When it’s hot outside three things will become true: I will start to hate using my oven. I will want to invite people to my yard to enjoy a meal al fresco. I will grow increasingly lazy. None of these three things is in direct conflict with the other two, but their co-existence does present some challenges.
Cooking outside keeps things cool, but barbequing usually means I end up all smoky and sweaty come suppertime. I also do not always love putting fresh-off-the-grill food into my mouth if I myself have spent a good amount of time sweating over hot coals. This is where the elegance of room-temp (or even colder) food comes in.
Eating food that was cooked the day before, a couple of hours ago, or even just half an hour ago and then allowed to cool does two things: It introduces you to new flavours and textures, and it frees up your hosting timeline considerably. If you’re not worried about your main “getting cold” while you prepare the rest of the meal, you’ll feel much less stressed, and you’ll be more likely to enjoy the process of entertaining. (Limiting yourself a bit can help too.)
While a nice hot steak is definitely enjoyable, a grilled flank that’s been sitting in a board sauce overnight (in the fridge) can be transcendent. The sauce has had time to permeate the meat, and taking it out of the fridge half an hour early to warm slightly before serving lets you taste volatile flavour compounds that you might miss at super warm or super cold temperatures.
“Food” is not a monolith, and even something as simple as orange juice contains a staggering array of chemical compounds that affect its flavour, and temperature affects different kinds of foods differently. According to Serious Eats, the “topic remains poorly understood in scientific circles, in part due to wide variation in the concentrations of taste compounds in different foods, not to mention the inherent subjectivity of taste.” But even still, “the idea that hot and cold temperatures reduce the intensity at which your tongue perceives taste has gained a fair amount of credence among both academics and laypeople.”
Anecdotally, I ate a room-temp grilled chicken thigh yesterday, and it blew my mind. The skin was the only drawback — it was rubbery and jiggly rather than crispy — but the meat tasted sweeter, a little richer, and felt dense and silky on the tongue. It was a completely different experience than eating a freshly grilled thigh, and it was a good one.
A word on food safety
I know we’re all supposed to be keeping “hot foods hot” and “cold foods cold,” but you have some leeway, even by the US FDA’s standards. They recommend leaving perishable food out of the fridge for no longer than two hours, and no longer than one hour if the ambient temp rises above 30C, so stick to that and you will be more than safe. (The FDA and their rules have never stopped me from eating pizza that’s sat out on my counter overnight, but do as the FDA says, not as I do.)
Let your meat mellow
All meat benefits from a little resting after cooking so the juices can redistribute, but some meats do particularly well with a long nap or even a full night’s sleep. Some of my favourite not-hot foods include chicken breasts that have been pounded and grilled (or pan fried) and then allowed to cool to room temp, thinly sliced medium-rare steak that’s been chilled overnight and tossed with an acidic vinaigrette, and room temp (or cold) reversed-seared koji-, miso-, or buttermilk-marinated pork. This sous-vide tuna is not appealing at all fresh out of the cooker, but absolutely stellar when served room-temp with crusty bread, really good mayo, and lots of fresh herbs. Also, don’t sleep on leftover fried chicken; it should not work — most cold fried food is gross — but the layer of congealed fat that resides just under the skin is a textural delight when paired with the cold, salty crunch of the breading.
Let your vegetables veg out
Freshly roasted potatoes are good — I would never claim otherwise — but letting them cool to room temp makes them ideal dippers. Try dipping one of these mini hasslebacks directly from the air fryer into sour cream. The dip will slide right off. But let the spud cool, and it will grab hold of that cultured dairy and cradle it with care as it makes the journey to your mouth. A tiny room-temp potato is likewise a far superior vehicle for crème fraîche and caviar; a hot one would melt the former and obscure the delicate, briny flavour of the latter.
Other vegetables, both root and not, also benefit from cooling. Room temp roasted carrots make a great meat substitute in a salad — they’ve got the chew! — and cold marinated asparagus always tastes more like asparagus than its hot counterpart. Actually, I’d argue all marinated veg are best at room temp. The oils are warm enough to be fluid, but not so warm that any delicate herbs are lost on the palate. If you need convincing that fresh vegetables and fruits are better served room-temp than chilled, just follow up a slice of tomato from a fruit that was stored in the fridge with one from a tomato that was stored on the counter.
Eggs and dairy benefit too
Warmish eggs and cheese may sound icky — especially if you grew up in the U.S., or anywhere else they blast the cuticle off of their eggs — but dishes like the Spanish tortilla are meant to be served this way (as is this sous-side omelet), and unless it’s shredded cheese straight from the bag at 2 a.m., cold cheese is a crime. We’ve discussed this before, but the fat in cheese just doesn’t taste or feel that good when it’s fridge-cold:
Cheese is mostly fat, and cold fat is rubbery and flavourless. But once that fat warms up, it loosens up, and the cheese will feel creamy — rather than bouncy — in your mouth. It will also taste as it was intended, since you won’t have all that cold, flavour-muting fat messing things up.
This spring and summer, I urge you to lean into the not-hot, the room-temp, and the ever-so-slightly-chilled. It will allow you to be lazier, breezier, and a little more relaxed, but it might also introduce you to new flavours and textures that you didn’t even know were possible. One thing I would avoid at all costs? Room-temperature Diet Coke. Letting it warm to anything above “ice cold” will let you taste new and exiting flavours, but those flavours are best described as “robot blood.”