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.

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Simple Simmering

A cooking method gentler than boiling, simmering refers to cooking food in liquid (or cooking just the liquid itself) at a temperature slightly below the boiling point―around 180 to 190 degrees. It's trickier than boiling because it requires careful regulation of the temperature so that the surface of the liquid shimmers with a bubble coming up every few seconds.

What simmering does. Simmering cooks food gently and slowly. Delicate foods such as fish are poached at or below a simmer to prevent them from breaking apart. Meats that are simmered remain moist and fork-tender, while boiled meats are often dry and tough because the heat of boiling liquid can cause their proteins to toughen. Stocks are simmered so the fat and proteins released by any cooking meat or bones float to the top, where they can be skimmed off instead of being churned back in, which can make the stock cloudy and greasy.

Best bets for simmering. This technique is more versatile than boiling and lends itself to a variety of foods. Simmering is used to cook proteins (fish, poultry, and meats), often in the form of poaching (cooking in enough liquid to cover the food) and braising (cooking in a small amount of liquid). It's also essential when making broth or stock. Whereas boiling works well for tender green vegetables, tough, fibrous root vegetables (such as potatoes, turnips, and beets) are best simmered so they cook evenly throughout.

Maintaining a simmer. A constant simmer isn't always easy to regulate, especially on a gas stovetop. Even at the lowest setting, the heat may be too intense and cause the liquid to boil. Turning the flame too low may cause it to extinguish, or the self-lighting mechanism may click incessantly. To avoid this, put the pot to one side of the flame, or use a device called a flame tamer or heat diffuser (or sometimes called a simmer ring) to absorb some of the stove's heat.

Simmering liquid. Food is usually simmered in flavored liquid, such as broth/stock or wine, but sometimes water is used. As a general rule, add meat to cold liquid, and bring it up to a simmer. If you add uncooked meat to already-simmering broth, the meat immediately releases proteins that cloud the broth. When you start the meat in cold liquid, these proteins are released more gradually and become entangled with one another in a frothy mass that's easy to skim off the surface. Fish are an exception. If you start poaching small pieces of fish in cold liquid, by the time it comes to a simmer, the fish will be overcooked.

 The bottom line.

 • When simmering, a small bubble or two should break through the surface of the liquid every second or two. If more bubbles rise to the surface, lower the heat, or move the pot to one side of the burner. 

• If simmering meat or large pieces of fish, place the food in cold water, and then bring it up to a simmer. 

• When boiling vegetables or pasta, add the uncooked food to water that's fully churning.

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