Cooking Temps: When to Cook Hot & Fast, When to Cook Low & Slow, and When to do Both (Reverse Sear)
"Speed kills, but beauty lives forever. Speed thrills, but beauty knows your name." Smashing Pumpkins
We cook too hot and too fast. Yeah, I know we like fire and we like to put the pedal to the metal, but your food is already dead. You don't have to kill it again.
OK, I'll admit, sometimes hot and fast actually is the best way to cook, but most of the time low and slow is better, and more often still, a combination of both methods, and a vital technique called reverse sear, is best of all. Let's discuss when to use each method, and how.
Cooking the exterior and the interior separately
The goal in most outdoor cooking is to get a nice dark exterior enriched with the countless complex flavors caused by the Maillard reaction and caramelization, and an interior that is cooked from edge to edge as close to the temperature that is optimum juicy and tender. This is true on both meats and vegetables. See my award-winning Food Temperature Guide for more about ideal temperature targets.
To accomplish this it is important to understand that heat from outside the food cooks the exterior, but it is the exterior of the food that cooks the interior. The hot air molecules inside the cooker transfer energy to the molecules in the exterior of the food and they pass their excitement along to the interior, like a bucket brigade of heat. So we must look at the exterior and interior as two separate projects. For more on how this works, read my article on the thermodynamics of cooking.
When to use hot and fast
Rule of thumb: The thicker the meat, the lower the cooking temperature. The thinner the meat, the higher the heat.
Hot and fast works for thin, skinny foods like skirt steaks (shown here), asparagus, and shrimp because skinny foods cook quickly. If you want a good dark brown sear (and you do) you need high heat to make that sear without overcooking the interior.
To cook hot and fast, you need to get the food directly above the heat source so infrared radiant heat can go to work on it. I call this cooking at Warp 10. This is when you crank your grill to "Give 'er all she's got, Scottie". In the Star Trek series this was about as fast as any starship could go. You won't find the expression used in a culinary context anywhere but here, so don't ask a chef for steaks cooked at Warp 10. She won't know what you want. Then again, she might...
When cooking at Warp 10 you usually want the lid up so heat is being applied only to the bottom surface, and you want to turn the food often, like a rotisserie, so the hot side cools quickly, to keep the serious direct radiant heat focused on the surface and not allow weak reflective heat to cook the top and thus overcook the center.
Here's a trick for skirt steak and other really skinny pieces of meat: Put it in the freezer for about 30 minutes to get it cold. The extreme high heat of an infrared burner on a gas grill or charcoal lifted close to the cooking surface will thaw the exterior rapidly and brown it. But the heat takes time moving inward and the cold center will heat more slowly and won't overcook. Just make sure you don't freeze the meat because the ice crystals can puncture cell walls and liquid will escape making the surface wet and impede browning.
When to use low and slow
Hot and fast will carbonize (burn) thicker meats and make thick foods and tough cuts of meat into jawbreakers.
Water is a good insulator so heat slogs slowly through the watery interior of foods, especially meats which can be up to 75% water. Large foods, more than 1" thick, like beef brisket, prime rib, turkey breast, or baked potatoes need a lot of time to get warm in the center. Turning up the heat loads up the outer layers with heat before it can be transmitted to the center and as a result you get a rainbow of temperatures. On the outside edges, the meat may be more than 200°F, just below the surface 180°F, just below that 170°F, and so on.
Look at this table and drawing based on an experiment by the AmazingRibs.com science advisor Dr. Greg Blonder. He took two pork loin roasts about 4" wide and 3" tall and roasted one at 325°F and the other at 225°F. By the time the center of the meat hit the desired temp of 145°F, the outer layer of the one cooked at the higher temp was a parched 170°F while the one cooked at the lower temp was a still moist about 160°F. That means that the one cooked at the higher temp had a lot more overcooked dry meat in the outer layers of the meat. Now imagine what would happen to a thick prime rib?
But if you lower the temp and lower the lid, the heat has time to move to the center, the buildup of heat in the exterior is less, so more of the meat is cooked to the target temp.
Low and slow is also essential for tough cuts like beef brisket, pork shoulder, and ribs. These cuts are too tough to eat at medium rare, 130 to 135°F, the optimum temp for most other cuts of beef and pork. They have lots of tough connective tissue. But if they are cooked long enough to a mind boggling 203°F or so, magic happens. Fats melt and the tough stuff softens up like Marshall Dillon in Miss Kitty's arms (now you know how old I am).
There is another very good reason to cook low and slow. It is easier to hit the bullseye of a slow moving target. You stand a better chance of getting the food done to the proper temp without overshooting the mark. You widen the window on perfection. Food can go from succulent to sucky in a hurry at high heat.
Also, when you cook low and slow, you give salt time to migrate towards the center seasoning the meat throughout. That's because if you salt or brine meat, even if it sits in a brine overnight, the salt takes its time moving towards the center and stays mostly at or near the surface. But when meat heats up, the salt moves faster as demonstrated in this original research for AmazingRibs.com by Dr. Blonder.
You also give the food more time to bathe in smoke. On a steak, for example, if you sear it first and cook it quick, you don't get much chance for smoke to flavor the meat. Starting low and slow give you more smoke flavor.
So how do you cook low and slow?
You cook low and slow with warm convection air instead of cooking directly over radiant heat. To do this, you need to master the single most important technique for the backyard cook: The 2-zone setup.
The short explanation of the 2-zone setup is this: You need a hot radiant "direct zone" where you can put the food directly above the heat, and a warm convection "indirect zone" off to the side where the warm air circulates around the food in a convection flow. The illustration above is for a gas grill. On a charcoal grill you push the coals to one side. Your exact setup will differ if you have a different type of grill. My article on 2-zone setup has links to pages devoted to different setups for different cookers.
You need to experiment with your grill so you can stabilize the indirect zone at about 225°F and 325°F with the lid down. These are two special numbers and almost all the recipes on this site are pegged at one or the other, with occasional calls for Warp 10 in the direct zone for searing.
At 225°F you can roast low and slow with indirect convection heat, perfect for making tough cuts with lots of connective tissue, like brisket, tender and juicy. This is also a great temp at which you can slowly and gently rise the interior temp of thick steaks and roasts, maintaining their moisture. At 325°F you can crisp chicken and turkey skins better than at 225°F if you are roasting whole birds. You need to practice hitting these marks in your cooker in different weather conditions without food. Cold weather, rain, and wind can significantly impact the temp inside your cooker.
The challenge: Cooking the interior and exterior separately
If you are cooking tough cuts like pork butt, beef brisket, or ribs, you must cook them up to 203°F or so, a temp at which fats melt and connective tissue gelatinizes (read my article on meat science). Getting these cuts cooked to such a high temps can take up to 12 hours or more at 225°F, so there is ample time for the crust to develop (see my article on bark). The problem with low and slow is, if you are cooking something like a thick steak, which you remove at a lower temp so it cooks much faster, you don't get a dark crust.
The solution for thick steaks, chicken, even potatoes, is to combine both methods, low and slow plus hot and fast.
OK, so maybe that's a bit rich for you. Let's say you have a really plump fresh pastured chicken that you got from the grower at the Farmer's Market. Or even a mass produced turkey breast. Same challenge.
The challenge is to get the outside dark and crispy, yet not overcook the interior. We know that meats are best when crispy and GBD (Golden Brown and Delicious) on the outside, and tender and juicy on the inside, yet warm enough to kill all microbes.
That's because the Maillard effect converts amino acids on the surface to a rich flavorful crust. The Maillard Effect really kicks in as you get up over 300°F.
The problem is that if you take a 2" steak and just plop it down over high heat, you can get that dark mahogany crust, but just below it is a band of meat that is brown, then a band that is tan, then a band that is pink, and finally, a band in the center that is medium rare, reddish pink, the temperature at which steak is juiciest and most tender. Same thing with the chicken. If you yank it before the skin starts to burn, the center is usually raw.
So the challenge is to cook both the interior and the exterior perfectly, and to do that, you need to cook them differently, you need to master two stage cooking.
So let's consider an indoor cooking technique where you can always get the interior perfect every time: Sous vide. Sous vide was invented in the 1970s and is now catching on as home sous vide machines come down in price. Here's the idea: It's hard to catch a moving bus. In a hot grill or oven, if you want to cook your steak to medium rare, let's say 135°F, you have a small window of time at which the meat is the perfect temp. As a cook, you have to jump on a moving bus because the temp is steadily rising inside the steak. Then you have to worry about carryover, because the thermal mass, the energy trapped inside the meat, continues to cook the meat even after you take it out of the heat, and the temp can rise another 5°F on thick cuts, creeping up to overcooked.
Sous vide stops the bus. To cook a steak sous vide, you place the steak in a plastic bag and suck out the air. Then you slip it into a water bath with a precision digital controller set for precisely 135°F. The meat slowly rises to 135°F and stops. It cannot get any warmer. You can leave the meat in there for hours, even a day if you wish. At 135°F in the center, enough bacteria are killed in about two hours that it is considered safe. Even a hamburger. Yes, you can cook a burger to medium rare and be perfectly safe. There is another benefit.
Remove the bag, cut it open, and the meat is the perfect color from edge to edge. There is only one problem. It is repulsive on the outside. The exterior is pale gray and totally unappetizing. So sous vide cooks take the meat out of the bag at 125 to 130°F and throw the meat is a scorching hot pan or on a grill for a few minutes per side, and you get all that magnificent Maillard color and flavor. It is now a two step process, one for the interior, one for the exterior. So when you cook sous vide, you no longer have to run to catch the moving bus. It just sits there at the bus stop waiting for you at whatever temp you pick.
The problem is sous vide machines cost about $400, the food takes forever to come to temp, even thin foods, and frankly, the flavor and texture of most foods is nothing special. The benefit is all in juiciness.
So what's this got to do with grilling? Well, you can cook sous vide and throw the meat on a hibachi and get a pretty good steak. A lot better than just tossing it on a scorching hot pan. Works for chicken, turkey, pork chops, you name it. But there is another, better way.
Red Neck Soo Veed, a.k.a. Reverse Sear, to the rescue
Redneck Soo Veed as my grilling buddy John Dawson of PatioDaddioBBQ.com dubs it is the solution. Other folks call it reverse sear or sear in the rear, and it is pretty simple.
If you have experience cooking indoors, you know a lot of recipes call for you to brown meat in a pan before finishing in the oven or in a pot. Two steps. Two temps. Sear over high heat, finish at low heat. This is the recipe for pot roast (brown in a hot pan, braise slowly in a covered pot), even for pan roasted chicken (brown in a hot pan, slow roast in the oven). So it is deeply embedded in chefs and cookbooks that the order of things is brown, then finish.
But that approach is backwards as demonstrated by the sous vide cooks! When you start with high heat, you load up the exterior, and by the time you are done you have a thick band of overcooked meat. If you reverse the order, start the food in the indirect zone at a lower temp, warm everything until it is close to uniform on the inside, and then hit it with Warp 10, you get both a better interior and exterior. That's reverse sear, and this is another technique you should master. It is the best approach for many foods.
Start by setting up your grill for 2-zone cooking. Try to get the indirect zone down to as close to 225°F as you can with the lid on. Put the meat on the indirect side, toss a little hardwood on the flames, close the lid so the meat will roast slowly with smoky convection air. The bus is not stopped, but it is moving slowly. Roast it slowly until the center temp is about 10 to 15°F below your target temp. You absolutely positively need a good instant read digital thermometer like the Thermapen for this. Flip it once or twice while it is slow roasting. You may have to experiment with technique to keep the temp down. Here's how I do it on a Weber Kettle. The meat is under the pan.
So when your steak hits 115°F in the center, take it off and put it on a plate for a moment. You are done working on the center. Now go to work on the exterior. If you are cooking chicken or turkey, take it up to 150°F because your finished target is 165°F. Pork chops or roasts, 130°F for a finished temp of 145°F.
Take the lid off, and crank up the heat on the other side as hot as you can get it. If you have a charcoal grill where you can adjust the height of the coal bed, get the coals right below the cooking surface. If you want, dump more pre-lit coals on the direct side of the grill. Or set up a hibachi with a thick bed of hot coals. If you have a gas grill, turn the burners to high or turn on your sear burner. Whatever you do, get to Warp 10.
Put the meat on the hot side and leave the lid off. Just like hot and fast cooking, we want all the heat focused on one surface at a time. We don't want any heat reflecting off the lid down onto the top of the steak further cooking the interior. You want to cook the surface until the moisture steams off and it turns deep and dark bourbon brown, but not black. You do not want carbonized protein or fat, but take it right to the edge because it is at that edge when dazzling things happen.
Flip often and move it around a bit so the grates, which are going to be searing hot, don't make black grill marks. Grill marks may look pretty, but we want the entire surface as dark as the grill marks. If you started with high quality meat, when you are done, you will have finally produced a restaurant quality steak at home. Reverse sear is the best way to get edge to edge medium rare on a thick steak without that thick band of battleship gray meat under the crust, Check out the incredible method of reverse sear used at Stripsteak in Las Vegas in my article on extreme steak.
What about other foods?
Let's look at chicken breasts. Fatty skin on one side, lean meat on the other. If you start over high heat, there's a good chance you'll blacken the skin before the inside is cooked. You could cook it skin side up, but then the meat on the bottom gets overcooked and dry, and the skin stays rubbery.
The better strategy is to cook the meat in the indirect zone, flipping it occasionally, with warm convection air and smoke, bring it close to the desired temp, and them move it over direct radiant heat, skin side down, to crisp it. Then you can serve tender, juicy meat, and crispy skin! Check out my update of the classic Cornell Chicken recipe to see the concept in action.
It even works for prime rib and other roasts. Start low and slow, and never have that 1" band of overcooked meat again. I have a whole article on that subject too. Even baked potatoes are best when reverse seared.
In fact, many things reach perfection outdoors with 2-zone cooking, and reverse sear. Master these techniques.