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What’s the Difference Between a Simmer and a Boil?

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From Fine Cooking #118, p. 88
by Juli Roberts and Shelley Wiseman

We use many terms to indicate how hot and active we want water or other liquids to be during cooking. Here are some of the most common terms and what they mean.

A bare simmer is characterized by a couple of small bubbles breaking through the surface every 2 to 3seconds in different spots. It’s often used for slow-cooked clear stocks, which would become cloudy with too much agitation.

A simmer (top left) is identified by pockets of fine but constant bubbling that give off occasional wisps of steam. It’s ideal for mingling flavors while proteins like meat or beans gently cook until tender.

A vigorous simmer/gentle boil is indicated by more constant small bubbles breaking the surface of the liquid, with frequent wisps of steam, and by larger bubbles beginning to rise. It’s perfect for thickening a liquid into a sauce without the splattering that boiling might create.

A boil occurs when large bubbles come from the bottom of the pot and quickly rise to the surface, producing constant steam. At sea level, the boiling point is 212°F; at high altitudes, liquids boil at lower temperatures due to a change in atmospheric pressure. Vegetables, particularly root vegetables, are often boiled until tender.

A rolling boil (top right) is a vigorous state of maintained boiling in which large bubbles erupt continuously on the surface of the liquid and cannot be disrupted by stirring or adding ingredients. Clouds of steam roll off the surface of the water, and the boil is audible. A rolling boil is used for cooking pasta and blanching green vegetables to help them maintain their color.

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  • menarino | 02/01/2019

    Sorry for the necro post! I know this is 4 years old, but I just wanted to make sure that people understand some of the basic physics that are going on in boiling water and why simmering is VERY different from boiling in regards to the temperature you are cooking.

    Jake, while you are correct that boiling water is 212 degrees, you are incorrect about the rest as far as cooking time. It has to do with how quickly that 212 degrees of heat energy dissipates as it moves through the water and around the food. Remember the 1st law of thermodynamics--energy can't be magically created nor destroyed, if you have more energy somewhere in a system (larger flame under the pot) then there must be more energy elsewhere in the system where it went. In this case it means that a greater mass of water can be kept closer to that 212 degree threshold. We can actually see the mass of water that is truly boiling by the volume of bubbles that is being formed. A low simmer just has some water around the sides and bottom, but a rolling boil has bubbles, bubbles, everywhere bubbles. If you have a low simmer going, then the heat energy will dissipate much more quickly such that only food that is bouncing around near the bottom of the pot is being cooked at anywhere close to 212 degrees. The food farther from the sides of the pot is only being cooked at probably closer to 200 degrees. In a rolling boil, much more of the water is closer to that 212 threshold and therefore the food will obviously cook faster. This should be intuitive to most people that have cooked things like stews and chilis at a low simmer but have also cooked pasta in boiling water. If you try and cook pasta in simmering water it will take at least twice as long and it tends to not cook right since the outer part of the pasta become saturated with water and actually creates a barrier against the water penetrating the raw pasta in the center. You can especially see this in thicker pasta like rigatoni or fusilli. On the other hand, if you put stew meat (that needs to cook low and slow) into a rolling boil, it will first turn rubbery, and then it will turn to gross mush without ever getting to that melt in your mouth, perfectly tender piece of beef that only happens with many patient hours of low simmering.

  • Jake79384844 | 10/13/2015

    Boiling water is 212 degrees F. No hotter, no colder, regardless of how high one turns the flame, and regardless of how fast it bubbles/boils. The beans, chicken, carrots etc. in the boiling water cooks exactly at the same speed and manner, no matter how big the flame is.

    If you boil faster you only waste gas or electricity and boil away the water faster. It has no effect on the food being cooked.

    Flavors ar mixed thoroughly even in the slowest boiling water.

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