Consider a world in which cooking food is complicated by the need to employ split-second timing to prepare it correctly (for example, to prevent it from being overcooked or undercooked).

This would make a chef's job significantly more difficult and as such preparing fancy food would be a much more prestigious and glamorous position than it is now.

How could one design a habitable planet in which this was a reality?

I'm looking for answers that describe natural, environmental, biological, or societal factors. I'd prefer if any ideas applied to as many different cooked foods and cooking methods as possible.

A few ideas I'm thinking of:

  • For some reason, most foods contain a highly combustible substance that greatly accelerates the cooking process upon release. However, for some reason exposure to this substance is highly desirable, meaning that a chef must wait for the substance to combust and then attempt to put it out as soon as possible.
  • Something in the atmosphere accelerates the cooking process or causes a chemical reaction that needs to be timed very carefully.
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    $\begingroup$ How would they discover the palatable zone in the first place? Seems like they would be adapted to eat food raw. Did their ancestors have so much excess food to experiment with? $\endgroup$ – user535733 May 23 '18 at 18:03
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    $\begingroup$ This sounds very contrived. I'm sure one could come up with other reasons why cooks are at the top in your world. $\endgroup$ – Karl May 23 '18 at 18:44
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    $\begingroup$ I dunno about a whole planet but that sounds like how I deal with popcorn. $\endgroup$ – 0xFF May 23 '18 at 18:46
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    $\begingroup$ It's unclear if you want this to go for all types of food - essentially dooming everyone who can't do this timing, or if you only require it for some types. $\endgroup$ – pipe May 24 '18 at 8:38
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    $\begingroup$ What tech level are you going for? With the methods available today, I can't think of any food procesing step your people couldn't drastically simplify with appropriate machines. Timing, especially, is something that machines are just better at than humans, and have been for quite a while. $\endgroup$ – Ruther Rendommeleigh May 24 '18 at 9:10

Due to how cooking works this really isn't possible. Denaturing organic molecules through heat and is a slow aggregate process, done in a aqueous solution it has an even greater buffer. To top it off there are so many ways to cook that affecting them all in the same way is impossible.

We already cook many foods to remove toxins, almost all root vegetables (aside from a few domestic breeds) for instance. Cooking is already a timed reaction, and although there are ways to make cooking dangerous, none create super-precision timing widespread throughout cooking.

Lastly the human digestive system evolved to compensate for the mildly toxic byproducts of cooking, so it is more likely your creatures will evolve to deal with the effects of "over" cooking or just not invent it in the first place. For cooking to be accidentally discovered it cannot require that much precision.

  • $\begingroup$ I think you're simplifying "cooking" to "heating", instead of the broader meaning of "food preparing". Heating indeed is usually not time-sensitive due to temperature gradients. $\endgroup$ – MSalters May 24 '18 at 11:07
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    $\begingroup$ Cooking food is use heat, acid, or a number of other means to denature and break down proteins and carbs and other macro-nutrients, thus making them far easier to digest and extract nutrients from. Because these molecules have a range of denaturing temperatures/conditions the process cannot be that fast. Generally you stop before it goes onto the next step forming new compounds, which is what overcooking is, this is were time sensitivity comes in. $\endgroup$ – John May 24 '18 at 18:47

There are things in real cooking that require timing like you describe. It would be fun to take these things and glamorize them. In the TV shows this happens all the time, with tight closeups of furrowed brows and tense music.


Milk boiling over.


It's happened to all of us at least once. We're heating milk for a sauce, or oatmeal, or any number of things, but there are just a few bubbles around the edge. We turn away for just a minute to do something else, and the next thing we know, there's steamy, sputtering milk cascading over our stove top. What gives?!

Here's what's happening in that little pot:

As milk heats, the water in its structure starts evaporating from the surface. This concentrates the remaining fat and proteins into a thicker layer at the top of the pot. This layer eventually becomes so thick that water vapor rising through the milk can't break through very easily and gets trapped....A pot of milk on the stove is also just one of those things that you can't turn your back on. We've definitely learned this lesson the hard way - more than once!

Grease fire


Recently, I was cooking a gorgeous rack of ribs on my grill. I had made sure to scrub the grates clean beforehand, and the meat was sizzling away with that familiar sound we all know and love. A few minutes later, it was time to put on the sauce. Well coated and ready to be flipped, the ribs were on their merry way to grilled perfection. That’s when it happened. The sauce dripped onto a sear plate, and instead of evaporating, caused a flare up, which ignited the grease that had built up in the grease tray. With calm, swift action, and some baking soda, I was able to quench the flames and get on with my grilling, the hungry guests none the wiser. That being said, this event was preventable.

His calm swift action was good to put out the fire. But prevention is better - you need good timing to keep the meat moving and flipping, because the fire can get away from you.

Soft boiled egg: This requires perfect timing. It is why there exist egg timers. Too short a boil and the egg is a runny mess. Too long and it is hard boiled - zut alors! You need to time it just perfectly to get the white hard and the yolk soft. Cue intense music...

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    $\begingroup$ With regards to egg cooking: you can actually slow cook a soft boiled egg if you’re precise enough about temperatures. There’s a one degree difference in the cooking temperature of the whites and the yolks, so if you balance the temperature exactly between those points for long enough the whites cook but the yolk remains completely fluid. $\endgroup$ – Joe Bloggs May 24 '18 at 7:06
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    $\begingroup$ Baking is science for hungry people. $\endgroup$ – Joe Bloggs May 24 '18 at 7:06
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    $\begingroup$ @JoeBloggs That's not quite right. There is a much wider range than one degree between the cooking of the egg and the white, and in fact each of them contains more than one protein, each of which denatures at a different temperature. It is true that you can cook a soft-boiled egg sous vide without worrying about timing it, but the temperature required is a little more forgiving than 1 degree. $\endgroup$ – GentlePurpleRain May 24 '18 at 17:20
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    $\begingroup$ Blowtorching a crème brûlée is another example where the difference between caramelised and actually burnt is around a second $\endgroup$ – Chris H May 25 '18 at 9:23

You want split-second timing when you're trying not to cook the food, but merely sanitize it.

The closest thing I can think of is UHT pasteurization. Here, you're trying to preserve the raw quality as much as possible, so you bring the food, usually milk, up to a high temperature for only a matter of seconds before cooling it back down as quickly as possible.

If you were to let it stay too long at the high temperature, you'd degrade the taste and nutrients. Not heating it long enough, or to a improper temperature could lead to food poisoning.

Therefore, one scenario is for a culture where the food is ideally enjoyed raw, like sashimi and salads, but an issue with a pathogen requires processing. Good chefs can safely treat the food with heat with minimum change in taste or texture, whereas bad chefs create a burned mess or worse, food poisoning.

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    $\begingroup$ You don't even need the cultural aspect. We humans have little problem in digesting highly denatured proteins (e.g. boiled eggs), but it's reasonable to imagine another species which lacks the digestive system for that. After all, boiled eggs are rare in nature so you don't need to evolve a digestive system for that. Now imagine the evolutionary pressure on the side of the egg-layers: eggs that are toxic to the egg-eaters would protect the egg-layers. This gives an evolutionary pressure that explains why split-second timing became necessary. $\endgroup$ – MSalters May 24 '18 at 11:13

Okay, modification of the fugu theme. You still have a poisonous fish, and it's expensive to boot. The difference is that the toxin is thermolabile - it denaturates above a certain temperature.

Unfortunately, this also happens to most flavour molecules in the fish, which are based on a very similar chemical make-up.

So cooking is a close run between the necessity of denaturating all of the poison, and yet preserving everything else. Of course, having a precise thermostat on an electric grill would make this very simple: so, assume we have neither.

enter image description here

To cook the fish to perfection, you need to cut it in the thinnest possible slices (to prevent one side being at too different a temperature from the other), marinate for exactly the right time in acidic juice - tolerance of about 30 seconds there - and instantly, or as fast as you can, transfer it to the hot teppanyaki plate, which must be at the correct temperature. To ensure it is at the correct temperature, distilled water is placed all over the plate, so that when it has boiled away the temperature is exactly 100 °C.

If the cook has correctly estimated the temperature rising speed, he will be able to flash-cook the slice on both sides. The combined tolerance in heating times is probably no more than a couple of seconds, likely less (it could be improved up to five or six if you had a thermostatized teppanyaki; so imagine you don't).

In the above graph the cook made a mistake of about half a second at t=10s, so he lost a little texture and some flavour.

The cooking is therefore an act similar to that of a juggler, with several marinade bowls being shuffled around by an assistant in the correct order, and the cook dancing from those to the griddle to the final plate. Probably quite coreographic as well.

In addition to the need for split-second estimations, if you miss one slice this will cause a cascade failure and you'll end up ruining several precious slices. Or, if you undercooked one slice, you'll poison the customer.

But no pressure :-)

This basically addresses the very good objection by @John:

the human digestive system evolved to compensate for the mildly toxic byproducts of cooking, so it is more likely your creatures will evolve to deal with the effects of "over" cooking or just not invent it in the first place. For cooking to be accidentally discovered it cannot require that much precision.

The "cooking" must have been invented only for some foods, and later expanded to include more and more foods-that-weren't, just as it happened on Earth with a lot of vegetables that are toxic if eaten raw.

Our aliens never evolved defenses against fish toxins because they never ate fish (or those fish). Other foods can be consumed raw, or cooked with ample tolerance into something edible. Even our 'miracle' fish can be safely eaten once overcooked, it just devolves to stringy rubber instead of the food of the Gods. In that state, the fish retains just that hint of tantalizing bliss that made early cooks strive to attain that peak of perfection.

For added effect, it's easy to imagine that the cooked fish spoils pretty fast, so you have to have the cook handy when cooking; which makes having a "fish party" quite the statement of wealth and power.

And if we have a robotic thermostated griddle?

In that case we could keep the fish at a temperature too low to lose flavor, but sufficient to degrade the toxin, and the cook could be just a griddle mechanic.

To prevent this, we can add another wild variable: the exact composition of toxins in the fish is variable, so you need to have an "eye". Anecdotically, there are pattern-identification tasks that are not easily boiled down to rules and seem to resist automation. So, a thermostat will avail you nothing unless you have the Eye.

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    $\begingroup$ An extension of this: overconsumption has caused all the other fish species to go extinct. There is a heat-sensitive essential nuttrient that can only be had by eating fish. Now everyone has to eat flash-cooked poisonous fugu :) $\endgroup$ – jpa May 25 '18 at 5:05

Supertasters on Steroids

The inhabitants of your planet all have an extremely refined and sensitive form of taste. Think of how blood hounds have an amazing sense of smell, but in this case it is in the form of taste. These people can taste the slightest imperfection in anything they eat, and can detect even the slightest variation in how something is cooked.

Coffee and Chocolate

On our planet there are foods and beverages that people are connoisseurs of and care greatly about all the subtle variations there in. For example take coffee, how it is roasted directly determines the type of brew it will produce. The difference between a blonde and a dark roast can be less than a minute of roasting depending on the method of cooking, and it is easy to burn it if you are doing it yourself.

Meanwhile you have chocolate which depending on the ratio of cocoa butter, cocoa liquor, sugar, milk, vanilla and other ingredients determines what type of chocolate you get. Also how it is tempered determines the type and ratio of crystallization that takes place which directly impacts its melting point, texture, and taste.

For your people everyone is a connoisseur of everything. As such the slightest imperfection caused by the slightest variation on how long something is cooked makes the dish ruined by their standards (for us we would give them a rather puzzled look as to what is wrong with them).

Degrees of Doneness

Another way to view it is to look at how we humans measure how done a piece of meat is. Do you want it rare, medium-rare, medium, medium-well, or well done? That is only 5 measly degrees of doneness. Your inhabitants being able to taste the slightest difference could have a 100 degrees of doneness for meat, and when they ask their meat to be cooked at 76 degrees of doneness, the cook better not serve a 75 degree or 77 degree of meat. To get it to come out at that level would require precision timing where even the slightest distraction or miscalculation would make it wrong (and you know the customer will be irate if it is over done).

Needless to say they would go crazy if they had to eat our human food, since it is so wildly inconsistent.

  • $\begingroup$ This was going to be my answer, but you did a better job of it than I could. $\endgroup$ – Joe Bloggs May 24 '18 at 7:11
  • $\begingroup$ @JoeBloggs thank you. If you have any ideas for making the answer better let me know, or feel free to edit it yourself. $\endgroup$ – Anketam May 24 '18 at 11:02
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    $\begingroup$ “What is this??!? I asked for my salmon cooked medium medium medium rare, not medium medium rare rare like it’s still in the ocean!! Send it back!” $\endgroup$ – Joe Bloggs May 24 '18 at 14:30

A highly oxygenated environment would create a need for very careful cooking. If you go too fast, with too much heat, the food bursts into flames, too slow you can't getting enough heat into the food to actually cook it. Additionally that much oxygen is going to to mean that foodstuffs brown and degrade more rapidly so getting food from the kitchen to the customer in minimum time becomes absolutely vital or the dish is starting to rot when it arrives. Of course that means that there are dishes that you want to delay between the kitchen and the table as well, they're the ones that need that rotting pungency to finish them off properly.

For it to be habitable for unaltered modern humans you can't go above about .25 bar partial pressure of Oxygen which will not be enough for this effect to be noticable.

  • $\begingroup$ high oxygen does not have much effect on cooking, high oxygen cooking is already a thing, the fact most things being cooked are largely water drastically impedes burning. $\endgroup$ – John May 23 '18 at 18:25
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    $\begingroup$ If there's so much oxygen in the atmosphere as to make combustion a real risk, biomatter would likely have evolved to not burst into flames as easily. $\endgroup$ – a CVn May 23 '18 at 18:27
  • $\begingroup$ Not to mention, 90 bar O2 partial pressure!?! Last I saw oxygen toxicity set in at about 300 millibar partial pressure, which corresponds to about 30% O2 at sea level air pressure. $\endgroup$ – a CVn May 23 '18 at 18:28
  • $\begingroup$ @MichaelKjörling Sorry you're quite right it is in millibars not bars I though it was 100 though so I don't know what I was thinking of. $\endgroup$ – Ash May 23 '18 at 18:33

Perhaps an easier way than inventing new forms of cooking.

It might be that cooking works just like it does on Earth. However, this culture has a hyper active sense of taste. Maybe there are many different types of toxins so evolving better senses of taste to differentiate is important. Or maybe many poisonous gas pockets exist and so they have developed an extraordinary sense of smell.

So the difference may be that they are just much more sensitive to small imperfections in their food. Over the generations, they have inadvertently bred this to a higher degree.

A bugger that would taste great to you might taste like garbage to this culture.

You might ask, what about food that you can keep on the stove indefinitely? Just leave it in a crockpot? Well the fact is that you can't. If you leave food in a crockpot long enough, it continues to break down and you eventually get mush. With many foods there is a wide range of "done" because our sense of taste is really just not all that sensitive (and really relies heavily on smell). But a better sense of taste might narrow this window.

If taste was developed enough, society might revolve heavily around it. The culture might always be eating and snaking. Perhaps the taste of air is considered unpleasant, and so must drown it out with foods. Perhaps these people, because of plentiful wild food (garden of eden, except it all tastes bad), they never evolved fat storage. They are like humming birds and always need to eat.

I wont address how cooking could end up require split second timing to a human pallet, because it seems like a lot of other people are doing so. I will just state that in order for a species to live long enough to develop cooking, under cooked food (at least some sorts), must be edible, even if not palatable.

  • $\begingroup$ Oh, my idea was very similar to this. I added a twist that the population developed OCD as well, though. $\endgroup$ – jxh May 24 '18 at 0:17
  • $\begingroup$ @jxh there is a ton of different story telling that can arise from hyper-taste. I wrote a short story once about a guy who had super taste (but not everyone else did). He lived like a hermit to get pure air and water and would grow everything himself. People would come from afar and have him test things. His fee? High quality ingredients. $\endgroup$ – Richard Hansen May 24 '18 at 0:44

Probably such an occurrence would have less to do with ecological conditions on the world than with how the people themselves evolved. Suppose the people on your world somehow developed a hyper-sensitive palate, and also were obsessive about experiencing the exact same dish that they had eaten before. Then, this would demand that all chefs make the same dish in the exact same way, which would probably provide a scenario close to cooking that required split-second timing.

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    $\begingroup$ Welcome to worldbuilding.SE! If you have not done so already, please take our tour and visit our help center to learn more about us. This was a pretty good first answer! Thanks for participating! $\endgroup$ – JBH May 24 '18 at 0:23

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