The words Roasting and Baking are artifacts of history, developed as culinary vocabulary when man learned the different uses of a cooking fire. Imagine early chefs cooking over an open fire. They originally had two primary and distinctive methods to use to cook the food.
They could hold the food over the flames and “Roast” it or they could wait for the flames to die down and “Bake” the items over, or under, the coals. With that image in mind it is easier to see the initial differences between Baking and Roasting and then trace the two words through history to define the modern terms. In the modern era, Roasting and Baking are slightly confused because of the advent of new technologies which allows most of us to forego the inconveniences of a camp fire on a daily basis (hauling wood, ashes, open flame, house fires, sparks, un-even cooking heat).
In theory, today, Roasting should be cooking over an open flame, but since most of our ovens use convection, Roasting has taken on a slightly different definition:
Roasting – to cook food (from meats to vegetables) with fat so that they have a well browned exterior and a moist interior. Modern Roasting is most often accomplished in a shallow, uncovered Roasting Pan. At temperatures that are typically higher than those used for Baking. The pan is typically uncovered so that the food item does not stew in its own juices or in its own moisture retained by the lid. The goal of roasting is to transfer heat from the hot environment of the oven to the surface of the product and then into the interior of the product, at a regulated, sustainable rate, to yield a moist, tender cooked interior and a flavorful, crusty (but not burnt) exterior.
Fat is also typically a requirement of the Roasting process, either added fat as in brushing a vegetable with Oil, or integral to the food as in the high fat content of Duck meat. When no fat is used, the term Dry Roasting is technically appropriate, though it often refers a more commercial process, such as dry roasting coffee beans.
Finally, foods such as solid meats or firmer vegetables that are Roasted tend to have more “structure,” and less “empty space” than foods we Bake, think of solid meats, or firmer vegetables. They also tend to be fairly tender to benefit from Roasting. Potentially tougher items can be Large Diced, like for Roasted Potatoes, or Roasted Yams.
Slow Roasting can also help with slightly tougher items, but very tough cuts will ultimately be better eating with a Stew or aBraise. Other types of Roasting can be used for other applications such as Flame Roasting for peppers.
Roasted Potatoes should not be confused with Rösti, also known as Rösti Potatoes, which are a German potato pancake made from Grated Potatoes. Rösti is very similar to a Jewish Latke.
In contrast, Baking means to cook food with little fat by surrounding it with Dry Heat. The foods are normally raw or at least unadulterated, even by added fat, when Baked. A lot of the cooking action of baking is focused on working with the interior gasses of the food: creating steam from internal moisture or expanding natural air pockets in the food. Most foods that we bake have more “Open Space” and native moisture than the more solid foods we roast.
Generally, baked items tend to start with little structure or form and acquire it during the baking process. Think of Crème Brûlée firming from a liquid state in the oven or bread dough rising and firming as it bakes. Baked can also contain Leavening to help them puff up or rise.
Modern ovens, especially fancier ones, can have both Roast and Bake settings but there is no industry standard that states what exactly a Roast or Bake setting should do. In some cases “Bake” means only the bottom element is used and “Roast” means that both top and bottom elements are heated. In others the usage is reversed. They can also have Convection Roast and Convection Bake settings where convection heat is employed along with the heating elements. The point, is that there is no standard, so you will have to learn how your oven operates to use it to best effect. It is also not a bad idea, since many ovens don’t heat accurately, to Gauge the Cooking Temperatures of Your Oven using an oven-safe thermometer. There you have it roasting vs. baking!
Courtesy of Smart Kitchen LLC – The Online Culinary School