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How to boil water for cooking (the right way)

BY Tamar Adler

18th Jan 2023 Food Heroes

How to boil water for cooking (the right way)

Knowing how to boil water is one of the most basic cooking tasks we can master, but there is a right way to do it, writes Tamar Adler in her new book

There are as many ideas about how to best boil water as there are about how to cure hiccups.

Some people say you must use cold water, explaining that hot water sits in the pipes, daring bacteria to inoculate it; others say to use hot, arguing that only a fool wouldn’t get a head start.

Debates rage as to whether olive oil added to water serves any purpose (it only does if you are planning to serve the water as soup, which you may, but it makes sense to wait to add the oil until you decide).

"There are as many ideas about how to best boil water as there are about how to cure hiccups"

Potatoes should be started in cold water, as should eggs. But sometimes I find myself distractedly adding them to water that’s already boiling, and both turn out fine.

Green and leafy vegetables should be dropped at the last second into a bubble as big as your fist.

Pasta, similarly, should only be added when a pot is rollicking, and stirred once or twice.

Ecclesiastical writers on the subject point out that in the beginning there was water, all life proceeded from water, there was water in Eden, water when we fell, then the slate got cleaned with it. Water breaks, and out we come.

The point, as far as I can tell, is that water has been at it, oblivious to our observations, for longer than we know.

Bringing to boil

Chef and writer Tamar Adler posing in kitchenCredit: Aaron Stern. Boiling water sounds simple until you ask people for their favourite method, says Tamar Adler

I recommend heating up a great deal of it, covered if you’re in a rush because it will boil faster that way, or uncovered if you need time to figure out what you want to boil.

As long as it’s a big pot and the water in it gets hot, whichever technique you choose and however you time your addition of ingredients, the world—which began by some assessments with a lot of water at a rolling boil—will not come to an end.

"If there is anything that you can learn from what is happening, learn it"

Julia Child instructs tasting water periodically as it climbs toward 212 degrees to get used to its temperature at each stage.

Her advice might be overzealous, but it teaches an invaluable lesson, not about boiling, but about learning to cook: if there is anything that you can learn from what is happening, learn it.

You don’t need to know how the properties of water differ at 100 degrees and at 180, but by tasting it at those temperatures you may learn something about your pot or your stove, or the spoon you like best for tasting.

Salting the water

Salting a boiling pot of waterAll ingredients need salt, so salt your boiling water well

Once your water reaches a boil, salt it well. The best comparison I can make is to pleasant seawater. The water needs to be this salty whether it’s going to have pasta cooked in it or the most tender spring peas.

It must be salted until it tastes good because what you’re doing isn’t just boiling an ingredient, but cooking one thing that tastes good in another, which requires that they both taste like something.

All ingredients need salt. The noodle or tender spring pea would be narcissistic to imagine it already contained within its cell walls all the perfection it would ever need.

We too seem to fear that we are failures at being tender and springy if we need to be seasoned. It’s not so; it doesn’t reflect badly on pea or person that either needs help to be most itself.

Taste test

Person cooking pasta in boiled waterLearning to boil water can help you become more aware of how things are supposed to taste

Add salt by hand so that you start to get a feel for how much savouring takes, and as you do, taste the water repeatedly. This may at first feel ridiculous, and then it will start to seem so useful you’ll stand by the pot feeling quite ingenious.

Even though the water is boiling, you can test it with your finger. If it’s well seasoned, just tapping the surface will leave enough on your skin for you to taste.

"The only way to make anything you’re cooking taste good is to make sure all its parts taste good along the way"

When you find yourself tasting your water, you are doing the most important thing you ever can as a cook: the only way to make anything you’re cooking taste good, whether it’s water or something more substantial, is to make sure all its parts taste good along the way.

There are moments in cooking when common sense dictates not to taste—biting into a dirty beet or raw potato—but do taste anything else from a few minutes after you start cooking it until it’s done.

You don’t need to know what it’s supposed to taste like; what anything is supposed to taste like, at any point in its cooking, is good. This is as true for water as for other ingredients.

Excerpt from An Everlasting Meal—Cooking with Economy and Grace by Tamar Adler (published by Swift Press) hbk £14.99

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