Boiling. Something about it seems to make recipe-writers anxious.
The word itself is practically taboo. Instead, what you see in recipes is a euphemism like “blanching,” the coitus interruptus of the culinary world (pulling out, as it were, before things go too far).
The principle concern, as always, involves control. The fear seems to be that in simply telling you to “boil” a green bean, for example, you’ll go nuts and subject the vegetable to a relentless assault of scalding heat until the thing is pulverized beyond recognition.
Let us assume, however—just for the sake of argument, just so that I can briefly make a point—that this is not the case, that when you see the word “boil” you understand that it’s just like any other cooking technique with its ordinary limits, that you are capable of tasting a green bean to tell whether it’s done, that you can read directions on a package of spaghetti.
Because if we can assume that, then everything is so much easier to explain. Everyone already knows what “boiling” is, after all. Here’s a video of it, just so I can be sure that we’re all on the same page:
The temperature in that pot is nearly 212°F (100°C), which is the maximum threshold of boiling water.
That’s a low temperature, as cooking goes. Your oven easily doubles it. Comparing boiling water to one of your stove burners is almost like comparing a light bulb to the surface of the sun.
Water manages to cook things quite well, all the same, since it is an excellent conductor of heat, meaning that it gathers and relinquishes energy quite easily. This explains why you can stick your hand in a 200°F oven without any problem but seriously injure yourself if you do the same in a panful of boiling water. Likewise, boiling water cooks a chicken breast in five minutes flat, whereas an oven takes three times as long at twice the temperature.
Such efficiency puts boiling water near the center of kitchen activity. But recipe-writers are correct in their reluctance to use it too frequently.
The speed and efficiency of boiling water leaves you with little leeway to prevent things from overcooking. Hard-boiling eggs, for example, is a good way to dry out the yolks and rubberize the whites. A better way is to gently simmer them. (The term “hard-boiled egg” is taboo in recipes, unsurprisingly.)
Also, the turbulence of boiling water tends to ruin delicate broths, since it causes water and fat to emulsify, with murky results. A great example of this particular effect is traditional Japanese ramen. If you’ve had the pleasure of visiting one of the many ramen joints popping up in cities these days, then you’ve experienced the rich, milky broth of the genuine dish. It’s a treat in ramen, but it’s the opposite of what most of us want in chicken soup or beef broth or many other fundamental preparations in Western cuisine.
So, here’s a general principle: If your goal is simply to cook a sturdy ingredient in record time without embellishment, then boiling is ideal.
Boiling is a great way to cook a bunch of asparagus spears, which can be diced and distributed throughout soups and salads for the rest of the week. It’s the obvious way to cook dried pasta. Boiling is the way to cook white rice so that each grain is rid of excess starch and the whole fluffy and dry.
As for the technique itself, well, you’ve probably learned by now to adjust the heat downward a bit so that boiling water doesn’t erupt over the edge of your pot. The only real question concerns salt.
How much of it do you add?
The answer is simple:
That is, if you want to cook green beans (or cauliflower, or chunks of carrot, etcetera), then add a quantity of salt that equals three percent, by weight, of the the water in your pan. Pasta and rice require only one percent.
To figure it out, use a kitchen scale. Otherwise, you’ll have to haul out your cups and spoons, and use an unwieldy formula that attempts to equate various types of salt, with their varying dimensions and densities. (Cook’s Illustrated once published something just like that, naturally.)
A scale is incredibly convenient: Just zero out the pot, fill it with water (no need to be exact), then put it back on the scale. What you see is the weight of the water itself.
As I explain in my article on green vegetables, salting water generously preserves a vegetable’s flavor and nutrients. It also seasons vegetables so well that salting them afterwards is frequently unnecessary.
In case you’re wondering, you don’t need to boil your vegetables in tiny handfuls or “shock” them in an ice bath, as Monsieur le Chef insists.
As for pasta and grains, a little seasoning is nice, but too much can make the final dish too salty. One percent does the job without overdoing it.
But these figures are arbitrary. Cooking is not science. Salt solutions of four or five percent are fine for vegetables; two and three-fourths percent probably work for pasta. The point is simply to stick with a quantity of salt that does the job and that’s easy to calculate, so that your intelligence is free to manage something else. Of all the things in life that compel you to pause and deliberate, the quantity of salt to add to a pot of water should not be one.
A few other points:
You and your taste determine the cooking time, for the most part. You don’t need a recipe to tell you when a green bean is done (although guidelines on pasta packaging are typically quite reliable).
Keep in mind that the fresher your ingredients are, the more quickly they tend to cook.
To check whether dense or especially fibrous vegetables like Brussels sprouts and leeks have finished, use the tip of a sharp knife, which should pass through the vegetable without any resistance whatsoever, not even leering off to one side as the blade goes in.
Once you’ve drained your ingredients, lay them out on a dish towel to dry so that they won’t inadvertently water down whatever they go with.
And that’s it.
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