How Cooking Works: Convection and Conduction

How does food get hot? Just put it in the oven or heat it up on the stovetop. The way heat travels from something hot, like a flame or a pot of boiling water, to the food item we intend to cook, is a process called heat transfer and the different ways this can be accomplished determines how the food is cooked and what the end result will be.

There are two main methods of heat transfer: conduction and convection. (A third method, radiation, is also recognized, but it's outside the scope of this discussion.)

Conduction

Conduction is probably the most basic and intuitive way of achieving heat transfer. Something hot touches something cool and the cool thing heats up. For instance, the water in a pot boils when the flame from the stovetop heats the pan, and the heat from the pan is transferred to the water via conduction.

If you drop an egg into that boiling water, the heat from the water is then transferred to the egg. As the outer parts of the egg heat up, that heat is transferred inward, so that it is the hotter parts of the egg that end up cooking the cooler, interior parts of itself. The transfer of heat from one part of an object to another part of the same object is also considered conduction.

Whether heat is​ efficiently transferred in this way depends on the conductivity of the items involved. Copper is an extremely good conductor of heat, which means heat moves through copper cookware and is transferred to the food quickly.

By comparison, water or even stainless steel are relatively poor conductors of heat. For that matter, the food itself is a poor conductor of heat, which is why we see that a roast will continue cooking for several minutes even after we take it out of the oven.

It's also why roasting a turkey is so difficult. You're basically cooking the inside of the bird by getting the outside of it really hot. By the time the inside (i.e. the thigh) is done, the outside (i.e. the breast) is overcooked.

Convection

Whereas conduction is a static process, convection is a more efficient method of heat transfer because it adds the element of motion. A convection oven heats food faster than an ordinary one because it has a fan that blows the hot air around.

Convection ovens can reduce cooking times by 25% or more compared with ordinary ovens. They also tend to increase the browning of food by concentrating more heat on the food's outer surface.

The movement of steam or the motion of boiling water in a pot are also examples of convection. Stirring a pot of soup would be considered a form of convection, as it redistributes the heat from the bottom of a pot throughout the soup.

Convection is also the reason that frozen items thaw more quickly under cold running water than if they are simply submerged in water.