Simmering

Simmering is a cooking method that involves cooking food in liquid at a temperature slightly lower than the boiling point. The liquid is first brought to a full boil before gradually reducing the heat. 

But what is simmering, and what are its advantages? How do you do it, and what foods can you cook using this technique?

Continue reading to learn more.

How Simmering Works

Simmering is similar to boiling; they are both moist-heating cooking methods.

They use hot liquid to transfer heat to the food to cook them through. The hot liquid entirely surrounds the food, causing the food to cook evenly and quickly.

However, when simmering, the liquid is below the boiling point (212 degrees Fahrenheit) and above the poaching temperature (160 degrees Fahrenheit).

Advantages of Simmering

Simmering is excellent for cooking food evenly and consistently. 

You’ll generally find simmering best for tender foods, such as meats, fish, poultry, and grains. However, the technique is highly versatile. 

You can also use simmering for:

  • Stocks/ broths to extract flavor and slowly release fats and proteins
  • Soups to mesh flavors together or enhance existing flavors
  • Cooking sauces to remove excess moisture
  • Braises/ stews to tenderize the proteins and ingredients
  • Chutneys to soften the fruits in the recipe

The gentle bubbling action is much kinder to delicate foods than boiling, which is more agitating.

But there are disadvantages to simmering too. 

When simmering, you need to keep observing the temperature of the liquid. And this can be difficult to do on a gas stovetop because it’s hard to regulate the temperature. 

What appears as low heat could be enough to boil the liquid. And overcooking can cause vital nutrients and vitamins to be lost, degrading the recipe’s nutritional value.

Simmering Temperature

what is simmering

Simmering occurs between 185ºF (85ºC) and 211ºF (100ºC). Although, other sources suggest simmering begins at 180 degrees Fahrenheit. 

There are several things you can look out for to monitor the temperature of your liquid.

  • Gentle Simmer: This low heat causes little activity in your pot. You may notice a bubble or two or wisps of steam, but that’s all. This is the ideal temperature for most stews and braises.
  • Simmer: A low to medium heat that has some gentle bubbling. This temperature is suitable for most sauces, soups, and certain stews.
  • Lively Simmer: A medium to high heat that causes further bubbling in your pot. However, the bubbles will be noticeably smaller than when boiling. This temperature is often used for reducing excess moisture in sauces.

You may notice that there are some overlaps in temperatures. What could be considered a lively simmer can also be regarded as a slow boil.

The critical thing to remember is this isn’t an exact science. Just try to get as close as you can to the required temperature. 

How Altitude Affects Boiling Point

To achieve a simmer, you need to maintain the temperature below the boiling point. However, this largely depends on altitude.

If you’re at a higher altitude, the weight of air pressing against a surface is less.

When water boils, liquid molecules convert into a gas (or steam) and rise to the surface. The gas molecules push against the air, pressing down on the surface. [1]

Less air in the atmosphere means less energy is needed for these molecules to rise up and escape the surface. And that’s why there’s a lower boiling point. 

As a general rule of thumb, water boils at 212 degrees Fahrenheit at sea level. For every 500-foot gain in altitude, the boiling point lowers by one degree Fahrenheit.

For example, New York has an elevation of roughly 33 feet. So New York’s boiling point is 212ºF. But Denver has an elevation of approximately 5,280 feet. So its boiling point is approximately 201.5ºF. 

U.S Major Cities Boiling Temperatures

Here are some major cities in the United States and their estimated boiling temperatures.

CityElevation (ft)*Est. Boiling Temp
New York, NY33212ºF
Los Angeles, CA305212ºF
Chicago, IL600211ºF
Houston, TX78212ºF
Phoenix, AZ1086210ºF
Philadelphia, PA39212ºF
San Antonio, TX650211ºF
San Diego, CA62212ºF
Dallas, TX429212ºF
San Jose, CA82212ºF
Austin, TX488212ºF
Jacksonville, FL15212ºF
Fort Worth, TX652211ºF
Columbus, OH902211ºF
Indianapolis, IN718211ºF
Charlotte, NC761211ºF
San Francisco, CA52212ºF
Seattle, WA173212ºF
Denver, CO5280201.5ºF
Washington, DC410212ºF
Nashville, TN597211ºF
Oklahoma City, OK1200210ºF
El Paso, TX3740205ºF
Boston, MA141212ºF
Portland, OR49212ºF
Las Vegas, NV2000208ºF
Detroit, MI656211ºF
Memphis, TN337212ºF
Louisville, KY465212ºF
Baltimore, MD32212ºF
*Source: wikipedia.org

Tips to Maintain a Simmer

Simmering can be a lot trickier than you think. At first, you’ll be playing around with temperatures to control the heat. And as we previously mentioned, simmering can be difficult on gas stovetops.

However, you can do a few things to make simmering easier.

  • Cover the pot with a lid and leave for a few moments to raise the temperature quickly.
  • If your pot gets too hot, move it to one side of the flame and gradually give it a few stirs.
  • Add extra cooking liquid or broth to cool the pot down more quickly.

For an added extra, if you’re cooking on a gas stovetop, you can try using a “simmer ring.” This is a type of heat diffuser that absorbs the stove’s heat and regulates the temperature of your pot.

Foods To Simmer

You can cook various types of foods with a simmer, from poultry and delicate meats to grains, legumes, and vegetables.

Fish

Because they’re delicate, most types of fish are suited to this method. 

When cooking fish, it’s best to add them to pre-heated liquid. You can either poach them or cook them just below a simmer. This helps prevent them from overcooking or breaking apart. 

Grains

All grains are better off being simmered in a covered saucepan. You can use simmering for white rice, millet, bulgar, quinoa, and wild rice. 

We recommend using either the absorption method or the pilaf method when cooking grains. This keeps grains fluffy and moist and prevents them from sticking together. 

Legumes

Overcooking legumes can cause them to lose essential B vitamins and nutrients. Instead, you can cook foods such as beans and lentils on a gentle simmer to help prevent this. 

Meat and Poultry

Simmering is an excellent way to keep meat tender and evenly cooked. 

When you simmer meat, proteins called collagen begin to melt and turn into gelatin. The gelatin then coats the muscle fibers and causes the meat to become succulent and moist. 

Add your meat before bringing your liquid to a simmer as a general rule.

Overcooking your meat makes it chewy because the proteins denature. These denatured proteins clump together, causing a tough or stringy texture.

Stock

Like meat, cooking stock by simmering ensures the minerals, proteins, and fats don’t emulsify and enhance the flavors. 

Vegetables

Simmering is ideal for fibrous veggies such as sweet potatoes, beets, turnips, and rutabagas as it helps cook them evenly.

Rapidly cooking them at high temperatures can cause the loss of beneficial antioxidants and nutrients.

Simmering vs. Boiling: What Are The Differences?

The difference between a simmer and a boil is only a few degrees. 

Here is a summary of the differences between simmering and boiling.

Gentle Simmer
Temperature (at sea level):Approx. 190°F
Bubble Movement:Minor bubbling or the occasional bubble
Water Agitation:Barely agitated
Best Used For:Stocks and broths, slow-cooked cooking sauces, chutneys, delicate grains, and beans
Lively Simmer
Temperature (at sea level):Approx. 205°F
Bubble Movement:Consistent bubbling action mainly around the sides of the pot
Water Agitation:Slightly agitated
Best Used For:Soups, most cooking sauces, starchy vegetables, hard grains 
Boiling
Temperature (at sea level):212°F
Bubble Movement:Rapid bubbling and furious
Water Agitation:Extremely agitated
Best Used For:Green vegetables for blanching, dried pasta

The main difference between boiling and simmering is the movement and intensity of the bubbles. A simmer has gentle bubbling movement, while a boil is more agitating.

Essential Equipment for Simmering

Some pieces of equipment will make simmering easier. But while we’re recommending some tools, you may already have similar options in your kitchen.

Dutch Oven

A Dutch oven goes by many names. Some call them “casserole dishes,” while others call them “French ovens.” Either way, a Dutch oven is wider than it is tall.

To make simmering easier, try using a heavy-bottom Dutch oven. These are excellent for conducting heat and distributing it evenly for steady cooking.

Most Dutch ovens are made with cast iron, making them difficult to use when boiling or simmering. However, we’ve found dutch ovens with a 7 to 8-quart capacity ideal for these techniques.

Stockpot

A stockpot is much taller and slimmer than its Dutch oven counterparts. Lighter stockpots can be used for simple tasks like boiling ears of corn or dried pasta. 

However, heavy-bottomed stockpots are much more versatile and conduct heat better. Ideally, use a stockpot with at least an 8 to 12-quart capacity for ease of use and maneuverability. 

Colander

Colanders are essential if you need to drain the liquid from your pot. 

We recommend using a large colander with tiny perforations. This will help you drain liquids without losing food. It’s especially handy for small foods like cooked orzo. 

Saucepan

If you don’t have a stockpot or Dutch oven, chances are you have a saucepan. 

Overall, we’ve found that heavy-bottomed saucepans are the best for consistently conducting heat and maintaining the right temperature.

For most jobs, a 4-quart saucepan is a suitable size. However, smaller saucepans with 2 to 3-quart capacity can be used for cooking grains. And we’d recommend one with a non-stick surface for easy cleaning and convenience.

Digital Thermometer

While it’s not a necessity, a good thermometer will take the guesswork out of maintaining your pan’s temperature. 

Try to find a digital thermometer that offers useful features such as a rotating display, backlight, or motion sensor. And ideally, the probe should be at least 3 inches long to keep your hands away from heat sources.

Most good digital thermometers will cost anything between $12 to $100. 

Wrapping Up

Simmering is a versatile cooking technique similar to boiling. It’s much more gentle on your food compared to boiling. You can use simmering for tender foods such as fish and meat, as well as broths, soups, and grains. 

To achieve a simmer, you need to bring the liquid to a boil. Then gradually decrease the temperature until it reaches 190°F to 211°F.

Try a few times with plain water if you’re a beginner, as it’s a difficult skill to achieve at first. You’ll constantly be playing with temperatures, and it requires constant supervision.

FAQ

Is It Better To Simmer With The Lid On or Off?

Simmering needs constant observation. So it’s best to keep the lid off. Adding the lid intensifies the heat and increases the temperature, which can quickly cause the liquid to boil.

How Much Liquid Should I Use For Simmering?

This largely depends on what you’re cooking. For most foods, you need enough liquid to fully submerge them. Grains and dried pasta all expand, so you’ll need to ensure there’s enough room at the top of your pot. 

Should I Stir While Simmering?

Once you reach your desired temperature, you’ll need to stir occasionally when simmering. And if you’re adding new ingredients to your recipe, stir again to redistribute the heat evenly. 

Written by
James Fuller

Hey I'm James, the one who started Purely Cookware. All my life, I've been lucky enough to bond with family around the dinner table. And I will be using this website to teach you how you can do the same.