BOILING. The admission of the novice cook that he or she "cannot even boil water" has perpetuated the idea that boiling water is one of the simplest tasks in the kitchen. In reality, it is also a frequently misunderstood and mislabeled culinary technique. Boiling is one of the moist (as opposed to dry) heat processes of cooking, which include pressure cooking, scalding, simmering, poaching, stewing, fricasseeing, braising, casserole-making, double-boiling, and steaming, as well as partial moist-heat processes, like blanching. Through the years, however, these traditional terms for different kinds of moist heat cooking have been variously interpreted and, of necessity, combined with other culinary methods. For example, a braise, fricassee, and brown stew have their origin in dry heat sautéing but are finished by long moist-heat cooking in stock. Even foods that are specifically labeled "boiled," such as boiled eggs, boiled potatoes, and boiled coffee, are not entirely cooked in boiling water but rather simmered after being brought to a boil. The pores of food are sealed by being dropped into rapidly boiling liquid, but then the temperature is usually reduced to a simmer (185–200°F)—the suitable temperature for cooking soups, stews, and braises.
Boiling, or bouiller, is cooking in boiling water. Water boils at 212°F (sea level), and simmers at 190°F. To fully understand the heating process, Julia Child advises the cook to observe water in its various cooking stages, from tepid to real boil, by testing it and using an immersable thermometer and noting the following temperature changes:
- 85 to 105°F. The water is comparable to the temperature of the human body.
- 115 to 120°F. The water is touchable but not hot.
- 130 to 135°F. The water is too hot to touch without injury.
- 160 to 180°F. The water is beginning to move, to shiver.
- 185 to 200°F. There is movement, and little bubbles appear in the water.
- Slow boil:
- 205°F. There is more movement and noticeably larger bubbles.
- Real boil:
- 212°F. The water is rolling, vigorously bubbling, and steaming.
Boiling is affected by altitude. At sea level, water boils at 212°F; at 3,000 feet, it boils at 205°F; 5,000 feet, at 203°F; and 7,500 feet, at 198°F. Because certain foods, like soup, pasta, and vegetables, will cook at a lower temperature, they will take longer to cook.
The boiling process serves two purposes: it destroys organic impurities, and it transforms raw ingredients into cooked foods. Boiling water hardens the albumen in eggs; toughens fibrin and dissolves tissues in meat; and bursts starch grains and softens cellulose in cereals and vegetables. One of the great advantages of water as a cooking medium is that it needs only a vessel and heat to reach and maintain its boiling point, no matter how long or how hard it is heated.
The food scientist Harold McGee maintains that during the boiling process, it is the convection currents in hot water that heat food. The "moist" cooking methods, however, cannot brown foods; consequently, meat and vegetables are normally sautéed in a frying pan before they are simmered in broth or water. Despite this limitation of the technique, by which boiling in water is conducted at a substantially lower temperature level than that of broiling, baking, and frying, boiling is a very efficient process. As McGee notes in On Food and Cooking, "The entire surface of the food is in contact with the cooking medium, which is dense and turbulent enough that the water molecules continuously and rapidly impart their energy to the food" (p. 615).
The old adage "a stew boiled is a stew spoiled" can be applied to almost every other kind of food because lengthy cooking at high temperatures toughens the proteins in meats, fish, and eggs, and the rapid bubbling breaks up delicate foods. While recipes either call for foods to be immersed in cold water and brought to the boiling point or plunged into boiling water, they almost never indicate boiling for a protracted period of time. Even so-called "boiled" eggs should be simmered after the initial contact with boiling water. Simmering, then, is often used in tandem with boiling because simmering liquid gently cooks fragile foods and tenderizes tough ones.
Only certain foods, such as vegetables, pasta, cereals, and other grains, are truly boiled in water. In these cases, it is necessary to maintain the boil to ensure their proper cooking. Because adding foods to boiling water lowers the boiling point, it is usually stipulated that the quantity of water must be at least three times the volume needed to cover the ingredient to offset the lower temperature caused by their addition. In cooking vegetables, particularly, the amount of salted water will insure rapid boiling, thereby shortening the time of cooking and preserving color.
According to Fannie Merritt Farmer, milk should never be allowed to boil because at boiling temperature the casein is slightly hardened, and the fat is rendered more difficult to digest. She advises the use of a double boiler to "scald (196 degrees)" milk heated over boiling water.
History of Boiling
McGee theorizes that, as a culinary technique, boiling probably followed roasting and preceded baking. Because boiling requires containers that are both water-and fireproof, the development of pottery at least ten thousand years ago had to precede boiling. And the large pots hanging in the fireplaces of the earliest kitchens attest to the fact that many meals were slowly simmered, sometimes over a period of days. In Taillevent's Viandier (c. 1364) the cook's activities centered on a fireplace that featured an adjustable pothook from which large cooking pots hung filled with meats, poultry, game, and vegetables. To control temperatures, the pot's position could be stationary over temperate ashes or could be swung over the hottest coals. Hot coals or logs could also be moved beneath it. This method of hearth cooking continued into the eighteenth century and even later in rural areas. Chef and author John Thorne eulogizes the pot as the emblem of the kitchen and quotes the noted French chef Alain Senderens, who suggests in his Figues sans barbarie (1991) that unlike "spit cooking" or the kind of roasting associated with the early "gatherers," "the cooking of the pot symbolized the feminine domain of the kitchen, family, economy, and, by extension, the civilizing process itself." By preparing food in boiling water in a pot, the cook took what nature provided and transformed it into thoroughly cooked food. "From this instant," Senderens believes, "cooking came to indicate the cultural, intellectual, and technological level of a society" (Thorne, p. 239).
Whether gender driven, as Senderens implies, or a matter of historical temperament, the cooking process became more complex and varied because of the invention of pottery at least ten thousand years ago. Furthermore, the word "pot," contrary to popular belief, does not seem to reflect the Latin potare (to drink) or be related to the Spanish olla or Italian pentolone or marmitta —the words for large cooking vessels. Etymologically, "pot" can be traced to Celtic origins: Irish pota ; Gaelic poit ; and Welsh pot, and there is reason to believe that the word "pot" may have developed initially in northern lands.
Traditionally, boiled dinners and one-pot cooking seemed to be a congenial way of dining in cold climates. From broth-based fondues in Switzerland to the soup kettle that used to hang over the open hearth in the old farmhouses of Japan's snow country, variations on sustaining one-pot meals can be found in almost every ethnic cuisine, including the Italian bollito misto, Spanish cocido, and the French potee lorraine. The cold regions of China had a communal dish known in the West as the Mongolian hot pot, named for its distinctive cooking utensil, and a popular contemporary Japanese modification is called shabu-shabu.
Asian cooking also has a communal one-pot meal, called nabemono, literally "things in a pot," which is served at home and in restaurants. Diners do their own cooking, choosing whatever meat, poultry, fish, and vegetables they like from platters overflowing with raw ingredients that they cook over a communal pot of sizzling broth. The broth is continually enriched in flavor as the ingredients are dipped into it. Although the donabe, an earthenware casserole with thick pottery walls and distinctive shape, requires a portable and substantial heat source to maintain the temperature of the dipping broth, everything from gas rings to an alcohol or canned-heat burner can be used effectively during the traditional lengthy meal.
Pot-au-feu, or "pot on the fire," consisting of meat, poultry, and vegetables in their cooking liquid, has also been a fixture of French gastronomy since the Middle Ages, and it was dramatized by King Henri IV, who promised his subjects a chicken in their pot every Sunday. In some French cookbooks a distinction is sometimes made between a pot-au-feu, a boiled beef and vegetable dinner; and a poule-au-pot, in which a whole stewing hen was used; and a potée or mixed pot of ingredients, including pork and veal shoulder and various sausages. Used in every French household, the tall earthenware cylindrical pots known as marmites were the ideal cooking utensils for this meal of meat, poultry, and vegetables, which was brought to a boil in water and then simmered for hours over the fire. A good consommé was thereby produced and a full-course dinner served—clear broth first, the boiled meat and vegetables presented separately. A dish called petite marmite was almost identical with pot-au-feu except that its primary purpose was to be served and eaten all together.
By the time Pierre François de la Varenne's cookbook was published in 1651, the fine broth that hours of simmering had produced in these one-pot meals had an intrinsic value, and separate recipes for bouillon began to appear for the purpose of enhancing soups and entrees. As did medieval cooks before him, La Varenne kept in reserve one meat stock and one fish stock to make a roux, flavor a soup or stew, and combine with other ingredients for a sauce.
On the other side of the Atlantic, boiled dinners have always been popular in New England, Pennsylvania, and other parts of the country. Prepared like a pot-au-feu, the New England boiled dinner is made traditionally with either corned or fresh beef, and boiled beets on the side, while other sections of the country feature an Irish boiled dinner that includes cabbage, onions, and new potatoes simmered with the corned beef. Boiled crab dinner, the signature seafood dish of the Chesapeake Bay region, consists of blue crabs placed into seasoned boiling water, cooked, cracked open, and accompanied by melted butter. And Wisconsin boasts a famous Door County white-fish boil.
Among the nutrition conscious, there is growing concern about whether cooking, especially the lengthened cooking of boiling, robs foods of their vitamins and enzymes. The cult of raw food, for instance, has rapidly gained momentum. For such adherents, 116°F is the point beyond which components of the original human diet become "dead," unhealthy victuals. But nutritionists generally come down on the side of cooked food, both to rid ingredients like mushrooms and meats of toxins and to enhance the pleasures of the table. Boiling and its related moist heat cooking techniques, therefore, are worthy of mastering and a challenge to the cook.
See also Child, Julia; Cooking; La Varenne, Pierre François de; Nutrients; Packaging and Canning, History of; Poaching; Preparation of Food; Taillevent; Water: Water as a Resource.
Corriher, Shirley O. Cookwise: The Hows and Whys of Successful Cooking. New York: William Morrow, 1997.
Culinary Institute of America. The New Professional Chef. Edited by Linda Glick Conway. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1991.
Farmer, Fannie Merritt. The Original Boston Cooking-School Cook Book. New York: New American Library, 1988. The original edition was published in 1896.
McGee, Harold. On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen. New York: Scribners, 1984.
Peterson, James. The Essentials of Cooking. New York: Artisan, 1999.
Thorne, John, with Matt Lewis Thorne. Pot on the Fire: Further Exploits of a Renegade Cook. New York: North Point, 2000.
Tsuji, Shizuo. Japanese Cooking: A Simple Art. Tokyo: Kodansha International, 1980.
boil·ing / ˈboiling/ • adj. (for fresh water at sea level) at 212°F (100°C). ∎ inf. extremely hot: Saturday is forecast to be boiling and sunny. ∎ (of an emotion) intensely and powerfully felt: his boiling hatred of oppression. • n. the action of bringing a liquid to the temperature at which it bubbles and turns to vapor. ∎ the temperature at which such an event occurs: reheat gently to just below boiling.