It is fairly common to hear the phrase, “He/She can barely boil water,” when describing someone’s lack of culinary acumen. The fact of the matter is that cooking great food in liquid is a lot more than dropping raw food into a boiling pot of water or stock and letting the bubbles roll until you think it is done. Cooking food until done in rapidly boiling water is the exception rather than the rule. Who would have thought?
There are three techniques when cooking with moisture. The techniques are boiling, simmering and poaching. These techniques are differentiated solely by temperature. The temperature of boiling water is approximately 212 degrees. The temperature of simmering liquid is around 190 to 205 degrees, and the temperature of poaching liquid is between 160 and 180 degrees.
Think of a hard-boiled egg. If the egg has been boiled until you think it is done, there is a good chance upon peeling the egg you will be hit by the scent of sulfur and there will be a green halo around the yolk. The higher temperature created when boiling is the cause for this.
A better way to prepare hard-boiled eggs would be to place room temperature eggs in a heavy-bottom pot and cover with at least one inch of water. Bring the water to a boil. The second you see the first big bubble, cover the pot, remove it from the heat. Wait about 15 minutes and then remove the eggs to a bowl of cold water.
You may want to try removing the eggs after about 13 to 18 minutes in order to learn the exact degree of doneness you prefer. Once you have that number, assuming you use the same size of eggs every time, your eggs will be perfect every time.
Have you ever had rubbery cold boiled shrimp? Like eggs, boiling shrimp tends to overcook them, and, therefore, you get the rubbery texture.
Try bringing a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the shrimp, cover and remove the pot from the heat. After about three minutes, check the shrimp. If they are pink and opaque, they are done. Remove to a bowl of cold water to stop the cooking, drain and enjoy. The days of rubbery shrimp will be a distant memory.
We cook with liquid for two reasons — to add moisture and increase or preserve the tenderness of an ingredient. For grains and dried legumes, like rice, farro, beans and lentils, to be generally palatable, we need to add moisture, and by doing so, we end with a tender product.
For meats with a lot of collagen and connective tissue like chicken thighs and beef brisket, we use moisture, gentle heat (simmering), and time to turn tough cuts to succulent ones.
Most vegetables cannot withstand the violent action of boiling for more than a couple of minutes, but almost all can benefit by simmering.
For tender meats like fish, we use very gentle heat (poaching) and moisture to maintain tenderness and avoid the toughness that results from high heat. In my book, there are few dishes more decadent than salmon or tuna poached in wine and olive oil.
You have no doubt noticed a theme that has developed. The vast majority of dishes we prepare with a liquid may begin by bringing the liquid to a boil but then very quickly reducing the heat either to a simmer or removing from the heat altogether to allow carryover cooking to complete the dish.
Just about the only thing we cook in vigorously boiling liquid may be pasta. That said, great pasta dishes are often completed by removing the pasta from the boiling water a couple of minutes before it is done and placing the pasta in the sauce it is to be served with. As the pasta completes cooking, it absorbs the flavor of the sauce.
The next time you hear that someone has a hard time boiling water, remember that may not mean that person is a bad cook. They may just know that simply boiling most foods is not a gourmet approach to cooking.