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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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  • 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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