How To Boil Water

How to Boil Water


Although it may seem obvious, boiling water is actually a key part of cooking.  Understanding the various degrees of boiling water and how to use them correctly will make a big difference in your cooking skills.


Water is the universal solvent.  It has been used in cooking as long as there has been cooking.  It is your number one ingredient.  Water can be used to rehydrate dried foods such as grains and beans.  Water can be used to tenderize meat in conjunction with heat.  Water can be used to make vegetables easier to eat and digest.  It is just about impossible to cook a meal without adding water to some of the ingredients.  Of course water is indispensable for preparing your ingredients for cooking and for cleaning up afterwards.


Let’s begin with boiling water.  How well and quickly you boil water will depend on your equipment.  Gas and electric stoves work differently when boiling water and you need to understand the capabilities of your equipment.  Gas stoves are instantly on and off.  Although you may have a little residual heat from the burner, it is mainly an on and off thing.  With an electric stove, you have a gradual heating when you turn the burner on and a gradual cooling when you turn the burner off.  You can use this characteristic to your advantage; however it may take you longer to boil a big pot of water from start to finish on electric than gas.  The reason I don’t say will is because of another characteristic of stoves, which is how much heat they put out.  Some stoves can put out a lot of heat at high and others can’t.  I had a gas stove in one house I lived in that took an hour to bring a big pot of water to boil at sea level!  That was not a good stove.  I have also used electric stoves that could bring a big pot of water to boil in 15 minutes.  So you need to understand the equipment that you have before you will know how to boil water in your kitchen.  For more information on electric stoves, see my section “Cooking on An Electric Stove.” 


Other factors will also affect the amount of time it takes to boil water, such as your altitude and the ambient temperature in the room.  Although there are a lot of factors at work, you only have to learn what applies to your particular kitchen.  When you move, you will have to recalibrate what time it takes to boil water with your new altitude, stove, and ambient temperature but this is not difficult.


In order to know how long it takes to boil a big pot of water in your kitchen, perform the following test.  I will assume that you have a big pot (at least 8 quarts).  First, fill your big pot three quarters full of water and put it on a burner that matches the size of the bottom of your pot.  If you use a smaller burner, it will not heat as fast as it could on a larger burner.  If you use too large a burner (not usually a problem for a big pot), the sides of the pot may be damaged by the heat from the burner.  Turn the burner on to high.  Fill a large skillet about half full of water and put it on another burner and set it to high.  Fill a 2 to 3 quart saucepan half full of water and put it on another burner and set it to high. Now prepare to take notes.   


See how long it takes for the water to come to a full boil for each pot and record this information on a piece of paper.  A full boil is when the water has large bubbles and is actively moving.  This is the temperature that you want for cooking pasta.  The boiling temperature is also the one you will use for steaming.  Once water is actively boiling, you can reduce the temperature and keep the full boil but you need to determine where this setting is on your stove.  So reduce the heat a little and wait a few minutes and see what happens.  If it is still boiling actively, reduce it further and continue until you find the point where the water starts to boil slower.  Make a note of this setting for each pot.  This setting will only be a guideline, because the contents of the pot (food) may change this somewhat, but you need a starting point to understand your equipment. 


Now we need to figure out where the simmer setting is on your stove.  Simmering is just below boiling, but you want very little if any movement in the water, with still some occasional bubbles.  Simmering is a very useful cooking temperature and cooks much more gently than boiling.  Simmering is a good cooking temperature for most proteins, such as chicken, beef, eggs, fish, etc.  If you put eggs out of the shell into rapidly boiling water, they will tend to break apart.  If you put them into barely simmering water, you can make a perfect poached egg.  So reduce the heat gradually until the water is just simmering and note where this setting is on your stove for your notes (for example, 6 on the dial). 


After performing these tests, you will have a good idea of how much time you will need with your equipment to bring water to a boil and about what settings you will use to maintain a boiling pot and a simmering pot.  Unless you know these settings, it will be hard to have any idea of how long it will take to get a dish finished from start to finish if you are cooking it in water on top of the stove.  Since you have done this test in your kitchen with your equipment, you don’t need to know the science, you just need to know the results!  Now you will know that it takes 20 minutes or whatever the test showed for you to bring a big pot of water to boil for spaghetti.  This information will let you plan how long it will take you to get spaghetti cooked and on the table. Since you will need 20 minutes for the water to heat and about 10 minutes for the spaghetti to cook, it will take you at least 30 minutes to get cooked spaghetti on the table.