What is carry-over cooking and how does it work?

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When you take food off the stove or out of the oven, it continues to be hot (unless you shock it).  While it’s cooling down, it will continue to cook.  This is called “carry-over cooking,” and understanding how it works and using it carefully can greatly improve the quality of your food.

When cooking meat, particularly larger cuts like racks and tenderloins, assume that the meat will continue to increase in temperature 5-10 degrees out of the oven before it begins to cool down.  Smaller cuts, like steaks, have less thermal mass and so usually carry over cook less while resting.  This will happen while you’re resting the meat (you do rest meat prior to slicing it, right?), so if you pull your roast out of the oven at your target temperature, it will be overdone by the time you eat it.

Careful management of this residual heat will allow you to hit your ideal level of doneness every time.  Just use a thermometer to check your meat’s temperature, and remove it from the heat when it’s 5-10 degrees away from where you want it to be when you eat it.


Veggies continue to cook off the heat as well, and they can very quickly go from fresh and vibrant to overcooked if you aren’t careful.  If you’re planning on serving your vegetables cooked but cold, take care to shock them once they’re cooked to your liking.  If you’ll be serving your vegetables (particularly green vegetables) hot, consider cooking them almost to your liking.  The veggies will continue cooking as they make their way to the table.  Keep in mind that covering them while hot will cause them to steam themselves, so if you’re going to be doing that, plan for them to cook more.

Most cakes and pies should be removed from the oven when they’re done, not before.  Pulling a cake out early can keep its structure from setting properly, leading to sagging (or worse, outright collapse).  However, there are some exceptions where using carryover cooking can really work to your advantage.

Custards, particularly creme brulee, are tricky to carry-over cook.  Pull them too early and they won’t finish setting up at all.  That said, if you do it correctly, pulling JUST before they’re completely set and leaving them in their water bath to cool down slowly, your custard will still set, but with a softer, creamier texture that will have guests and family members swooning.

Cheesecakes also need to carryover cook, but the purpose is less to finish cooking them and more to keep them from cooling down too quickly.  A fast cooling cheesecake is a cracking cheesecake, so always leave cheesecakes in their water baths to slow the cooling process.

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