What is the difference between baking and roasting? I’m going to propose one. The difference is that baking simply cooks something, whereas roasting also browns it intentionally.
Distinctions like that are important, since they enable you to envision in a word the workflow that you’ll pursue, and to set up yourself accordingly.
To put it simply: If you don’t want to brown, then you don’t need to roast. You just need to bake. Baking is simpler and involves fewer factors.
Cooking methods typically stem from one of two desires: either you just need a way to cook something, or you have a particular effect in mind that you’d like to achieve.
Roasting is interesting in that regard, since it accomplishes the cooking while achieving a particularly nice effect, all in one convenient process. But it only works for certain things.
Namely, whatever finishes baking in thirty to ninety minutes can also be roasted to achieve a richly browned exterior.
Even at its highest setting, an oven requires about a half-hour to brown anything. So, any ingredient that finishes cooking in under thirty minutes will overcook before its exterior caramelizes. Foods that fall into that category include thin cutlets of poultry and seafood.
Ingredients that are especially large or fibrous or dense, on the other hand, require such long intervals of time that cooking temperatures must remain very low in order to avoid desiccation, which makes browning for its own sake a big hassle. Foods that fall into that category include anything from the forequarters and hindquarters of large terrestrial animals (from whence we get Honey “Baked” Ham).
Ovens aren’t exactly precision instruments. Air itself is a rather inefficient cooking medium. A chicken breast that requires nearly half an hour to bake will finish in seven minutes in a pan of simmering water.
There is a simple explanation for that discrepancy: Molecules of air are relatively far apart from one another, and poorly organized. A volume of air, taken as a whole, doesn’t transmit heat or electricity, or anything else really, with any efficiency at all.
Hot air is valuable nevertheless because it can be extraordinarily dry, especially when combined with an oven’s convection fan, which whisks away moisture.
Aridity is essential to roasting, since browning depends on a series of chemical chain reactions that are triggered by temperatures much higher than that of boiling water.
The gross inefficiency of air works to your advantage, at any rate. You don’t need to worry about precise temperature settings, since change occurs only over very broad ranges. Five settings on an oven dial are all you need, in fact, and they’re best expressed in rudimentary terms like “high,” “medium” and “low.”
Anything that bakes in half an hour at what I call “high,” for example, or 450°F (230°C), will finish in about the same amount of time with the oven dial fifty degrees in either direction.
The reason that I use 450°F, apart from it being an easy number to remember, is that it browns whatever it bakes in thirty minutes, with fifteen minutes to spare before I have to worry about burning.
That is to say: If I know that an ingredient finishes baking in about a half an hour, then I know it will roast in that same amount of time as long as the oven’s temperature is at least “high.”
I’ll beat a dead horse: To roast anything, simply brown it in the time that it takes to bake.
Whole chickens bake in about forty-five minutes, so I roast them at “high.” A leg of lamb requires an hour and a half, so I roast it at what I call “medium low.”
If you don’t need to brown, then you don’t need to roast. You can bake at practically any temperature you want. Use the highest oven setting that is convenient, or the lowest that is practical. Bake things simultaneously, or one after another, without fiddling with the oven dial.
Baking is convenient. That’s the other reason why we cook with hot air.
As for roasting, here are the guidelines that I use myself:
For specific details on preparing any of the ingredients below, see Building Blocks.
Browns in 35-45 minutes
Browns in 45-60 minutes
Browns in 90 minutes
Below about 325°, foods tend not to brown at all.
Cutlets of tender meats like beef sirloin, chicken and fish simply will not brown in hot air alone by the time that they have finished cooking.
The best way to brown a steak, a chicken breast, or a sea scallop is to sear it.
On the contrary, solid blocks of those meats are perfect candidates for roasting, a fact literally on display at any butcher’s, where anything labeled as “roast” in the display clase is invariably a chunk of loin or rib meat that simply hasn’t been portioned into steaks.
“Stewing meat,” on the other hand, is a butcher’s way of labeling shoulder, pectorals, buttocks and shins, all of which actually do require overcooking in order to melt copious amounts of indigestible sinew and collagenous tissue. These cuts must cook gently in order to avoid expelling all of the internal moisture, in temperatures at the very bottom of your oven dial, too low to brown anything.
It’s possible afterwards to sear such ingredients. You can also coat them in a sugary glaze that gradually browns. However, the most common way to cook beef briskets, neck clod, pork jowls, mutton shoulders, and the like is to poach them.
That leaves everything else, practically speaking. The main consideration, as you contemplate roasting something for the first time, is whether it will actually yield a nicely browned exterior.
Chickens brown beautifully. Carrots, full of complex sugars, brown nicely. Beets do not (which is why we typically cover them and bake them).
Any ingredient that goes into an oven to roast should be patted dry beforehand, if it is wet.
Browning results from the Maillard reaction, named after a French chemist who first described an interaction that occurs between sugars and amino acids at temperatures beyond about 300°F (150°C).
Ovens are heated much higher than that, in order to quickly disperse excess moisture and to get browning underway before things overcook.
The convection fan in many ovens nowadays is a useful aid in that process. As foods roast inside of a hot oven, a veil of moisture typically hangs over them as their internal liquids emerge and vaporize. A fan whisks that away, leaving a surface nice and dry so that its temperature can skyrocket and browning can begin.
Incidentally, a convection fan is a disaster with a cake, which should rise as much as possible before it sets. One important difference between roasting and baking techniques is that you use the convection setting with the former, and the ordinary setting with the latter.
You don’t have to bring ingredients to “room temperature,” by the way, something that recipe-writers including Monsieur le Chef constantly advise.
If you were to actually allow a piece of raw meat to sit out long enough to reach 68°F (20°C)—”room temperature”—then it would spoil. Leaving it out for just twenty minutes, on the other hand, which is what recipe-writers typically mean when they tell you to bring something to “room temperature,” does tend to dry it off.
Don’t forget to pre-heat your oven.
I go into detail about that in my article on ovens. Suffice it to say here that the hot air inside of your oven really is what cooks your food, not the heating element, nor the hot internal walls. (The walls do actually play a small role.)
The element of your oven heats the walls, the walls heat the air. That’s how your oven works. Forty-five minutes is what that takes, more or less, at which point the walls will have achieved the temperature at which you want the air to be, so that they can quickly re-heat the air as it escapes, inevitably, every time you open the oven door.
An oven is a simple tool, like I said.
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