Boil, Blanch, Poach, Steam

Water, heated to 212 degrees F. That’s 100 degrees C for everyone else in the world. Boiling MP900385465[1]water.

It’s supposedly the most basic part of cooking, right? Just…. boil water. But there are all these different ways to apply boiling liquid. Let’s take a quick jaunt through them.

Before we dive into the specifics of basic hot liquid cooking, let’s think about the purpose of moist/wet heat versus dry heat. Cooking with liquid/moisture is meant to preserve or add moisture into a food, usually to submerge whatever you’re cooking and cook from all sides and to soften your food (think rice, pasta, etc.). Dry heat usually creates a crust or crispness, traps moisture (rather than adding it) and is the result of surrounding the food with hot air rather than liquid (simplistic, yes, but we’ll get more into that as we talk about dry methods).

Today, we’ll look at the more/less quick applications of cooking in liquid: Boil, blanch, poach and steam.

There’s the boil, which can be broken down even more to a rapid boil, slow boil and a simmer.

The rapid boil is when the pot looks angry, the surface is bubbling quickly and usually with pretty large bubbles. This is the best time to add pasta, vegetables, potatoes, etc. You generally don’t leave things at a rapid boil for very long, since it’s a high and fairly intense heat.

So, what do you do? You turn things down to either a slow boil or a simmer. I imagine some would argue that there’s not really much difference between the two of these. I’d say if a boil is rapid on high heat, then a slow boil is more medium to medium-high and a simmer is a low heat (but still bubbling slightly). Your slow boil is a good place to cook thin or small vegetables, potatoes and pasta; a simmer is good for cooking and reducing sauces, rice, and tougher/thicker vegetables. For example, chunky carrots would go at a simmer for 15-20 minutes, whereas thin slices would be better on a slow boil for 8-10.

A slow boil/simmer is also where you want to be for stock making and soups. The slower the cook time (and lower the heat), the longer flavors have to develop. Now, cooking slowly over high heat isn’t really going to be your friend, most of the time. In fact, you’ll probably end up with a burnt pot and food. And dry. Even submerged in boiling water, chicken has a way of drying up when heated too high for too long. But I digress…

Onto blanching. Blanching really just means “pop into rapidly boiling water for a minute or two.” Typically, you blanch produce to intensify the flavor, soften it a bit and make the color pop. Sometimes you blanch something quickly prior to roasting or stir frying it, to give it a jump start on the cooking process.

Very frequently, a recipe that calls for blanching will then call for “shocking” the vegetables to keep them from continuing to cook. This doesn’t mean you need to show them the VMA awards from this year or tell them the resolution of last season’s The Walking Dead. Instead, you plunge the blanched item in question into a bowl of iced water. This drops their temperature quickly and stops any carryover heat from continuing to cook them. Why does that matter? You don’t want your perfectly blanched green beans to get soggy and brownish on you before you get to add them to your salade Nicoise.

Next up is the poach. You probably associate poaching most with eggs. To poach something is to cook it in liquid that is barely simmering. It’s a slow(ish) and gentle heat meant to preserve delicate texture and moisture. (Basically the opposite of blanching.)

You can poach vegetables, fish, meats, eggs, fruits (poached pears are lovely), and potatoes. You can even poach things in oil. That was a real revelation to me. You are cooking something in a fat (butter, oil, duck fat) that is at a lower temperature than frying requires. So you still get the soft and delicate texture of a poached food but the infusion of the fat’s flavor.

And finally, steam. Like the Peter Gabriel song. Steaming uses the steam (duh) coming off of the boiling water to cook the food. Usually you put whatever is to be cooked in a steam basket (that can be bamboo like this or metal like this), and set the steam basket (covered) over a pot or wok of boiling water. The lid catches the steam/heat and cooks the food. The heat is conducted similarly to when you’re baking something, but the moisture in the air speeds up the process and leaves the outside of what you’re cooking without the crisp crust of baked food.

And if you’re not inclined to get a steamer, this recipe for Momofuku’s steamed buns might just change (or Chang – hahaha) your mind.

And with that, I can tell I’m getting a little corny and should probably just skip to a few good recipes and resources.

Up tomorrow: more cooking in liquids. We’ll braise and stew. And maybe a little confit if you’re lucky.

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