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There are several dishes that are best served cold.

But, does this usually mean the "normal room temperature", or cold as in "frozen", or as when the food just comes out from a freezer or a fridge?

The latter is my default understanding.

So, one of our answers saying "Ketchup is usually served cold." made me curious because it sounds more like "room temperature".

How cold is a dish that is served cold?

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I think in this context "cold" means simply "not heated". "Cold roast beef" is not refrigerated beef, but beef that has cooled after cooking. Ketchup may be refrigerated or may be room temperature, but it is not ordinarily heated before putting it on hot dogs. –  StoneyB May 23 at 16:26
    
If frozen it is below 32F/0C –  AbraCadaver May 23 at 19:23
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up vote 11 down vote accepted

As with so many things, it depends.

When used in contrast to a hot alternative, cold simply means at or somewhat below room temperature. For example, the meat in a hot pastrami sandwich is heated on a skillet as part of its preparation and served hot, whereas a cold pastrami sandwich it is not.

Food is also cold if it is usually served heated, but has cooled off below the temperature where it is normally consumed. Thus, your lukewarm chicken noodle soup may still be warmer than the air, but you may still send it back to the kitchen as "cold."

If the temperature of a food were deliberately lowered as part of its preparation, with ice or refrigeration, it would be chilled. For example, you might have chilled wine served with your dinner and chilled fruit for dessert.

Sometimes, hot and cold distinguish between levels of preparation. A cold lunch would be one brought from home (aka sack lunch), or a box lunch of a sandwich or fruit, as opposed to a hot lunch which would be a heated, prepared meal. Schools may offer a choice of hot lunch or cold lunch, for example.

Ketchup is a condiment, and so would almost always be cold, but would probably not be chilled.


I should note that with beverages as opposed to food, cold does sometimes mean chilled, at least in American English. You'll advertisements for cold drinks, typically meaning chilled fruity or fizzy soft drinks. A cold beer is idiomatically one that has been chilled below cellar temperature (well below room temperature)— we would not order chilled beer in a bar without raising some eyebrows.

But there are certain drinks which are taken hot or chilled, and never at room temperature. Thus, cold coffee or cold cider is hot coffee or cider that has been allowed to cool off— not something you can typically order. To get the truly cold alternative, you order iced coffee or chilled cider.


Lastly, there is the expression Revenge is a dish best served cold, but cold here is a play on words, referring to cold-bloodedness (i.e. heartlessness or mercilessness).

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Thank you for several good points! –  Damkerng T. May 23 at 16:57
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This is an excellent and comprehensive answer. I wish I could +9000! –  WendiKidd May 23 at 18:01
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I always took the Revenge Is A Dish Best Served Cold phrase as waiting to getting revenge until the offending party does not expect it. –  Elias May 23 at 19:30
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@Elias, and also because it gives you more time to plan your revenge and relish in it. But this doesn't answer the question as to whether revenge should be served at fridge temperature or room temperature. And which type of relish goes best with it? –  tobyink May 23 at 19:54
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Cruncher, it's called entropy (which always increases). @Elias, I take the expression primarily to mean "don't take your revenge while you're still hot and angry and impetuous, and could do something foolish (and get caught). Wait until your temper has cooled and you can go about the [crime or other unpleasantness] coolly and carefully." Your target may well have forgotten about it by then, or they may have been worrying the whole time. –  Phil Perry May 23 at 22:27
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