing you can do to Thickness is more important than weight
improve your cooking is to get a good digital instant read meat
The temperature of your food moves slowly upward during
thermometer. The second most important thing you can do is get
cooking, but the thickness of the meat is a major factor in how
a good digital oven thermometer.
long it takes to get the center to the desired temperature. A thin
OK, some foods are hard to read with thermometers. You don't steak cooks faster than a thick steak. And a 5" thick prime rib
need a thermometer to tell when asparagus is ready, and that weighs 8 pounds will be done in the same time as a 5" thick
because of all the bones it is almost impossible to tell when ribs prime rib that weighs 12 pounds. So any recipe that says "cook
your steak for three minutes per side" without specifying the
thickness of the steak, is seriously flawed. Likewise any recipe tenderize the meat, and (4) it permits the meat to heat evenly so
that says "cook your roast 30 minutes per pound" is suspect. the center and exterior are similar in temperature.

About boiling temps and how they impact cooking If you soak wood chips in water, as many books recommend, first
of all they won't absorb much (that's why boats are built from
Another important concept to know is that when liquid is heated, wood), but when you toss them on the coals, the wood stays a
its temp will increase until it hits its boiling temp and not go any cool 212F until the water boils off. It cannot smoke until it hits a
higher. So no matter how high we turn the burners under a pot much higher temp, so soaking wood chips so they will smolder
of water, the water will not get hotter than 212F (at sea level). If better is just another old husband's tale. Click here to read more
we have a sauce made with water and olive oil it will heat to the on soaking wood.
boiling temp of water until all the water boils off, and then rise to
the boiling temp of the oil, which is usually over 500F depending One other thing about the boiling point: It changes as you move
on the type of oil. Usually, before oil boils, it starts to smoke, and up or down from sea level. At sea level, a pot of water on a flame
then it bursts into flames. has a column of air sitting on top of it that weight 14.7 pounds
per square inch (psi). At 5,000 feet it's only 12.3 psi, so water
This phenomenon comes into play in many aspects of cooking. vapor has less resistance when it tries to escape. As a result, the
When you simmer or boil a home made barbecue sauce, because boiling point is lower and leavening gases in breads and cakes
the water cannot exceed 212F, you warm everything evenly expand more quickly. The impact on grilling or smoking is
without burning the ingredients (if you stir it so it doesn't stick to minimal, although there can be higher humidity in a smoker
the bottom and dry out). If you simmer potatoes the starches on during a long cook and that can cool the meat slowing the
the inside get soft and the outside doesn't burn as it might on a process, but not a lot, and it can be offset because natural
grill. humidity can be lower at altitude. But altitude can have a
profound effect on braising and other wet cooking methods. It
Steam can form at a lower temperature than 212F as molecules
can even impact slow cookers, microwaves, and frying. For more
of water get hot and escape the surface as the water warms.
on the subject, read this by Colorado State University.
That's why we see water vapor escaping a pot of water before it
boils. When water boils, the steam can be hotter than 212F if it boiling water
comes into contact with the walls of a hot pot or if it is under
pressure, but food submerged in boiling water will cook faster The magic of infrared
than food bathed in steam because under water the food's
surface is completely surrounded by hot water molecules and in Infrared radiation is the best method for delivering high heat to
steam there is a lot of air mixed in and air does not conduct heat food on a grill. Charcoal grills produce a lot of direct scorching
as well as water. infrared radiation that is converted to heat when it strikes food.
Gas and pellet grills produce mostly convection heat.
Because meat is about 75% water, it is useful to think of it as if it
is a saturated sponge. As it heats, water on the surface is If you remember your high school science, you know that
energized and some of it escapes as steam. Even though the infrared is a section of the wavelength continuum around us, just
oven may be a lot hotter than 212F, the surface will stick at up the road from visible light and down the road from the radio
close to 212F as more and more water steams away. As the in your car.
hotter molecules escape the cooler ones are left behind so the
spectrum
temperature of the meat is cools until water stops evaporating,
usually because the surface dries out making a crust or bark. At glowing_coals_infrared
low cooking temperatures such as 225F, the temperature I
recommend for a lot of my recipes, the rate of evaporation can Max Good, Director of Equipment Reviews at AmazingRibs.com
be so great that the surface and the interior of the meat can elaborates: "The sun radiates intense infrared (IR) waves that
stick, usually in the 150 to 165F range and remain pretty much travel great distances at the speed of light without dissipating
unchanged for hours, totally freaking out the cook. This until they contact solid matter, like your skin, which it warms.
phenomenon, called the stall, does not happen if the oven temp The sun also radiates other waves, like ultraviolet (UV), which
is higher, say 325F, another temperature I recommend cause sunburn as well as heat. So all IR heat is radiant, but not all
frequently. radiant heat is IR."

The stall has four benefits: (1) It helps create the bark which can As another example Good says "Consider the IR heaters in
be very tasty, (2) it holds the meat at a temperature where fats warehouses or bus stops. They are often suspended from the
and connective tissues can liquefy, significantly improving ceiling, but one can easily feel the heat waves standing beneath
texture, juiciness, and flavor, (3) it gives enzymes a chance to them. If these same devices were simply conventional gas
burners, most of the heat would rise upward. Convection heat absorbs direct heat from below, converts it to conduction heat,
can be dissipated easily by air currents and distance while IR gets and it moves to the center of the food.
through."
2) Indirect Heat Charcoal or Wood. Charcoal off to the side
The AmazingRibs.com science advisor Prof. Greg Blonder adds produces both convection and radiant heat. The grates absorb
"An oven set on broil is a radiant heater, with much of the heat is heat and produce conduction heat on surface of the food making
in the near IR, the almost visible section of IR. In principle, a pure grill marks. The exterior of the food absorbs indirect convection
IR heater would not be visible to the naked eye, since our eyes heat from all sides, converts it to conduction heat, and it moves
can't respond that far out in the light spectrum. In practice, an IR to the center of the food.
heater and charcoal glow a dull red."
3) Lid Off Charcoal or Wood. Charcoal produces radiant heat. The
In the past few years a number of gas grills have been touting grates absorb heat and produce conduction heat on surface of
their superiority because they use infrared heat or they have an the food making grill marks. The exterior of the food absorbs
IR sear burner or sizzle zone designed to generate high heat for radiant heat from below only. The bottom of the food converts
getting a dark sear on meat. This is an attempt by gas grill the absorbed energy into conduction heat, and it moves to the
manufacturers to close the gap with charcoal grills. In an IR gas center of the food. Without a lid, heat escapes from the food
grill a plate of special glass, ceramics, or metal absorbs the heat upward, cooling its top.
and light from the flame and re-radiates it to the food in the form
of IR. 4) Flat Top. Gas or charcoal produce radiant heat in the fire box.
Solid griddle under the food absorbs heat and produces
Dr. Blonder explains: "The atoms in the plate begin to oscillate. conduction heat on surface of the food. The bottom of the food
At low temps almost all of the energy is stored as vibrations in absorbs conduction heat, browns where it is in contact with the
the plate. As the plate heats up, the rapidly vibrating atoms surface, and conducts heat towards the top of the food. Without
cause it to emit IR. Think of it (very loosely) as a teapot on a a lid, heat escapes from the food upward, cooling its top.
stove. At low temps most of the energy is confined the
simmering liquid. At higher temps there is so much vibration that 5) Direct Heat Gas. Burners produce radiant heat that heats
the water evaporates, forming steam and carrying away energy metal drip protector bars, lava rocks, or ceramic briquets. They
as a scalding hot jet." At the top of the page is an IR sizzle burner absorb heat and produce radiant and convection heat. The grates
under cast iron grill grates on a Napoleon Gas Grill. absorb heat and produce conduction heat on surface of the food.
The exterior of the food converts all this incoming energy to
Is IR heating better? Dr. Blonder says "IR energy is delivered conduction heat, and it moves to the center of the food.
faster than convection, but slower than conduction. So it can
brown a little more effectively than a conventional grill but not as 6) Indirect Heat Gas. Burners off to the side produce radiant heat
fast as a hot pan or grill grates. There are fewer hot spots from IR that heats metal drip protector bars, lava rocks, or ceramic
cookers. On the other hand, you can get thermal runaway with briquets. They absorb heat and produce radiant and convection
IR. If one section of the meat is dark, it absorbs more IR than the heat. The grates absorb heat and produce conduction heat on
lighter sections. It browns, becomes darker still, and eventually surface of the food. The exterior of the food absorbs indirect
burns." And real IR burners are not good at achieving low convection from all sides. The exterior of the food converts the
temperatures. energy to conduction heat and it moves to the center of the
food.
I recommend gas grills with IR burner sections, especially them
for getting dark sears on steaks and other meats when the 7) Lid Off Gas. Burners produce radiant heat that heats metal
browning of the surface creates thousands of new flavor drip protector bars, lava rocks, or ceramic briquets. They absorb
compounds. heat and produce radiant and convection heat. The grates absorb
heat and produce conduction heat on surface of the food. The
How your grills work exterior of the food converts the energy to conduction heat and
it moves towards the top of the food. Without a lid, radiant heat
The illustration below shows how different outdoor cookers escapes from the food upward, cooling its top.
work.
8) Infrared Gas. Burners produce radiant heat that in turn heats a
thermodynamics special plate. It absorbs heat and emits it as radiant heat in the
infrared part of the spectrum. Grates absorb heat and produce
1) Direct Heat Charcoal or Wood. Charcoal produces radiant heat
conduction heat where they contact the surface of the food. The
in the bottom. The grates absorb heat and produce conduction
bottom of the food absorbs the radiant heat and converts it to
heat on parts of the surface of the food making grill marks. The
conduction heat and moves it to the center of the food. The top
lid reflects mostly convection heat. The exterior of the food
of the food is heated by indirect convection heat bounced from To make good food outdoors you need to become master of the
the lid. flame and keeper of time. Many grills come with a thermometer,
but they are usually crap. The thermometer on my gas grill is
How a smoker works often off by 50F! You absolutely positively must have a good
oven thermometer.
Smoke is the perfume, the sexy scent that makes us stand
outdoors on cold rainy nights nurturing the rib cage of a hog as if In addition to knowing what temp your cooker is, you need to
we were delivering a child. Smoke is the indescribable difference know what temperature your meat is. Cooking without a meat
between the crockpot pulled pork they serve at the ballpark and thermometer is like driving without a speedometer. You might
the hand crafted sandwich that gets you a standing ovation. think you're under the limit, but try explaining that to the judge.
Smoke is what makes brisket simmered in a flavorful stew run You might think the meat is ready, but try explaining that to your
and hide its head when it encounters the stuff that Texans drive guests when it is dry enough that they ask for a glass of saliva to
50 miles for, just for lunch. help them swallow. Here is a Food Temperature Guide, and
here's everything you need to know about thermometers with
direct vs indirect heat
links to good ones you can buy.
But not just any smoke will do. Nobody wants their turkey tasting
Some of the better digital thermometers have timers. If yours
like cigarettes. So there is an art to getting the right smoke. You
does not, get in the habit of wearing a watch when you cook and
can make superb smoked foods on just about any grill with a
write down what time you put the meat into the heat in a
cover, even a gas grill. But adapting a grill for smoking is like
cooking log. Some of the old timey barbecue artisans say you can
adapting the family car for racing. The better solution is to buy a
learn to cook by sight, smell, and feel. That's just plain BS. Once
race car.
you know how to cook you can rely more and more on your
With a high quality modern barbecue smoker, and a little senses, but until you are ready to call yourself a top chef, get a
practice, you can make food better than the ribs, brisket, and thermometer, wear a watch, and keep a log. I do.
other faves holding in the warming ovens of restaurants. With a
good modern smoker you no longer need to hover over your
machine for five hours, constantly monitoring the temp, fiddling
with the dampers, shoveling coal, adding wood, and spritzing
your meat with a mist of secret moisturizer. With a good smoker
you can get your food on the table on time and without fear that
it is over-cooked (an expensive waste) or under-cooked
(dangerous).

Most smokers have an indirect heat source with a deflector or a


water pan that protects the food from searing infrared radiation
and cooks with convection. They generate smoke by burning
wood. A few use wood for both heat and smoke, but most use
charcoal, gas, or electricity for heat, and wood for smoke.

Master of the flame and keeper of time

Good cooking is finding the proper combination of heat and time.


The higher the heat, the less time needed. Lower the heat, you
need more time. But you just can't set your cooker for Warp 10
on every food. Some demand low and slow. Read more about
cooking temperatures here.

ribeyes on the barbecue grill

Your indoor oven has three basic components to control heat


and time: A heat source, a thermostat, and a timer. Your outdoor
oven, and an oven is exactly what your grill or smoker is, has a
heat source, but only a few have a thermostat or a timer. And
that's why cooking outdoors is much more difficult than indoors.
Tell that to your significant other (and sleep on the couch).