Simmering 101

Stocks, soups, and stews are just some of the things you can make when you master the art of simmering, one of the most basic (and delicious) cooking techniques in the kitchen. Whether it’s on the stove or in the oven, giving your food a chance to simmer pays off in the flavor department; here’s when to do it and how it works.

Vegetable soup simmering in a large pot

Simmering is an excellent choice for any culinary endeavor including stocks, soups, or starchy items such as potatoes, pastas, legumes, and grains. It’s just a notch below boiling, but that notch keeps food soft and tender, letting everything mix together and get extra delicious. Once you’re skilled at identifying the stages of simmering and managing a consistent simmer, the world of cooking your own phenomenal soups and stews is at your fingertips.

What is Simmering?

Simmering is a way to cook food gently and slowly. It’s gentler than boiling but a little more aggressive than poaching. Simmering refers to cooking food in liquid, or even just cooking the liquid itself, at a temperature just below the boiling point. It’s a little trickier than boiling, only because it requires careful monitoring.

The Process- How it Works?

One of the most fundamental methods of moist-heat cooking, simmering is using the heat of the liquid to gently cook food. It’s less intense than boiling; because it involves fewer bubbles, there’s less agitation, but just enough to allow the flavors of the food mix with one another.

What Culinary Problem is this Method Solving?

Simmering is a way to make fork tender foods and enhancing the flavor of what you cook by gently allowing everything to cook together synergistically. It’s also the preferred method of reviving dried grains and legumes, making them edible.

Temperature to Simmer

Simmering occurs between about 185 to 205ºF (85 to 96ºC). Most stews and braises are cooked at this relatively low temperature. The best way to monitor the temperature of a simmer is visual.

  • Slow Simmer: A low heat with very little activity in the pot. You’ll see wisps of steam and a stray bubble or two, but that’s about all. This slow simmer is most often used for stocks and braises.
  • Simmer: A medium-low heat, with some gentle bubbling in the pot. The basic simmer is often used for soups, stews, sauces, and braises.
  • Rapid Simmer: Medium- to medium-high heat, with more bubbling in the pot, but the bubbles should still be fairly small. Most often used for reducing sauces.

Thermometer measuring the water inside a large pot

Better to Simmer Covered or Uncovered?

Because simmering is something that needs some supervision, it’s best to keep the lid off of the pot until you’re sure that the heat is steady. Adding a lid can intensify the heat and before you know it, you’re boiling again!

What is the Difference Between Boiling and Simmering?

The difference between a boil and a simmer is just a few degrees, but they definitely make a difference! The key to remember here is that the bubbles of a rolling boil move the food around a lot, while a simmer doesn’t involve that level of movement.

Of course, there’s some overlap with temperatures; in other words, a rapid simmer could be considered a slow boil. A slow simmer could be considered a proper poaching temperature. Although it’s science, it doesn’t have to be exact, but it pays to get as close as you can within a couple of degrees.

Side-by-side comparison of boiling water vs simmering water

When to Use Each

Not everything is ideal for boiling. Food cooked at a steady boil gets agitated, so certain foods may be mushy on the outside but still firm in the middle. Simmering, on the other hand, is way more gentle; because it surrounds the food in water that maintains a constant temperature, simmering cooks food very evenly. It’s also a great way to cook more delicate proteins like fish and shellfish.

Why Bring to a Boil and Then Simmer?

Bringing the food you cook up to a boil before dropping down to a simmer is nothing more than an efficient way of getting the food heated quickly and measuring the temperature of the food you’re cooking. The liquid can’t get much hotter than 212 degrees, so those big active bubbles are a good indicator of the boil stage. Turning it down from there to the simmer stage is easy, so bringing everything up to a boil first is often the fastest way to get things hot.

Tips to Maintain a Simmer

  • Covering a pot for a few moments allows you to get the pot up to temperature without adding more flame from below.
  • If your pot is too hot, move it to the side of the burner or give it a few stirs to increase the surface area and cool down.
  • Adding some extra broth or cooking liquid can cool down a pot, as well.
  • A flame tamer ring can help a challenging burner maintain even consistent heat.

Simmering can be a little bit tricky at first, and it’s likely that you’ll spend a lot of time controlling the heat! Stovetops can be touchy, too, so you may need to adjust the heat a bit to keep the liquid where you want it, or use a flame tamer to regulate the flame. Keep an eye on things — don’t turn your back on the pot until you’re confident the simmering is steady.

Benefits of Simmering

  • Time: An easy, relatively quick simmered vegetable soup or a longer, slow-braised recipe. Simmering is versatile and can give delicious results in any time frame.
  • Taste: As a soup or a sauce simmers, everything you added to it infuses the liquid. Vegetables and beans absorb some of that seasoned liquid while also contributing some of their own flavors into the mix. It’s a lovely harmony. Also, some of the cooking liquid evaporates, concentrating and intensifying flavors.
  • Texture: Simmered foods soften and become more palatable. Grains become soft, beans become tender.
  • Nutrition: Simmering, for the most part, involves cooking foods in the liquid they’re eaten with, retaining their nutritional value. In addition, simmering in apple cider, broth, or other aromatics is a nice way to keep extra calories from fats, oils, and butter out of your food.

How Much Liquid to Use

Depending on what you’re making, you’ll need a pot and enough water or liquid to submerge the food for even cooking. Grains, legumes, and rice can all expand so make sure there’s extra room in the pot and extra liquid, too.

Bubbles forming inside a pot of simmering water

Add Meat to Cold Water or Liquid

When making stock, and in general, add meat to cold liquid, and bring it up to a simmer from there. This prevents cloudiness in your stock. If you add raw meat to hot simmering liquid, the meat releases proteins that cloud the broth. When you start the meat in cold liquid, these proteins are released more gradually and become entangled with one another; they produce a frothy mass that’s easy to skim off the surface o the stock.

Seasonings/Flavoring for Simmering Liquid

Food is usually simmered in some sort of flavored liquid, such as broth, stock, or wine, but sometimes just water is used. Apple cider can also be used to cook grains and provide some natural sweetness to the dish. Aromatic herbs and vegetables add incredible dimension to simmered food, too.

Low and Slow Cooking (ie, braises and stews)

Lamb shank, osso buco, and tough, muscular cuts of meat all use simmering as part of the cooking process. By cooking for extended amounts of time on low temperatures, these cuts become meltingly tender and flavorful from everything they’re cooked with. Simmering breaks down the proteins that can make these cuts a challenge to eat when cooked any other way. In place of a crock pot or slow cooker, a low temperature can be set in your oven and the pot can be placed inside for the required cooking time with only occasional supervision.

How Long to Simmer Food:

  • Tougher cuts of meats: If simmering meat, place the food in cold water, and then bring it up to a simmer. Larger tougher cuts may require cooking times upwards of 4 hours, until they’re fork tender. Low temperature in the oven can help you do this.
  • Stocks: For meat stocks, the longer the better to get every last molecule of nutrition out of those bones. An overnight simmer isn’t unheard of if your kitchen is set up for it. Otherwise, an afternoon is sufficient. Stocks are best if they’re left at an extremely low simmer for several hours.
  • Poultry: Most chicken and other poultry can simmer for 20-45 minutes, depending on the size of the cut and whether it is left on the bone.
  • Fish: If simmering large pieces of fish, place the food in cold water, and then bring it up to a simmer. Be very careful not to boil; this can damage the delicate tissues and overcook the fish.
  • Vegetables: Root vegetables of all kinds lend themselves very well to simmering, but the cooking times vary widely depending on the size and density of the vegetable. Check with the tip of a sharp knife; if it enters the vegetable easily without much resistance, it’s done.
  • Grains and legumes: It’s best to check each variety for precise cooking times, but lentils, beans, and grains are all sure bets for simmering.

Italian wedding soup simmering in a large pot

Advantages and Disadvantages of Simmering

As you may experience, a constant simmer isn’t always easy to regulate, especially on a gas stovetop. Even at the lowest setting, the heat may get too intense and cause the liquid to boil. (Don’t fret, just move the pot to the side of the burner.) One of the other downsides to some simmering is that it can cause the food to lose its vitamins and other nutrients by leaching into the cooking liquid. If this is a stew, there’s no harm in that. Whatever you do, eating many different vegetables cooked in a broad variety of ways will ensure you’re getting enough nutrients.

On the upside, simmering is a wonderful way to cook a number of foods gently, as well as making delicious soups and sauces from the pan drippings leftover from a sauté.

Foods to Simmer

  • Grains: Barley, farro, barley, millet, quinoa, and spelt can all be gently simmered with aromatics until tender.
  • Legumes: Beans and lentils were made for gentle simmering in a soup, chili, or stew.
  • Vegetables: Fibrous, starchy root vegetables like beets, potatoes, sweet potatoes, rutabagas, and turnips are best simmered so they cook evenly throughout.
  • Meat and poultry: Simmering is used to cook meat and poultry often in the form of poaching or braising, in the oven or on the stove.
  • Fish: Delicate foods such as fish can be poached at or below a simmer to prevent them from breaking apart or getting damaged.
  • Stock: It’s also essential when making broth or stock; the slow cooking at a steady temperature helps meld the flavors together.
  • Large cuts of meat: Meats that are simmered stay moist and fork-tender, like corned beef, while boiled meats are often dry and tough because the heat of boiling liquid can cause their proteins to toughen.

Tools for Simmering

A large, heavy-bottomed pot or deep saucepan, preferably with a lid, is the most important tool to boil food. For stirring or tasting, a spoon of any kind can also help cool down the liquid that is cooking so it doesn’t get too hot. 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. A type of ring that can help diffuse the heat, especially on a gas stove, and keep foods from boiling and overcooking.

Infographic showing tools necessary for simmering water

  1. Stockpot
  2. Slow Cooker
  3. Slotted Spoon
  4. Heat Diffuser
  5. Cooking Spoon
  6. Flame Tamer
  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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11 Comments Leave a comment or review

  1. Kris says

    This all falls inline with everything I’ve learned from the Rouxbe cooking classes I’ve taken. <($_$<) I even learned a few things. Very informative. : D

  2. Brenda Kong says

    I just wanna thank you for helping me understand clearly in cooking methods and I’m no more confused in most of the cooking methods during my theory class !!

  3. Robert McDonald says

    Very helpful – I wonder about cooking Great Northern Beans with Ham Hocks on a stovetop. I did the last batch uncovered and I think I went way too long on the simmering time… I think 4 or 4.5 hours total stovetop and the beans were soaked overnight and drained before I began cooking. By the end of the process there were no visible beans they had all liquified completely. The flavor was fantastic, but I got complaints “where’s the BEANS?” Could you give me a closer time estimate on how long to simmer the beans? The Ham Hocks were ‘partially pre-cooked’ and vacuum sealed from the grocery store. Would 1 1/2 or 2 hours simmer time be sufficient to ensure the Ham Hocks are fully cooked (safe to eat)? Thanks for your advice and assistance!

    • Jessica Gavin says

      Hi Robert- If the beans have already been soaked, I would definitely reduce the cooking time. I cover the beans with a lid and simmer on low, check and stir every 30 minutes. Typically 60 to 90 minutes the beans are tender. May be on the higher end for Northern beans because they are larger. The hammocks should cook through by then as well.

  4. Tammy says

    I forgot to bring my raw pork hock to a boil before simmering on very low for over 9 hours on the stovetop will they still be okay I also have beans in the pot that I soaked all night? I should mention that they are still on the stove. How will I know when they are done?

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