Cooking Class: Boiling and Simmering

Cooking Class: Boiling and Simmering

Although they're variations of the same process, these methods are essentially distinct. Here's why it's good to know the difference.

While neither simmering nor boiling is difficult, both are essential techniques used to prepare everything from pasta to green vegetables to stewed meats. They're really degrees of the same thing, but the effect each has on food is profoundly different. These two basic cooking methods are used in most kitchens every day and require little more than a heavy-bottomed pot or saucepan to evenly distribute the heat.

Unlike the French, who are gifted with a vocabulary that describes the stages of a liquid about to boil (such as fremir, which means to tremble or shake), we have no equivalent words to describe variations in simmering. But for most purposes, a simmer is the stage when the water is in motion but almost no bubbles break the surface; they're trying to, but the water's surface tension holds them in place. Boiling, though, refers to liquid that's in full motion, with bubbles rapidly rising to the surface. The recipes and tips in this package will distinguish between the two and illustrate when each works best.

Basic Boiling

This technique cooks food at a relatively high temperature―212 degrees is the boiling point for water at sea level. When liquids boil, bubbles break through and pop on the surface while the whole batch of liquid churns vigorously. Bubbles are caused by water vapor, a gas, rushing to the surface.

What boiling does. In the case of pasta, churning, boiling water keeps the food in motion, prevents sticking, and cooks quickly so the pasta doesn't get soggy. Green vegetables are tossed into boiling water to cook as quickly as possible so they retain their flavor and bright color in a process called blanching; if they were to simmer gently in a covered pot, their color would dull, and they would lose much of their texture. Boiling causes speedy evaporation, a useful effect for reducing sauces, where the volume of the liquid decreases and flavors are concentrated.

Boiling liquid. When ingredients are boiled, they are done so in water, sometimes containing salt and oil or butter for flavor and texture. The food is usually added to the liquid once it reaches a boil.

Best bets for boiling. This intense cooking method is well suited for pasta, some grains, and green vegetables. Boiling is also useful for reducing sauces. 


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