Skip

Simmering 101
June 11, 2004 4:39 PM   Subscribe

Cooking for Dummies: How do you "simmer" something? [more inside]

I know I sound like an idiot, but how can you tell when something is simmering. I'm not a complete dumbass when it comes to cooking, I promise. I can follow recipes pretty well. However, I get completely lost when a recipe tells me to turn something down to a simmer. Telling when something is boiling is easy to identify, but how can I tell when something is simmering? Generally how low do I turn the heat to get something to simmer?
posted by gyc to Food & Drink (18 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
 
low heat--not boiling, but little bubbles around the edges. It's basically heating something up slowly, reducing the liquid.
posted by amberglow at 4:42 PM on June 11, 2004


i usually turn the gas down as far as it goes without actually putting the flame out.
posted by amberglow at 4:43 PM on June 11, 2004


you want to make sure that it remains on the verge of boiling though - if you're cooking a large pot of liquid, turning it down too much could lose the heat required to sustain a simmer.

basically, simmering means bubbling, but not bubbling over.
posted by dvdgee at 4:45 PM on June 11, 2004


1. bring it to a boil*

2. turn down the heat enough to keep a little bubbling action going around the edges.

* do not do this with any milk or cream based liquids, as they scorch easily.
posted by briank at 5:24 PM on June 11, 2004


Thanks for the answers. So I have another related question. If I understand correctly, the point of simmering is to slowly reduce the liquid? If so, why simmer instead of just boiling the liquid? Wouldn't that save you time?
posted by gyc at 5:27 PM on June 11, 2004


the flavors get lost more quickly with boiling i think.
posted by amberglow at 5:31 PM on June 11, 2004


Many food items don't react the same to high-heat boiling as they do to slow simmering. Also, many foods take time to get the flavor right, or in some cases to render the food into a more palatable form (tomatoes come to mind, also many spices take a long time at low heat to develop a good taste)

Some sauces will seperate at high temperatures, or burn (cream sauces or really anything with a lot of sugar). Often the point is not to reduce liquid so much as it is to give enough cooking time *without* reducing all the liquid (particularly covered simmering)

Until you've have a good homemade pasta sauce that's been simmered ALL DAY, well, boy, I don't know what to tell you. Just do it. If you need to add liquid add wine and alternate every 2nd or third time with some water perhaps.
posted by RustyBrooks at 5:31 PM on June 11, 2004


It's actually really hard to simmer on some gas stoves. This is one area where electrics are, IMHO, better, because they can put out less heat. I presume it's because burning gas ignites at the same temperature whether it's a thin ring at the center of your pot, or a giant loop around it.

In addition to what's been mentioned, simmering is also sometimes useful for reducing the amount of water in something. The idea is to boil it, but slowly, so that the heat has time to distribute more evenly throughout the food, instead of just burning the bottom of the pan.
posted by scarabic at 7:50 PM on June 11, 2004


Reasons for simmering as opposed to boiling also depend on what's being simmered. For example, when making stock, boiling will end up breaking up the stock components (like veggies or a chicken carcass) and will give you a cloudier stock. Also, as amberglow noted, simmering is better at "coaxing" the flavors out of some foods.
posted by donovan at 8:09 PM on June 11, 2004


Until you've have a good homemade pasta sauce that's been simmered ALL DAY, well, boy, I don't know what to tell you. Just do it. If you need to add liquid add wine and alternate every 2nd or third time with some water perhaps.

This is so true. Just squish up a huge batch of fresh tomatoes and simmer them for hours, and witness a big pot of bright red tomatoes become a much smaller portion of that deep red sauce color you know so well - and then taste it, and realize that those pre-made sauces may get the color right, but man. Not even the same ball park.

Also a great base for amazing salsa.

Never had a problem with gas stoves and simmering, myself. Maybe you have a gas stove with an uneven flame or something? I've seen those (the flare or lighting point higher than the rest of the flame -).

It's the same as any kind of cooking - if you turn the heat too high on a roast or something, you burn the outside (edges) before you cook the inside (the center of the pot, with simmering).
posted by mdn at 8:20 PM on June 11, 2004


I totally disagree scarabic re electric v gas. You can really control gas. I hate cooking on electric ranges, even those super cool flat ones.
And salsa should taste fresh, hence I try not to cook it too much, but amen to the heaven that is tomato sauce that's been cooking all day.

My related question is: what the hell is poaching? I mean, I've poached fish a million times, but aren't I simmering it really? A very, very mild simmer? Or does the word poaching imply putting something in a simmering broth, as opposed to simmering a liquid?

simmer is the kind of word that starts looking and sounding really weird after more than three appearances.
posted by CunningLinguist at 8:24 PM on June 11, 2004


I think poaching is cooking something in a simmering liquid. You aren't really simmering the fish, you're simmering the liquid it's in.
posted by Utilitaritron at 8:51 PM on June 11, 2004


Utilitaritron: bingo.
posted by silusGROK at 10:40 PM on June 11, 2004


The difference between simmering and boiling is the temperature. Water and watery liquids simmer at about 185ºF - steam will rise off the surface as little bubbles form on the bottom and sides and break right away. The bubbles will get bigger and more robust as the heat increases, until at 212ºF the water is fully boiling and can't get any hotter - it can just boil harder and turn to steam faster.

(Of course those temperatures are at ground level; higher up, there's less pressure, and water simmers or boils at lower temperatures.)
posted by nicwolff at 12:34 AM on June 12, 2004


Ahh, I see Nicwolff posted temperatures. I was wondering if someone was going to do that. You can get a feel for a simmer by using a probe thermometer and checking out what 185-190 looks like.

The electric/gas simmering issue is one of heat diffusion, I think. A small flame on a gas stove concentrates its heat in a rather small area compared to an electric stove (one ring as opposed to several), so a cheap (thin-bottomed) pan can be tricky to simmer in. A good pan and a gas stove is the best combination in my opinion.
posted by Nothing at 3:22 AM on June 12, 2004


Until you've have a good homemade pasta sauce that's been simmered ALL DAY, well, boy, I don't know what to tell you. Just do it. If you need to add liquid add wine and alternate every 2nd or third time with some water perhaps.

This is so true. Just squish up a huge batch of fresh tomatoes and simmer them for hours


It has been my experience that the "simmerd ALL DAY" method is a wives tale. You can, in fact, produce a red sauce this way, but the same effect can be reached without the inordinate amount of time. Some chefs will tell you if your tomato sauce cooked for more than a few minutes, it's over done.

As a reference, you can find some slow cook and the short cook methods on this All Recipes page. Here are two example short cooking time sauces:

Amatriciana
Easy Red Pasta Sauce

Additionally, using fresh tomatoes in a pasta sauce is a waste and it yields lower quality results. (I should note that though it's a popular opinion in commercial kitchens, it's still an opinion!) Using canned tomatoes, as odd as it sounds, is extremely common in the finest of red sauces. The general idea is that fresh tomatoes should be eaten raw, either in a salad or with fresh mozzarella. All of the above recipes use canned tomatoes.

Here is a slow cooked (3 - 4 hours) recipe, that uses canned tomatoes:

Momma's Marinara Sauce

For day to day cooking, if you don't have the interest in preparing your own sauce, you can dress up canned or jarred, store bought sauce to a delectable flavor. SteelyDuran has a great recipe for doing so, maybe he'll even share! In practice, it makes your average pasta and red sauce quick meal into something out of the ordinary, even though it's quite a simple recipe. He also has a recipe for homemade sauce that is both easy to make and will bring you back for seconds and thirds.

Nothing is absolutely right about the electric versus gas issue, and it can be applied to much more than simmering. If you have a pan that conducts heat poorly and unevenly, you're food will cook unevenly in it, no matter what you are using.

CunningLinguist, I believe you're correct about salsa. In all the recipes I've used, I've never cooked the tomatoes, though cooking them may produce different flavors and is potentially a regional thing. I consider salsa more or less a salad. If mdn has a good recipe for cooked salsa, I'm all ears!
posted by sequential at 11:05 AM on June 12, 2004


In all the recipes I've used, I've never cooked the tomatoes, though cooking them may produce different flavors

Then you're really missing out and should rectify that immediately! And you're exactly right about the flavors. It is a mistake to consider "salsa" as a single thing like "applesauce." There is no one way to do it right.

There are no one hundred ways. This is the glory that is salsa.
posted by rushmc at 10:58 AM on June 13, 2004


Same, obviously with red sauces. You can make a light fresh tasting sauce in minutes, or go for the deeply cooked flavor. It's all a matter of taste.

/me is cursing the name of Dr. Atkins right now as this thread is making me starved for enormous amounts of penne and spaghetti.
posted by CunningLinguist at 3:34 PM on June 13, 2004


« Older UK elections: looking at this ...   |  In the most under-appreciated ... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.


Post