The Best Techniques for Knowing When Food is Cooked

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Image by funadium via Flickr

In my post, The Secret to Great Home Cooking, I explained that the key to good food is to cook it until it’s done, and no longer.

So how do you know when food is ready to serve?

It isn’t always easy. Cooking times in recipes are only a guide. For instance, older beans and vegetables take longer to cook than fresher ones. Cuts of meat are different sizes, and our cooking equipment and even the weather affect a recipe. But once you can accurately tell when food is done without consulting a cookbook, your cooking skill has reached a new level.

Here are the techniques and tips that I use to tell when food is cooked.

  • Bread: Lift the bottom of the bread. It should be brown, and you should hear a hollow sound if you tap it.  If it’s in a loaf pan, the sides should be brown too.
  • Cake: Put a toothpick or sharp knife in the center. If it comes out clean, it’s done. A cake that is not cooked will also jiggle as you move it.
  • Poultry: Barring a thermometer (chart), cut between the thigh and drumstick. The liquid should run clear, not pink.
  • Meats: Use a thermometer (chart). The juice should run clear at the center.
  • Fish: The thickest part of the fish’s flesh should be opaque, and liquid should run clear.
  • Hamburgers: Well-browned on both sides but not burnt. The liquid should run clear, and the center should be nearly solid. not mushy.
  • Pancakes: Flip when bubbles appear on the top,  and the edges are getting more solid. Cook on the second side for another minute or two, until brown.
  • Vegetables: Pierce them through to the center with a fork or sharp knife. It should go through easily.
  • Rice: This is tricky, because ideally you should keep the cover closed while cooking. It’s usually done when the liquid is absorbed, but taste a grain to be sure.
  • Pasta: “Al dente” means that there is some resistance from your teeth.
  • Noodle casseroles and quiches: They should be brown on top, and not just at the corners.

Opening the pot or oven to check for doneness can also affect cooking time, and may dry out your food. If the oven opens at the wrong stage of baking, the cake could fall. Meats and fish lose their juices when you cut them, and sometimes you want to serve food whole for an impressive presentation.

At first you will want to set the timer for a few minutes less than the recipe calls for. Check the food. If it’s not done, set the timer again. The timer is your friend, especially if you have small children.

When you check your food according to the guide, pay attention to the smell and look of the food so you can know for next time.


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  1. That was great. I knew about the cakes and chicken, but I’m never sure when pancakes are finished and I tend to overdo them. I also love my timer, it is definitely my friend! 🙂

  2. Thanks, Debbie. I appreciate your feedback!