Boiling 101

If you find cooking so tricky that you can’t even boil water, think again; boiling is the most simple and fundamental way to cook some of your favorite foods. Learn how this dynamic stage of liquid cooking works and when to use it.

boiling cooking method guide

Boiling is an essential cooking method used to prepare everything from pasta to vegetables, eggs, and meats. It’s used in kitchens around the world every day, and best of all, it requires little more than a heavy-bottomed pot or saucepan to get started. Even though boiling happens at a temperature only a few degrees higher than simmering or poaching, those little degrees make a profound difference in how food is cooked.

What is Boiling?

Scientifically speaking, boiling is an explosive phase change between a liquid state and a gas state. In the kitchen, boiling is cooking food at a relatively high temperature, 212 degrees, in water or some other water-based liquid. When liquids boil, bubbles caused by water vapor rush to the surface of the liquid and pop. It’s a vigorous process that works best for sturdier foods; anything delicate can get damaged.

The Process- How it Works?

Boiling is a moist-heat cooking method that happens when the liquid’s temperature reaches 212 degrees. Food is completely submerged in water for even heat distribution. The full boil is a vigorous one, where bubbles rapidly and violently break over the entire surface of the water. A slow boil is a lazy boil, almost a simmer, at 205 degrees. In the case of a slow boil, bubbles will slowly break over the surface of the water. Depending on the food you cook, you either have to add it to already boiling water, or add it to cool water and bring it up to boiling temperature; there’s more on that later, down below.

What Culinary Problem is this Method Solving?

Boiling is used to enhance the texture of starchy foods and tougher proteins, making them more edible. It also revives grains, dried pasta, and dried legumes, making them soft and tender.

Using a Thermometer to Monitor Temperatures

The best way to tell if your food is boiling is by looking at the surface of the liquid. Are there big bubbles breaking at the surface? If not, it may be time to turn up the heat or cover your pot. You can also use a thermometer to monitor the water temperature and to gauge the internal temperature of what you’re cooking, especially for meat and poultry.

Ways to Make Water Boil Faster

The old adage of “a watched pot never boils” seems true if you’ve ever waited an eternity for a large stock pot of water to heat up. If you’re wondering what you can do to speed up the process, there’s some science that suggests that adding a water-soluble substance like salt or sugar to the liquid can lower the boiling temperature somewhat and make that water boil faster. If that doesn’t appeal to you, put the lid on your pot and that should help.

Effects of Altitude on Boiling

Believe it or not, boiling depends on the atmospheric pressure around you. Higher elevations with lower atmospheric pressure may mean that your water reaches a boiling point at a lower temperature. However, you may have to cook your food longer because you’re also cooking at a lower overall temperature.

Benefits of Boiling

  • Time: In terms of time, boiling can be lightning fast, or very slow. Blanching vegetables can take very little time. Pasta and potatoes can take 10-15 minutes, somewhere in the middle. And tough meats or poultry can be given long, slow cooking to make nutritious stock and tender proteins.
  • Taste: Boiled food retains its natural flavor, without the addition of fats or oils in sautéing or frying. Boiling also makes flavors more concentrated by reducing sauces.
  • Texture: No one could eat a meal of raw potatoes, dried beans, or uncooked quinoa. Boiling makes grains, beans and starchy vegetables palatable and edible by breaking them down and making them soft.
  • Nutrition: Boiling is the best way to make delicious and highly nutritious stocks out of meat and vegetables. However, many water-soluble vitamins can leach out into the cooking liquid during the boiling process. If you drain away your boiling liquid, you may be throwing away a lot of nutrients, too. One way to prevent this is to serve the cooking liquid as part of the dish to maintain the nutritional value of what you’re cooking. Soups and stews use this to their advantage.

How to Maintain a Boil

The key to maintaining a boil is to use plenty of water so when you add your food, it doesn’t cool the cooking liquid down dramatically and slow the cooking process. Add your food a bit at a time, allowing the water to better maintain its heat. Keeping the lid on your pot will help keep proper boiling temperature, as well.

Boiling Technique

When ingredients are boiled, they are done so in water or some other liquid, sometimes containing salt, oil, or butter for flavor and texture. The food is usually added to the liquid once it reaches a boil, and then sometimes turned down to the simmering stage of cooking until finished. Other times, however, food is added to cool water and then brought up to a boil. This is especially the case with root vegetables: carrots, potatoes, sweet potatoes, beets, turnips, and rutabagas.

Four brown eggs in a pot of boiling water

How Much Liquid to Use (large amounts for complete submersion)

As a cooking method, boiling is simple and well suited for large-scale cookery, as long as you have a large enough pot. Whatever you cook, make sure that there’s enough water to submerge the food completely under the surface. The hot liquid is what cooks the food, after all!

How Much Salt to Use for Boiling/Seasoning the Water

Most home cooks and even chefs eyeball the amount of salt they use in water if they use it, but if you feel compelled to measure out how much salt to use in your cooking water, try this 1% solution: add 1 1/2 teaspoons of salt to a quart of cooking water. The water should definitely never taste like seawater; that would be too much salt.

Boiling Concentrates Flavors

Reduction sauces – Because boiling causes speedy evaporation, it is very useful for reducing sauces and concentrating flavors. The perfect example of this is making gravy and pan sauces. A splash of white wine or stock poured into the pan you’ve cooked in reduces and becomes part of a fragrant, rich gravy.

water boiling in a stockpot

Advantages and Disadvantages of Boiling

First and foremost, boiling is incredibly simple and allows you to cook a large amount of food relatively easily. Also, a quick initial boil is an ideal way to boost the color of green vegetables while maintaining their nutritive value, as long as cooking is kept to a minimum. It’s a wonderful way to cook tougher cheaper cuts of meat and poultry, too. Making your own meat, poultry, and vegetable stocks at home by boiling scraps is economical and nutritious, reducing kitchen waste and giving you something delicious to use later on.

However, over boiled food may result in a loss of water-soluble vitamins and minerals, so keep an eye on what you’re cooking and if possible, incorporate the cooking liquid into what you serve. Soup is a great way to boil food in liquid that will be eaten, for example. Boiling can also be a slow method of cooking food, but all good things take time!

Foods to Boil

  • Eggs: Hard- and soft-boiled eggs require different stovetop boiling times. Generally speaking, aim for 5 minutes for a soft yolk, and 6-7 for a hard-cooked egg. For more details, see my other egg cooking techniques, including one in the Instant Pot.
  • Pasta: Every pasta is different, but the goal is to boil until the pasta is al dente, or “to the tooth.” Ideally, the pasta should still provide some resistance instead of being completely soft all the way through.
  • Potatoes and root vegetables: Depending on the density and size of the potato or root vegetable, this can vary. It is considered cooked when the tip of a sharp knife can be inserted easily into the vegetable without too much resistance.
  • Blanching vegetables: No more than a few moments for green vegetables like broccoli, green beans, and spinach.
  • Grains: Every grain has its own unique cooking time, so read the instructions carefully. Spelt, farro, quinoa, millet, wheat berries all cook up beautifully with boiling.
  • Rice: If you don’t use a rice cooker, boiling rice is the next best way to cook it. Brown, wild, and black varieties all take much longer than any of the white rices, so plan accordingly and read the instructions on the label of each carefully. Some rice requires exact measurements of water for an accurate rice-to-water ratio, while others can be boiled freely in water and then drained.

Tools for Boiling

A large, heavy-bottomed pot or deep saucepan, preferably with a lid, is the most important tool to boil food. Slotted spoons help remove boiled food while leaving the hot water behind. They can also be effective at skimming foam off the top of a boiling stock. An assortment of stainless steel tongs in various sizes is a handy addition to any well-stocked kitchen.

 

Infographic showing tools necessary for boiling water and food

  1. Stockpot
  2. Countertop Burner
  3. Slotted Spoon
  4. Potholders
  5. Cooking Tongs
  6. Kitchen Kettle
  7. Instant Read Thermometer

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Jessica Gavin

I'm a culinary school graduate, cookbook author, and a mom who loves croissants! My passion is creating recipes and sharing the science behind cooking to help you gain confidence in the kitchen.

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3 Comments Leave a comment or review

  1. Ronald F. Seto says

    Thank you Jessica for the great treatise on boiling. Never have I read such a complete and understandable description of the subject. It’s descriptions like this one that make the reader a better cook. You and Alton Brown are my two favorite cooks.
    I hate cooks that just present recipes and don’t explain the cooking process. There are/were cooks that do well in explaining the cooking process; Julia Child was one of them. Martin Yan was pretty good at it also. I would be interested in hearing your opinions on cooks I’ve just mentioned.
    As an amateur cook myself, I try not to depend too heavily on cook books. Once I understand the process, I go ahead and cook whatever I like, using seasonings I like. I try to create a taste that is slightly above the “bland” level of taste. I cook primarily to suit my taste, but not to the extreme. I want my cooking to appeal to as many people as possible. To my family, they pretty much enjoy my cooking. my father was Chinese, so I inherited a taste for good food.

    • Jessica Gavin says

      Thank you Ronald for making my day, you motivate me to keep cooking and sharing! My goal is to help others gain confidence in the kitchen, beyond just recipes, and your feedback is so reassuring. I grew up watching Julia Child’s and Martin Yan, entertaining and so knowledgeable. You approach to cooking is fantastic and I love that you share your passion with others. Cheers!

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