How to Boil Water

In this class, students learn the difference between two basic cooking techniques—boiling and simmering—and are introduced to some basic knife skills. This page serves as a digest of what we cover in class. (For notes on knife skills, please visit this page.)

Boiling and simmering are two of the most basic cooking techniques. They both use hot liquid to transfer heat to foods and cook them through. The difference between the two methods is the temperature at which they occur. Boiling occurs at a higher temperature and is used to cook sturdy foods that can be knocked around in vigorously boiling water. Simmering is used more frequently than boiling. It cooks more delicate foods such as vegetables and rice. Because these methods do not brown food or concentrate flavors by allowing ingredients to shed moisture, boiled or simmered foods often derive flavor from sauces or are used as accompaniments to support other dishes.

All About Boiling

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At sea level, water boils at 212 degrees Fahrenheit. Large bubbles rise energetically and burst on the surface of the water, creating turbulence.

Boiling is for hardy, sturdy foods of relatively small size that can withstand this turbulence and the churning action—there are, in fact, only a handful foods that are cooked through via boiling: dried pasta, some grains, and vegetables that are being blanched are the most common (hard-boiled eggs are, in fact, often simmered).

When bringing liquid to a boil, covering the pot will help speed heating because the lid will trap heat within the pot. It will also prevent moisture loss. Sometimes, when making sauces, for example, boiling is used to hasten evaporation so that the sauce thickens and its flavor becomes more concentrated. In these cases, the pot is left uncovered.

All About Simmering

Simmering usually starts with boiling—that is, the liquid is first brought up to a full boil, then the heat is reduced to the point where the liquid bubbles just below the boiling point. The upper limit of simmering is easily defined as 211 degrees. The lower limit is a matter of debate.

We generally reserve the term simmering for liquids between 190 degrees (a gentle simmer) and 205 degrees (a steady, lively simmer). Because simmering occurs at slightly lower temperatures than boiling, it’s better at cooking food evenly, especially if the food is chunky or large—in the case of whole potatoes, for instance, the exteriors won’t turn mushy and overcooked before the interiors become tender. Simmering is also kinder to foods than boiling—the gentle bubbling action won’t cause dried beans to explode or grains of rice to fray.

Simmering is a widely used technique: stocks and broths are simmered to extract flavor from vegetables and bones; soups are simmered to cook components and meld flavors; tomato sauces for pasta are simmered to cook off excess moisture; stews and braises require simmering to tenderize proteins and vegetables; compotes and chutneys are simmered to soften the fruits they contain.

Practice Recipes

Start fine-tuning your chopping and simmering skills at home with the recipe we prepared in class:

After perfecting the in-class recipe, continue practicing with these related recipes:


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