# What cookbooks don't tell you:February 22, 2007 7:50 AM   Subscribe

Embarrassingly basic cooking question: When cooking on a gas stove, how do I determine the heat level?

I've had a gas stove for about four years, and this has always bothered me, especially because I tend to burn things. When a recipe calls for cooking something at "Medium-high" or "medium-low", etc...., how do I determine this?

Does it have to do with the height of the flame (i.e. 1/4 of flame is medium-low) or can I put my hand over the flame to decide if it's at the appropriate temperature?

I grew up with an electric range which had the handy, labeled heat settings. The gas stove flummoxes me.
posted by megancita to Food & Drink (29 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite

You cry yourself to sleep at night.

Really, my suggestion would be to make something straightforward and easy, like pancakes, crepes, grilled cheese, and just try things out. If you know what things are supposed to look like, use those to estimate proper settings. Low is probably as low as you can get it, medium low is just barely above that, medium just another notch. On my gas burner the flame gets "wider" when it's turned up. Medium for me is probably closer to 1/6 of what High looks like.

Also, if you don't have thick-bottomed pots and pans, get them, because they help distribute the heat more evenly (as opposed to a nice hot spot in the middle).
posted by that girl at 8:03 AM on February 22, 2007

The gas knobs aren't graduated on your gas range? I use that as a rough guide and beyond that it's just experience - as it was on the electric we had prior.
posted by mikel at 8:03 AM on February 22, 2007

It does have to do with the height of the flame, which should increase at a consistent rate as you turn the knob from the lowest to highest, at which point you can divide the arc in half and then halve the halves to get some orientation.

I've never had a gas stove that didn't have marked knobs. I guess this is an older stove?
posted by Lyn Never at 8:04 AM on February 22, 2007

Fortunately, my gas stove has markers around the dial to tell you the setting. How bout you just mark the high, medium, and low settings with a marker since those settings are obvious (or maybe make a plastic template?? - just pull off the knob and pop on a homemade template) ... then mark the midranges between high and medium - there's your medium-high, and medium and low (aka medium-low).

I guess what I'm saying is there's no science to it... it's just a matter of percentages and practice.

I think maybe making a template would be a decent way to approach it.

Paging Martha Stewert!!!
posted by matty at 8:05 AM on February 22, 2007

Just use the gas dial. Medium-low would be turned just under half way, medium-high just past half way. High would be the dial turned up full, low would be a quarter turn.

I guess gas height as a reference would work equally well.

Don't worry too much tho, cooking is generally not an exact science, just pay attention to waht your cooking rather than the cooker.
posted by brautigan at 8:05 AM on February 22, 2007

I think it's probably best to check what end result you want, and vary your setting accordingly. If, for instance, the recipe calls for 'glazed onions', you're aiming for a vivid flame, but not enough to caramelise the onions.

I don't think you can just set your fire and forget it. This holds true for an electric stove as well, but it's more so for a gas stove I think, because it's so much more reactive. That's also why a gas stove is more fun and better for cooking.
posted by NekulturnY at 8:06 AM on February 22, 2007

Just look at the flame. The smallest one you can make is "low" the highest one you can make is "high" and somewhere in between is "medium." It may seem less precise than those convenient markings but in actuality it is more precise once you have some experience with your stove.
posted by caddis at 8:12 AM on February 22, 2007

It's also going to depend on the size of the burner. My gas stove has 4 different size burners - a huge one for boiling pots of stock to a little one for small simmers. So it's a multi-variable equation. Medium on the little burner is lower than low on the big burner.
posted by GuyZero at 8:16 AM on February 22, 2007

It does have to do with the height of the flame, which should increase at a consistent rate as you turn the knob from the lowest to highest, at which point you can divide the arc in half and then halve the halves to get some orientation.

Does anyone else find that their gas stove burners don't necessarily increase at a steady rate when turned up? I often have to tweak my burner knobs a bit, particularly when trying to aim for low - it doesn't seem like the flame decreases evenly. It's not that old a stove either, far as I know, and is marked.
posted by canine epigram at 8:25 AM on February 22, 2007

i second looking at the flame

just keep track of it every time you cook, and remember how hot it is!
posted by Salvatorparadise at 8:27 AM on February 22, 2007

Does anyone else find that their gas stove burners don't necessarily increase at a steady rate when turned up?

Yes, all I have used act this way. That is why you go by the flame, not the marking on the knob. On electric stoves the markings are all you have got.
posted by caddis at 8:32 AM on February 22, 2007

Every gas stove is different; my current one doesn't seem to have many options between "high" and "off" (about 30˚ of arc with nonlinear response). Also, what size flame to use depends greatly on the pan you are using. The settings you see described in recipes are guidelines, to be interpreted by the cook.. You have to learn how your stove works with your pans. Or what caddis said.
posted by nowonmai at 8:33 AM on February 22, 2007

Based on my experience with an electric stove, medium-low will maintain a boil in a pot of water that's already boiling (but will take a very very long time to bring a pot of water to a boil); low will not maintain a boil. Maybe you could use that to calibrate the equivalent settings on the gas stove. I don't have good guides for medium, medium high, or high, but perhaps others can make suggestions for those.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 8:34 AM on February 22, 2007

I have no markings. I have a commercial stove that puts out lots of btu s. If you seem to be overcooking things, turn down the heat. If you think medium is halfway and things are burnt, make it 1/3 of the way.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 8:40 AM on February 22, 2007

Thanks for the answers. I guess part of what I'm wondering is if "medium-high" or "medium-low" translates into an actual temperature, say 250 F or 100 F, and if there is a way to measure this.

Part of my problem is that I'm not an intuitive cook. I want there to be rules!
posted by megancita at 8:48 AM on February 22, 2007

On the stoves I've used, you can hear the hissing of the gas if the dial is turned up to high. Medium to medium high, for me, is the flame you get when you turn the dial down just enough to stop hearing that hiss.

If you have trouble maintaining a low flame (as I do on my current crappy stove) you can get a flame tamer, which allows you to keep the flame higher but not burn your food. I've not tried one, personally, but I keep meaning to get one.
posted by cabingirl at 8:49 AM on February 22, 2007

I want there to be rules!

On the top of the stove there are no rules. Rules are confined to the oven.
posted by caddis at 9:09 AM on February 22, 2007 [3 favorites]

I guess part of what I'm wondering is if "medium-high" or "medium-low" translates into an actual temperature, say 250 F or 100 F, and if there is a way to measure this.

Cooking on a stove is not about temperature- cooking in an oven is, which is why the knob for your oven has temp markings and your burners don't.

If you're dead-set on figuring out what settings put out what temperature, just put a pot of water on the stove and use a thermometer (just the water, don't touch the pot itself with it). But, in the end, it's not going to really help you cook better. As others have noted, your five senses will serve you much better there than your brain.
posted by mkultra at 9:10 AM on February 22, 2007

Rules aren't even confined to the oven. The way your oven works depends on whether or not it's a convection oven, how much direct heat gets applied to the bottom of the cooking material, what height you cook at in the oven, if you have a pizza stone in the bottom (reccomended to even out heat... I've found that the only way to bake bread or muffins without burning the bottom in my oven is to heat it up, put stuff in, cook it with the heat on for the first 5 minutes, and then turn the oven off. Otherwise I get too much direct heat from the bottom and the bottom is always black...

... If you think cooking should have rules, check out Cooking for Engineers. But really, there are no rules. The sooner you get comfortable with the lack of rules and start looking at it as an experiment that might require a few revisions to get right with your pans, appliances and equipment, the sooner you'll start getting the results you want.
posted by SpecialK at 9:15 AM on February 22, 2007 [1 favorite]

If you want to calibrate the settings, I wouldn't monitor the temperature of a pan of water, but the time it takes for a pan of water to come to a rolling boil. You could monitor the boil visually, or pick an arbitrary (and high) temperature to monitor with the thermometer or thermocouple.

Use the same pan and the same amount of water each time, and log the time-to-target-temperature. The fastest path to a violent rolling boil -- high heat. Barely gets to a simmer after ages and ages -- low heat. Gets right to a simmer but you might grow old and die before it boils, medium low. Medium high gets you to an orderly rolling boil without too much delay.

As others have suggested above, these settings and flame-appearances will vary with the burner you use as well as the shape and materials of the pan. My personal recommendation is to just wing it, but this calibration should help you devise some approximate rules.
posted by janell at 9:22 AM on February 22, 2007

The problem with doing too much calibration is that it's going to change a bit depending on the size of the pot. When I have a huge pot on the gas stove, I can turn the gas all the way up and that's "high." If I have a teeny little pot on there, I need to turn the gas only about halfway up for it to be "high," otherwise I have flames leaping about the sides of the pot.

For me:
High - Flames are high enough to be very close to the bottom of the pot, and wide enough to cover the entire surface area of the bottom of the pot.

Medium - Flames are low enough not to touch the pot, and probably covering about half the bottom surface area of the pot.

Low - Flames are as low as possible to keep the food is simmering/warm.

Medium-high is halfway between medium and high; medium-low is halfway between medium and low. Always always always keep an eye on what you're cooking and adjust if it looks like it's not cooking fast enough or slowly enough.
posted by occhiblu at 9:37 AM on February 22, 2007

I should have added: You never want the flames jumping up around the sides of the pot. If you're burning things consistently, that might be part of the problem. Heat should only ever be on the bottom of the pot, and only rarely does it need to be above "medium" for any length of time.

(Basically, if you keep burning things, then start using lower heat for everything!)
posted by occhiblu at 10:33 AM on February 22, 2007

Maybe try to make your own schema for the "rules."

Low flame, all blue: Low

Dial all the way up, with lots of copper-colored flame: High

Visually halfway between the two, some copper but moslty blue: Medium

All else accordingly.

If this doesn't work, its generally better to cook things longer at a lower temperature than too high too fast, so you should probably err on that side of caution until you get the hang of it.
posted by troubadour at 10:47 AM on February 22, 2007

canine epigram writes "Does anyone else find that their gas stove burners don't necessarily increase at a steady rate when turned up? I often have to tweak my burner knobs a bit, particularly when trying to aim for low - it doesn't seem like the flame decreases evenly. It's not that old a stove either, far as I know, and is marked."

Top burners on a gas stove use a variant of a ball cock valve and the opening from the manifold is round. Therefor the volume of gas released isn't a linear function of the rotation of the knob. As you can see in this gas valve function image, the area increases in a non linear way in relation to the linear motion of the knob because both the length and the width of the opening increases as the knob is turned. Sometimes the control has a square rotating past a circle.
posted by Mitheral at 11:15 AM on February 22, 2007 [1 favorite]

My mom worked for the gas company demonstrating stoves in the 1950s. She told me that in order to properly "simmer," you should aim for a "fine blue flame."

And what caddis said - On the top of the stove there are no rules. Rules are confined to the oven. That may be facetious, but in most cases, it's true. When you bake, you must be precise to get good results. That's why I'm a better cook than a baker.
posted by tizzie at 11:59 AM on February 22, 2007

Thin cookware can be another reason why you're burning things. And sometimes a recipe is just wrong, or tested on a stove that's a lot different from yours. Some rules to ensure that food doesn't burn: Use heavy-bottomed pans. Brown things in oil or a mixture of butter and oil. After liquids have boiled down, you often have to lower the heat. Every time you cook something new, keep a close eye on it and adjust the temperature according to what's happening in the pan; if the dish is a keeper, make notes for the future.

I've been cooking for decades, and I have to be vigilant every time I try something new, and when I'm using an unfamiliar stove or pan.
posted by wryly at 12:48 PM on February 22, 2007

On any stove you need to watch what's going on in the pan to figure out what the setting is- even electric stoves vary considerably in their output, regardless of what is written on the dial. Watching your food cook is absolutely the best way to figure out exactly what's going on, regardless of the type of stove or pan you're using. Learn to do that, and you'll be able to cook on anything.
posted by oneirodynia at 1:25 PM on February 22, 2007

I have found that the knobs on my (cheap) gas stove are disturbingly non-linear. They'll turn the first 1/4 of the way and produce basically no change in the flame, and then in the next 1/6th turn they'll change the flame from low to medium, and then they'll go from medium to high gradually over the rest of the dial. It makes sauteeing rather difficult.

I purchased a non-contact IR thermometer a while back, and I've never regretted it. If you're a person who likes quantitative measurements, get one, and get out your favorite skillet, and take some measurements. If you take good notes while you're cooking, it makes it easy to replicate the settings for next time.
posted by Kadin2048 at 2:30 PM on February 22, 2007

Practice love :-) I cook by sound and learnt it with mum as a kid. Helpful?:-) Say it's pancakes, I cook them at medium . When I throw butter in the pan if it doesn't 1.sizzle and 2.continue with bubbles rising to the surface it's not med but might be simmer. A (med-high) simmer will cook my pancakes but eventually and they would be kinda pale never getting those delicious brown patches and a buttery fried edge. Or if butter instantly or within a few seconds(or at any point) darkens to brown or black, that is too hot and is not medium, could be (what I know as) 3/4 heat (med-high). Good for steak you want pink in the middle but seared a nice dark brown. Cooks fast but won't immediately burn to the bottom of your pan. Low, (also a simmer)under a pot of already cooking pasta would cause bubbles to become slow and a few at a time.
posted by mu~ha~ha~ha~har at 3:05 PM on February 22, 2007

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