In this guide we will breakdown everything you need to know about basic heat reactions and cooking doneness temperatures for meat, seafood, baked goods and candy.
Distilled down to the essence, cooking is applying heat to organic material to alter it in a positive way. Hopefully positive, although we know that too much heat can lead to disaster. How and why heat affects food is the obvious starting point.
5 Heat Reactions and Their Temperatures
There are five different generalized reactions that occur. These occur at varying temperature ranges affecting specific components of the food; sugars, protein, starch, water and fats. They will overlap based on the way these basic components are represented in the food you are cooking. This is a quick overview of the science behind the cooking process.
220-350°F – Caramelization of sugars
This temperature starting point of this process is the highest in the group, beginning in the 220 degree range and upward. Most of us who have been around a kitchen have heard of the Maillard Reaction, which is generally starting at 285 degrees. This is a very scientific description of how caramelization occurs, taking into account the amino acid and sugar aspects of the reaction and applying it across multiple food types.
The simple statement is that you apply heat to sugar it turns brown. A caramel candy is melted sugar with milk/cream/butter to keep the texture soft. Apply heat to just sugar and you get the crackling crust we love on a crème brulee. The same process is occurring to the fructose in onions at the low end, or the crusts of bread, and the outside of your cake at the high end.
32-212°F – Evaporation of water
Moving down the thermocline, water turns to steam at 212 degrees. The heat makes the molecules move faster to the point that they lose cohesion and shift to a gaseous state, steam. Mild evaporation will occur at lower temperatures as is shown by a food dehydrator operating at below 100 degrees, and technically it happens at any temperature above freezing. Evaporation can be forced at lower temperatures and by adding pressure, part of the freeze drying process.
The reality in a kitchen is that you will use evaporation in the higher temperature ranges. Positive use is reducing a sauce to get more intense flavors. Negative use is drying out a food to become inedible. There is a whole spectrum between from wilting spinach, to steaming artichokes to break down their structure for tenderness.
140-195°F – Gelatinizing starches
Starches will absorb the water around them when heat is applied, generally starting at about 140 degrees, and become more gelatinous in the process. Starchy foods like potatoes, rice, or pasta will absorb water and become softer and tenderer as a result.
The other side of this equation is using starches to thicken soups or sauces. A slurry of cold milk and flour whisked into boiling stock gets you gravy, masa will thicken your chili and corn starch will set up your pies. All of these rely on the starch absorbing fluids as heat is applied and gelatinizing the texture.
85-140°F – Melting fats
We are going out of order on this because some fats, butter specifically, will melt at very low temperatures, beef fat tends to be on the higher range, melting at about 140 degrees. So the obvious proviso here is that fats will melt at different temperatures depending on what type of fat they are. The key is that fats do not evaporate when heat is applied, although they will shift to a liquid state. Obviously super high heat will vaporize fats, often bursting into flame, and can incinerate everything else around them.
The ability of fats to hold heat without dissipating is why they are such an incredible medium for so much cooking. From sautéing to deep frying we owe a lot to the science of fats interacting with heat. The common frying range of 325-375 is what gives us the heavenly crunch of fried chicken, crispy taters, and multitude of foods.
140-185°F – Coagulating proteins
Starting at about 140 degrees, long string protein molecules start to break up, releasing moisture in the process. The most obvious example is frying an egg and watching the whites set up, then the yolk as more heat is added. There are some high protein value vegetable foodstuffs out there, legumes for instance, and they will have similar interaction with heat. The key to coagulated protein is that it cannot be undone, the protein will stay in the solid state.
But it is meat that is the most interesting food to view in this context, although we are going to simplify things for a bit. A Rare steak is typically 120-125 degrees when done. The proteins have not started to break and coagulate, so this steak is naturally more tender than the exact same steak taken to a higher temperature. Until you get to a Medium steak, typically about 140 degrees, the only coagulation is around the exterior, where you are also using caramelization of the natural sugars to get the darker exterior. Keep stacking on the heat and the steak will get firmer as more of the proteins coagulates.
Meat & Doneness Temperatures
This is a common table for doneness of meat with the resulting texture and color expectation. It also gives us a great look at the spectrum of differing temperature having different impact on the finished food. Always cook by temperature and never time. An instant read thermometer is cheap and should always be on-hand.
|Extra-rare or Blue||115 °F||very red, cold center|
|Rare||120 °F||red center; soft and cool|
|Medium rare||130 °F||slightly warm red center; firmer|
|Medium||140 °F||warm, pink, juicy and firm|
|Medium well||150 °F||small amount of pink in the center|
|Well done||+160 °F||gray-brown throughout|
Meats that have a deeper red to begin with will obviously retain a deeper hue especially when rare. It varies between cuts as well, a pork loin chop is typically lighter colored than a pork tenderloin. But this is a guide that will generally tell you what to expect and the temperature to get there.
We mentioned the Maillard reaction, starting at 285 degrees. But you want a nice exterior on a rare steak at 120 degrees?! The latter temperature is the internal or core temperature of the meat when you have finished cooking. On a nice hot broiler, 500-700 degrees, you get that great reaction on the outside of the meat. The natural insulating properties of the meat allow that while the center stays cold.
Low & Slow (BBQ) Cooking
The opposite is true as well. You slow cook a brisket or pork butt low and slow at 225 degrees. After 12-18 hours you reach an internal temperature of 203, the magic number for both those meats. And a multitude of heat reactions occur. The bark on the exterior is a combination of drying the outer layers with some evaporation, you cook through the ‘stall’ when the evaporation has a cooling affect, and all along you are getting caramelization from sugars in the rub and the meat with the amino acids at play. Internally you have the proteins coagulating in the long string tissues and actually separating, in addition to the melting of the collagens that bind the tissue together and the melted fats for residual moisture. Hence the low and slow tender morsels. For this style of cooking I recommend getting some type of leave-in probe which can monitor ambient and internal meat temperature for an extended cooking session in a smoker.
It is important that you know the guidelines that are provided for the safe and wholesome preparation of meats. This table is the federal guideline to various meat products. With cleaner livestock, the guidelines on pork were reduced a while ago to reflect a necessary internal temperature of 145 (versus 165 in the past).
|Product||Minimum Internal Temperature & Rest Time|
|Beef, Pork, Veal & Lamb Steaks, chops, roasts||145 °F (62.8 °C) and allow to rest for at least 3 minutes|
|Ground Meats||160 °F (71.1 °C)|
|Ground Poultry||165 °F|
|Ham, fresh or smoked (uncooked)||145 °F (62.8 °C) and allow to rest for at least 3 minutes|
|Fully Cooked Ham (to reheat)||Reheat cooked hams packaged in USDA-inspected plants to 140 °F (60 °C) and all others to 165 °F (73.9 °C).|
|All Poultry (breasts, whole bird, legs, thighs, wings, ground poultry, giblets, and stuffing)||165 °F (73.9 °C)|
|Eggs||160 °F (71.1 °C)|
|Fish & Shellfish||145 °F (62.8 °C)|
|Leftovers||165 °F (73.9 °C)|
|Casseroles||165 °F (73.9 °C)|
Muscle meat, meaning steaks and such, can be prepared to lesser degrees as a function of doneness. You, as the cook, need to know where that differs from these guidelines so you can answer the question of whether the item you are cooking has been handled safely enough that you feel good about serving it at a lower temperature than suggested here.
In the last few decades western cooking has begun to embrace cooking fish to a more delicate degree of doneness. This retains softer textures and richer flavors than taking everything to 145 plus. Again though, and perhaps even more so, knowing how the raw product has been handled and is sourced is very important when cooking seafood to temperatures below the guidelines.
|Meaty fish; Salmon, Halibut, Swordfish, Sea Bass, etc.||125-130||Glace; a translucent strip down the center|
|Lobster||140, do not exceed||Firm and juicy, opaque white|
|Scallops||130||Soft milky white|
|Shrimp||120||Light pink, slightly curled|
|Ahi||115 or less||Deep red stripe, light gray edges|
Obviously the high grades of tuna and many other fishes are servable for Sashimi, completely raw. It should also be obvious that handling properly is crucial to healthy safe dining. Seafood has much less collagen than beef or pork and such, which is why they firm up at such lower temperatures when you are cooking them.
This is possibly a more extensive group than the meats group, and baking certainly requires temperature specificity to work properly. As a result, these baking temperatures are just general guidelines, although they should match up well with the recipes you are making. If they don’t jibe, we suggest you favor the recipe that you are following. There may be specific reasons for their direction.
|Biscuits||425 – 450 F||10 – 15|
|Yeast Breads||350-400 F||60|
|Quick Loaf Breads||325 – 375 F||60 – 75|
|Sweet Rolls, yeast||350-375 F||20 – 30|
|Cupcake||350 – 375 F||15 – 25|
|Layer Cake||350 – 375 F||20 – 35|
|Loaf Cake||350 F||45 – 60|
|Angel Food & Sponge||350 F||50 – 60|
|Drop||350 – 400 F||8 – 15|
|Rolled||375 F||8 – 10|
|1 Crust Pie (Custard Type)||400 – 425 F||30 – 40|
|Shell Only||450 F||10 – 12|
|2 Crust Pies with Uncooked Filling||375 – 425 F||45 – 55|
|2 Crust Pies with Cooked Filling||425 – 450 F||30 – 45|
One consistent aspect of baking, at least for breads, is to look for an internal temperature of at least 190 degrees. This will give you the best texture and get the dough dry enough that it is actual bread. There are some extremely moist breads that may need a slightly higher temp, but this is a very workable rule of thumb for bread baking.
This is probably the category that uses the most precision in the steps pf temperature and the effect on your end product. As you can see, there are very well defined steps with a specific expectation at each one.
|Thread||230 F||A drizzled spoonful forms a fine thread, syrup state, not actual candy.|
|Soft Ball||235 F||When a small amount of syrup is dropped into chilled water forms a ball that does not hold shape when picked up with fingers|
|Firm Ball||245 F||When a small amount of syrup is dropped into chilled water forms a ball that will hold its shape and flatten only when pressed.|
|Hard Ball||250 F||The ball is more rigid but still pliable.|
|Soft Crack||265 F||A small amount dropped into chilled water will separate into threads that will bend when picked up.|
|Hard Crack||300 F||The syrup separates into threads that are hard and brittle.|
|Caramelized Sugar||320 F||Between these temperatures the sugar will turn dark golden, darker brown at 335, and will begin to turn black at 350 F|
Although this style of cooking is not as common as it may have been in days gone by, an excellent batch of fudge or peanut brittle for the holidays is still very tasty. These temperatures will apply to both of those along with boiled frostings, fondant, and a whole host of other confections that you step through the candy making stages.
Cooking has an art aspect of combining flavors, colors, smells and textures to arrive at great food for our family and friends. This should provide a broad understanding of the physical reactions that are occurring as you direct the food to your desired result.