Conquering the Basic Cooking Techniques of Poaching, Simmering and Boiling
One of the advantages of cooking for others is that no matter how those you are cooking for might attempt to intervene in the process, offer advice, snoop on your activities & etc., in most cases they lack the expertise, aptitude, patience and experience to take your place in front of the stove. However much those individuals might seek to run mind games on you because you are, in a sense, doing some work that they might have helped finance, in the very short term their relation to you is one of dependence.
The people you’re feeding, typically family members, will almost always be hungrier than you. And they will lack your access to sharp knives and convenient missiles (fruits and vegetables, for example) needed to drive them off.
This power relationship can be reversed in the case of your relationship to kitchen appliances. Remember: those things were designed by engineers and programmers who themselves were oppressed by doltish marketing managers and senior executives. The engineers’ goals and values might have led them to seek the most efficient and graceful designs.
To you, a lovely kitchen stove; to the engineers who designed it,
a purgatory they’re enduring until they can design rocket ships and race cars.
Taking the most positive view of those strangers and their approach to their work, we may as well assume that the design engineers sought to create kitchen appliances that would, within the cost limits imposed on them by their bosses, afford the most productive environment for the cook, the most efficient use of the raw materials and labor time taken to build the stoves, dishwashers, refrigerators and other appliances; and the best outcomes for the meals themselves, which would be promoted by designing controls that controlled combustion and heat as precisely as possible.
Sadly, when the aspirations of the engineers collided with the avarice of managers, the engineers lost almost every time. Penny-pinching, corner-cutting, planned obsolescence, and marketing manipulation trumped the engineers’ desire to build the best possible stoves with the available resources.
As a result, some of us struggle with stoves that are hard to control even when they’re brand new.
This can lead to a quitchen quatastrophe: when a stovetop runs so hot that it’s almost impossible to simmer a pot; in that case, a saucepan will overheat and boil, with consequences that can range from messy and wasteful to inedible and humiliating.
The important differences between poaching, simmering and boiling
It’s simple: these three heating levels cook food at different speeds, but more importantly, they affect the color, texture, and taste of food.
This can make the difference between grimly masticating a hunk of indigestible, tasteless bully beef that compares unfavorably to the rations of 17th-century Venetian galley slaves, cheerlessly rowing to their imminent and certain deaths by drowning or Ottoman scimitars; and joyfully savoring a tender, flavorful, melt-in-your mouth ragout.
Poaching is suitable for cooking delicate food that’s subject to falling apart or drying out, like eggs, poultry, fish and fruit. One goal of poaching is to minimize overcooking so as to preserve natural flavors.
Don’t forget, however, that in the attempt to preserve these flavors, you’re not going to leave a window for the growth of dangerous pathogens in the food.
Poaching is like the high-wire artist of cooking methods: it approaches the temperature below which deadly bacteria can survive, namely 140° F or 60° C, while at the same time heating the food, especially meats like chicken to a level of at least 165° F or 74° C in the core, to assure food safety.
Poaching involves cooking foods in temperatures below boiling, usually in a liquid court bouillon. This bouillon consists of an acid, like wine or lemon juice, and aromatics such as bouquet garni or mirepoix.
The former is a cylindrical roll of herbs and aromatic spices tied inside sections of leek. It usually includes parsley, thyme and bay leaf, tied with cooking twine.
The twine makes it easy to remove the bouquet garni from simmering stock or bouillon.
A bouquet garni resembles a joint or marijuana cigarette, like those you have seen actors make in movies or on TV shows; the cylinder is filled with ingredients such as celery, thyme, parsely and bay leaves often wrapped in a leaf of leek.
A bouquet garni
Those latter ingredients taking the place of the cannabis sativa in a marijuana cigarette, and the leek leaf wrapping acts like the cigarette paper.
One option at this stage is to make a fresh bouquet garni and just leave it on a cutting board in your kitchen.
This is a medical marijuana cigarette. See how it differs from the bouquet garni, above. Learn how to recognize these “joints”.
Carefully remove any of these items from your kitchen counters before guests arrive.
If at any point you might have an opportunity to escort a candidate inamorata into the kitchen to open a wine bottle and fill the needful glasses, he or she may well ask what this wrapped up leek-leaf thing on your counter is. He or she may even be drawn by curiosity to tug the string, lift it up, and inspect it.
At that point, feel free to make some appropriately offhand, casual comment about how you just made that particular bouquet garni (which your date very likely couldn’t distinguish from a hole in the ground, on her best day) because you were planning a poached salmon dinner, in the near future, but not tonight.
Now, far be it from TQQ to promote foodie snobbery.
But, honestly, there’s no reason why food shouldn’t continue to serve its traditional role as a means of facilitating all your other goals. If your friend rumbled the bouquet garni hustle, there are two deeper methods of regaining the upper hand with regard to insider food knowledge, namely mirepoix and its close allies, or auxiliary battalions from national cuisines other than France.
Mirepoix is, quite simply, chopped-up celery, onions and carrots. It can function as part of a bouillon in a poaching recipe. In other recipes, the three mirepoix vegetables appear raw, roasted, sautéed in butter or olive oil; or mixed in soup stocks, etc.
If, for some unexpected reason, you’re up against a highly-trained and neurotically-competitive foodie who has wandered into your kitchen and sussed out both your bouquet garni and your mirepoix, my first advice would be to feign appendicitis and end the encounter.
Figuring out how to escape from the ambulance or the emergency room would be simpler, quicker, cheaper and easier than continuing to deal with these Foodies of Death, whom you have just exposed in her full, incorrigible toxicity. But: if you’re determined to continue the stress and duress (aka torture, bub), the last ditch is:
“Oh, no, that may look like mirepoix, but it’s not. It’s some sofrito I’ve prepared for a Spanish dish/soffritto for an Italian meal/holy trinity I’ve made for a Creole dish/refogado for a Portuguese entrée/suppengru for German soup greens/or wloszczyzna for a Polish dish.”
Don’t attempt the last dodge unless your Slavic pronunciation is pretty good. Remember that the “l” in wloszczyzna has a slash through it, so it’s pronounced like a soft “w;” and to approximate the “szcz” sound, listen to yourself as you say “freshchicken.”
All of those variations on mirepoix rely on the same or similar vegetables and have much the same effect when added to various recipes. In any conversation about them, emphasize that their effects are so totally different.
If you ever tell TQQ to his face that in Italian, soffritto (not to be confused with its near-cousin, Spain’s sofrito) means “underfried,” and often contains garlic, shallot, leek and herbs as well as celery, carrots and onions, this writer will not be responsible for any resulting mayhem. Consider yourself warned.
Poaching liquid ideally should be kept around 160 to 185° F or 71° C. A stick thermometer can be very helpful.
In addition to those spices and other ingredients, the bouillon for poaching eggs usually is based on water and vinegar; for fish, white wine; for poultry, stock; and fruit, red wine. Poaching an egg involves cooking it to the point where the white is no longer runny and the yolk begins to harden around the edges.
Practice poaching an egg or two alone, in the privacy of your own home, with the blinds drawn, before serving one to a consenting adult over age 18. TQQ cannot be responsible for any deviations or perversions of these practices.
You may be wondering: what if I can’t get the poaching pan to reliably keep to the desired temperature range? Hold your water, we’ll get to that.
Simmering temperatures exceed poaching temperatures and are just below boiling. Which means, at sea level with normal barometric pressure, you’re looking at 200° F or 94° C. The lower limit for simmering is about 180° F or 82° C.
Of course, that simmering temperature is keyed both to the altitude where you are cooking and the current barometric pressure, which has a lot to do with the current weather.
The standard boiling temperatures at sea level are accurate when the barometric pressure is 29.92 inches of mercury or 759.97 mm hg. When the pressure is higher, even at sea level, the boiling point of water rises above 100 degrees C there. Similarly, when there’s unusually low barometric pressure (which often occurs during stormy weather), boiling points can fall way below the 100 degrees sea level benchmark or their equivalents at higher altitudes.
For example, if you live in Denver altitude 5,280 feet or one mile, 1.6 kilometers, water boils at 202° F with standard barometric pressure); in Lhasa, Tibet alt. 11,450 ft, or 2.17 miles 3,490 meters; water boiling temp. approx 190.8° F or 88.2° C.; or God save you, La Rinconada, Peru, a city located at 5,100m or 16,732 feet above sea level, water boils at about 180° F or 82.5° C.
If you really need to know, you’ll have to do the math with pencil and foolscap; or achieve the same goal with a calculator or with help one of several online conversion sites.
Adding soluble substances like sugar, salt and so forth to water raises its boiling point. However, that increase is almost always so insignificant as to not affect cooking.
The important point about all those numbers is that if you are following a recipe, you should know that those recipes are based on your living at sea level in a place where there are never any rainy days, hurricanes or blizzards; accordingly, the barometric pressure never varies.
If you live at any significant elevation, or there is a storm brewing, you might want to take those considerations into account. For example, if you live in Villars-sur-Ollon, Switzerland, at 1,300 meters the normal boiling point of water is 204.3° F with standard barometric pressure, or 95.7° C.
As a result, you might be looking at a simmering pot, which, if there’s a storm brewing, could in fact be cooking at a temperature as low as 85° or less; and be thinking, “That’s cool.” But, remember: the food doesn’t have access to your Internet Protocol-based conversion tools and it will cook at the actual temperature in the pot or pan, not the apparent “boiling” or “simmering” temperature.
In the worst possible case, your cooking temperatures could fall below the danger line of 140 degrees. When that happens, your saucepan becomes a Petri dish for dangerous or deadly pathogens. Etiquette tip: make sure your guests’ wills are properly updated, if that is a frequent problem, in order to avoid probate.
As a rule, cooking at higher elevations will take longer. People who attempt to carry out complex tasks involving careful measurements and detailed instructions are much more likely to bungle them when they’re high, too.
Note: Simmering differs from boiling not only with regard to the temperatures involved, but in its effect on food. Simmering a cheap cut of meat (like that stew beef you purchase for Fido), takes longer.
Your dog loves you and trusts you; don’t abuse that trust by foisting hastily-cooked, cheap food on him.
It also succeeds in softening that meat to a level where Fido will gratefully wolf it down, rather than wrestling it to the ground like an erstwhile assassin and doing his imitation of a no-bell cage wrestling match, eyeballs returned at end of the bout.
This simmering process cannot be hastened by turning up the heat to boiling. Don’t be tempted; cook something else if you don’t have enough time.
There are other tricks to tenderizing tough cuts of meat, including pounding them with a special meat-tenderizing kitchen implement, or a hammer purloined from the nearest tool chest (wash it first, in hot water, please). There are also quick-tenderizing products, or, better yet, marinate the meat overnight. Marinating can be considered equivalent to ultra-slow cooking and is subject to the same iron rule of food handling: everything happens above 140 degrees F or below 40 degrees F.
The appropriate simmering temperature is a topic of debate among chefs, with some contending that a simmer is as low as 82° C or 180° F.
A simmering pot
In addition to resulting in food that is neither toughened nor broken up via boiling (see below), simmering helps spices in sauces blend and penetrate any larger ingredients, such as meat, that might be included in a dish.
Note that adding certain ingredients toward the end of a simmering session can preserve more of their crispiness, as in the case of naturally soft vegetables. Adding other vegetables, including especially roots like carrots and potatoes, earlier on helps soften those naturally harder vegetables.
One term of art, or jargon word, to learn in this context is “creamed,” which refers to food that has been simmered in milk or cream.
Boiling, as it refers to cooking in the English language, is restricted usually to that single noun.
Other languages provide single words for more finely distinguished levels for this phenomenon, such as the French word frémir, which means to boil and shake, and describes liquids that are about to boil.
A boiling pot
Chinese chefs recognize five different levels of boiling, which reportedly have the following evocative sobriquets:
Shrimp eyes: about 155–175 °F or 70-80 C; individual bubbles rise to the top of the liquid.
- Crab eyes– the pre-boiling stage understood to take place between about 80° C or 175° F, when streams of bubbles rise
- Fish eyes: below a full boil at 80° to 90° C, or 175° to 195° F
- Rope of pearls: at 90° to 95° C or 195° to 205° F, steady streams of large bubbles rise to the top of liquid
- Raging torrent: a rolling boil, at or above 212° F or 100° C.
TQQ has not verified those temperatures for the pre-boiling water behavior. But, even if the temperatures are inaccurate, the terms themselves inject a welcome, exotic poesy into the kitchen.
What to do when the stove won’t let you modulate the heat as needed?
As indicated earlier, these levels of cooktop heating and the resulting important effect on the pleasure induced by its consumption (not to mention the gastroenteritis avoided by its proper preparation) rely on a trustworthy, efficient cooktop.
So: how do you deal with a situation where, despite your best efforts, the cooktop burners, gas or electric, somehow are stuck on high and can’t be lowered?
Here are some suggestions:
First, if there’s space on the stove or next to it, simply move the pot or saucepan so that only part of it is directly above the overheating burner. Note that this approach will cause unequal heating of the bottom of the pot and the food inside.
As a result, if you do this, you’d be well advised to stir the pot, frequently or continuously, to prevent burning of the section directly exposed to the heating element or gas flame; and to assure complete cooking of all the pot’s contents.
Second, if you are very lucky, you might have on hand or be able to quickly find a special kitchen implement designed exactly for this purpose. It’s called a heat diffuser, or sometimes a Flame Tamer or simmer ring.
This type of product is especially helpful for gas cooktops where, no matter how low you turn the knobs, the level of water heating exceeds simmering and shows the continuous bubbling characteristic of boiling.
A flame tamer or heat diffuser
Another heat diffuser or simmer ring. That makes two already. Satisfied?
These cookware items should be cheap, cheap, cheap. Under $10 would be a fair price. Spending too much money on cookware like this is such a bad idea in so many ways that it almost deserves its own column. Sadly, because the world is a nasty place generally and we should be grateful for any alleviation of that fact, sometimes neither of the above expedients will be suitable, for any of several reasons. In that case, you’ll have to get all Chef McGyver and improvise.
One approach would be to look in the drawer under the stove for an item that could be pressed into service as a temporary simmer ring, such as a pie tin, or a cookie cooling wire grid.
If you attempt those options, be aware that metals used for those implements and containers vary, and some of them are coated with substances that can be destroyed by the direct heat of gas flames.
This is not an “oh I’ll just leave it there and it’ll be fine” solution. You’re going to have to watch this makeshift solution (a “kludge,” as the engineers say, for a quick and ugly fix to an urgent problem).
All of these tactics rely on the notion of putting something between a flame that’s too hot and your precious food. So…
Third, you can McGyver-up a double boiler. TQQ is assuming that you don’t have access to a real double boiler, like this one:
A nice and shiny new double boiler,
like one of the hundreds of thousands that you don’t have.
Double boilers are known to the French as bains-marie. Personally, I avert my eyes from many, many other matters known to the French, as any decent person should.
In the case of a double boiler, this device exploits the fact that the phase change of water occurs at 100° C (as modified by circumstances described above); accordingly, food in the top half of a double boiler won’t exceed that temperature unless the lower section boils dry or becomes pressurized.
You may not have this desirable item; but, you can make a kludge that will work well enough by immersing a smaller pot inside a bigger pot, and using water to prevent overheating of the inner container.
There will be some disadvantages to that process that you will quickly learn if you are ever compelled to use it; chief among them that you will have to keep a close eye on the double boiler so it doesn’t boil dry.
But: with luck, your improvised double boiler won’t burn the food, it won’t exceed 100° C, and it will cook the food at a simmer temperature.
Copyright (C) 2012 Wilson P. Dizard III. All rights reserved.
April 4, 2012
Tremendously instructive and enjoyable — many thanks.
April 4, 2012
So glad you enjoyed the article, Elatia. I think Wilson is a real blast, and such a good writer.
April 16, 2012
Thanks for the attaboy!
Questions or suggestions for future articles are welcome to email@example.com. Look for an upcoming edition of The Quonstant Quonneisseur: Quelling Quitchen Qualamities Mail Quall, which I submitted to Jonelle this afternoon.
We’ll be responding to one letter from a terribly sad person who needs to begin his day in a way that addresses his inconsolable grief.
Our response highlights the now little-known career of a pioneering food journalist who used knowledge gained during his wide travels in the 1930s to collect source material for a cookbook.
This Kentucky-bred innovator later wrote a three-times weekly column syndicated in newspapers across the USA, in the 1940s and 1950s.
His name appears on products sold in most supermarkets in the US. But few people who purchase those items nowadays know that he ever lived.
A second letter and response provides a surprising method for dramatically accelerating a familiar kitchen chore.