Howto: Simmer

Well now I’ve stepped in it.  I’ve decided to tackle the topic of how to simmer food.  This is one of those topics that illicits great debate on exactly what the proper way to simmer is, what temperature to use, and how best to deliver heat to the simmering liquid.  Before we get into the particulars, a definition is in order.  Dictionary.com defines simmering as “to cook or cook in a liquid at or just below the boiling point.”  Simmering is also sometimes called stewing, poaching, scalding, braising, and (erroneously) boiling.

In other words, food is placed in a (flavorful) liquid and cooked at a temperature anywhere between 175 to 200 degrees, depending on which cookbook you read.  Ideally, one should shoot for 180 degrees because it is hot enough to cook the food, but cooks the food slower than a 200 degree liquid.  No matter what temperature you choose, it must be less than a full boil (212 degrees) or else you are no longer simmering, you are boiling and that is a different cooking methodology all together.  Also, no matter the temperature, the liquid should have bubbles forming on the bottom of the pan that pop before they reach the surface (unless you are simmering something like oatmeal which just will not bubble.)

What will happen is as the cooking liquid reaches about 105 degrees, the liquids inside the food start to cook out of the food into the cooking liquid and at a 160 degrees the collagen in the food starts to breakdown allowing the food to reclaim juices it lost and some of the liquid.  Which is all well and good except that beef and fish are cooked when they reach an internal temperature of 140 degrees, pork at 155, and chicken is cooked at 165.

So as a cook, you want to get the liquid to a temperature above 160 degrees and keep it there, but the food itself should be pulled out of the liquid when its internal temperature is around 140 degrees.  That means you get to watch a thermometer to make sure the food does not get over done.  Remember the part about simmering at 180 degrees?  That comes into play here.  If the liquid is at 180, the internal temperature of the meat will rise slower than 200 degrees allowing you the cook the freedom to not stand over the pot.

So with all that thrown at you, here is how to simmer:

  1. Make a flavorful liquid.  Just like boiling, you want to cook the food in something that has some taste to it.  There are a number of options: poaching in wine, broth/stock, or brine.
  2. Bring the liquid just barely to boil in a sauce pan over medium heat.
  3. If you are simmering cold food, add it now.  If not, wait until step 5.
  4. Turn the heat down so the liquid just stops boiling.
  5. If you are simmering warm food, add it now.
  6. Watch the simmering pot until the food is thoroughly cooked.  If the liquid starts to boil, lower the heat slightly, and pull the pot off the burner until the boiling dies down.

Any questions?  Feel free to send them my way.

Thanks to Ochef for giving me the temperatures at which the liquids and collagens breakdown.

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8 Responses

  1. Thank you so much for this arcticle. It is going to be a great help for simmering my porcupine meatballs tonight in my salad master MP5 which has no simmer setting, only degrees. I plan to use 180.
    Sincerely, Jolene Nelson
    Astoria, Oregon

  2. Thanks a lot for covering this topic. I mull over it since a long time and don’t know the right way how to simmer. Your description sounds very professional and I think that I will use your way of simmering now. Thanks a lot!

  3. rubbish infomation (if you dont show this what i wrote on the internet i will)

  4. my question is. Do I cover the pot while simmering grains ?

  5. Go ahead & erase this comment if you like. Thanks very much for the info but when you say illicit I think the term you intend is elicit. Cheers!

  6. Here’s an interesting challenge. I’ve always been able to simmer nicely with my regular pot in the oven. I put the oven temp around 270, and then back it off to 240-250 to keep a light simmer. I now have a la chamba clay pot, which is amazing. The problem is that it doesn’t heat up so quick, and it seems it’s more insulated to the heat in the oven. Any recommendations on slow cooking in the oven with a thick clay pot??

  7. Execelent info my friend, realizar encuestas remuneradas I just didn’t know what you published, terrific share. hacer encuestas remuneradas

  8. Why would one need to brown food before simmering? ie: meatballs in sauce.

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