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Six Ways to Talk About Heat

Roast, or bake? Sauté, or sear? Introduce kids to vital cooking techniques, clearly and safely.

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For parents, hot stoves and ovens can be among the most nerve-wracking parts of bringing kids into the kitchen. While it can be tricky, empowering kids with knowledge about all the ways to navigate these grown-up tools safely will only help both kids and parents build trust.

Kids’ motor skills, maturity, and general sangfroid do vary widely across (even within!) age groups. But we can all ease into this essential subject, with explanations, demonstrations, and dishes that show what’s different (and delicious) about particular techniques. Kids will need these methods explained at a very basic level. (And let’s be honest—even adults need a refresher now and again.) As they get comfortable with what these methods are and what they do, they’ll understand a little more about how dinner comes together. That knowledge is a building block for strong, adaptive skills. (Speaking of which: check out our Kitchen Academy box with the theme “Hot and Cold” for further adventures in temperature!)

Here’s a primer on how to start explaining six ways we use heat in the kitchen. Ultimately, it’s up to you to decide whether your kid can put on some mitts and reach into a hot oven, or if they’re better off just turning the dial to “bake.” We recommend that only kids 8 and up work directly with heat—with safe oven mitts and plenty of direct, engaged supervision, of course.

SIMMERING AND BOILING

What are we doing? Cooking (or cooking in) hot liquid.

Why do we do it? Many reasons! With vegetables, it helps preserve their intrinsic flavor; in other words, it makes a carrot taste more like a carrot than if you were to roast it in the oven. Also, because water is such a good conductor of heat, it cooks things faster and more evenly than with dry cooking methods.

Hot tip: Many recipes say, “Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer.” That means, for the sake of time, bring the water up to a rolling boil, then lower the heat until the liquid is giving off gentle, intermediate bubbles—perfect for cooking your starch, vegetable, or soup. The transitions between these states make a good visual, literally showing (from a safe distance, of course) how changing the heat level changes the food’s reaction.

Teachable moment: Have your curious kiddo add pasta or eggs to boiling water—with care and caution, of course!

Next-level knowledge: As a general rule, you almost always want to simmer. That goes for soups, stocks, cooking eggs, pasta, or potatoes; simmering gives you good temperature control, where boiling has the potential to violently overcook things.

SAUTEING AND SEARING

What are we doing? Cooking over high heat with a little bit of oil.

Why do we do it? To make our food deliciously brown and flavorful.

What’s the difference? Searing usually involves cooking a larger piece of protein (steak, for example) without moving it in the pan, giving it time to develop a colorful crust—or, if you want to get fancy, a “milliard reaction.”

Sautéing involves constantly moving around smaller pieces of food—say, sliced mushrooms or green beans—to keep them from burning and to cook them evenly.

Teachable moment: Let your co-pilot stir the skillet to give her a taste of the action.

Next-level knowledge: Always pat your proteins dry before searing, and lay them in the skillet gently to avoid splattering; hot oil and water do not mix!

Pro tip 2: Don’t overcrowd your skillet—it’ll cause the food to steam rather than brown.

ROASTING AND BAKING

What are we doing? Cooking something uncovered in the oven, without any liquid.

What’s the difference? Trick question! Roasting and baking are essentially the same, but the former usually refers to cooking meat and vegetables at higher temperatures, while the latter is often used with pastries and bread at lower temperatures.

Teachable moment: Turn on the oven light so kids can watch the pie, casserole, or chicken transform as it cooks.

Next-level knowledge: Cooking meat at lower temperatures (under 350°F) tends to yield juicier, more tender results, but it won’t give your chicken or pot roast a flavorful crust. That’s why many recipes have you start out at a higher temperature and transition to a lower temperature, or vice-versa, to find a happy medium.