In baking in cooking, the devil is in the details. A few extra seconds and whipped cream can turn to butter, little too much heat can cause chocolate to seize up (learn how to avoid mistakes like that here) and a single degree can take your simmering water up to a boil.
To help distinguish between these similar states, our Test Kitchen experts outline the differences, and teach you how to get that perfect simmer for a hearty stew or rolling boil for your next pasta dish. Let’s get started!
Knowing the difference
Let’s start with the basics. Boiling water is water that’s bubbling and evaporating (albeit very slowly) at 212ºF. A good, fast boil is great for making pastas and blanching vegetables.
Simmering on the other hand, is a little bit slower than that nice bubbling boil. A simmer is still very hot—195 to 211ºF—but the water in this state isn’t moving as quickly and isn’t producing as much steam from evaporation. Simmering water is great for soups, broths and stews. It helps cook the ingredients slower, helping them develop a great flavor, like in this hearty bone broth.
Now that you know the difference, you can start to heat things up.
Step 1: Fill ‘er up!
Whether you’re boiling or simmering, you’ve got to start with water. Our Test Kitchen recommends starting with cold tap water (hot water can carry sediments from your water heater which may alter the taste slightly). Fill up your pot, place it over high heat and cover. The lid will trap all the steam and heat inside, helping your water to come up to temperature faster.
Test Kitchen tip: Salt does not help your water boil faster. We’d call that one an old wive’s tale. However, if you’re boiling pasta, you should add salt.
Step 2: Bring it to a boil—even if you want a simmer
No matter what you’re shooting for, bring your water up to a full, rolling boil. This means that the water is bubbling like crazy (you should be able to hear it) and is producing a lot of steam.
If you’re looking for a simmer for your chicken soup, you should still bring the water up to boiling temperature on high heat—this will speed up the process. To get to a simmer, wait until your water boils and then reduce the heat to medium or low. You should still see a few tiny bubbles making their way to the surface, but it shouldn’t be as agitated as a complete boil.
Once your water is at the proper temperature, you’re ready to master all sorts of recipes. Why not start with a warming, hearty chili?