Learn essential kitchen skills--starting with the basics--in our new column, Become a Better Cook. Each post will share a cooking lesson--plus recipes to practice with--courtesy of former Gourmet food editor Ian Knauer.
I know people who claim they "can't even boil water." They say it in jest, as a preposterous example of how poorly they cook. What they don't realize is that it could be true. Sure, anyone can bring water to a boil. But then what? Using water to conduct heat and transfer flavor is a fundamental skill of cooking. For any given dish, there's a right way to do it, and there's a wrong way.
After this post you will know how to boil water well. First, a few facts about water.
1. Water has a built-in thermostat. When the liquid reaches 212 degrees F, it turns to gas, so if you have a pot of boiling water, you know that it is at 212 degrees F.
2. Water is an excellent heat conductor. It takes a while to heat up, but once hot, it transfers energy (heat) in a more intense way than say, air does. Try to hold your hand in a 212 degrees F oven. Not bad. Now dip your hand in boiling water. The water is also 212 degrees F, but it hurts a lot more because of this energy transfer.
3. Water has electrical polarity. This means that it is attracted to other electrically charged particles. For our purposes this means that flavorful things, like salt, can easily be dissolved in water.
Boil vs. Simmer
What's the difference between simmering water and boiling water? When water reaches a simmer (about 185 degrees F), tiny bubbles are just beginning to break the surface. Boiling water is in full motion and bubbles rise rapidly to the surface.
Now that we've covered the basics, let's focus on learning how to use water to our advantage in the kitchen
Boiling pasta is practically a no-brainer, so why is Mario Batali's pasta always going to taste better than yours does? Salt is why. As pasta cooks it absorbs water--and the flavors dissolved in the water. So boil your pasta in salty water to make it taste better.
How much salt? Think of the ocean. Add salt to your boiling pot of water (don't add salt to lukewarm water or it will take longer to dissolve and longer to boil) and taste it (after it's cooled a little). When the water tastes like the ocean, you've added the right amount. To give you a measurement, it's about 2 tablespoons of table salt (or a shy 1/4 cup Kosher salt) for every gallon of water, but I always go by taste.
(By the way, there's no need to add any oil to pasta water. It's a kitchen myth that this will prevent the noodles from sticking. Oil and water don't mix--well, sometimes they do, but we'll get into that later--so your noodles are not absorbing oil when they boil. Save that oil to drizzle over the pasta when it's done.)
The Perfect Hard-Boiled Egg
Hard-cooked eggs are harder to cook than you might think. We've all forgotten a batch of eggs boiling on the stove and ended up with rubbery whites and green yolks. Egg's proteins coagulate (or, become firm) somewhere around 190 degrees F. If they get too hot for too long they become rubbery. Since our water tells us how hot it is when boiling (212 degrees F) we'll use it as an indicator. So remember, a perfect hard-boiled egg is never boiled hard, just gently and briefly simmered.
Place your eggs in a saucepan and cover them with room temperature water. (Hot water with cold eggs causes the shells to crack.) Place the saucepan over high heat and bring the water to a gentle simmer. Remove the saucepan from the heat and cover it. Set a timer for 10 minutes. Since water retains heat well, it will slowly, gently cook the eggs all the way through, producing tender whites and bright yellow yolks.
After the eggs are cooked, run them under cold water for 30 seconds if you're going to peel them right away, otherwise keep them in the fridge for up to a month.
Blanching and Shocking
Here I would add a third example of how to properly boil asparagus, but that brings me to blanching, which deserves its own post.
Next time we will continue to discuss how boiling water (and other liquids) well can result in a splendid pasta dish, using the techniques we've covered here.
Ian Knauer honed his cooking chops in the test kitchens of Gourmet magazine for over eight years. When not in the kitchen, he's hunting, tending his beehives, or foraging for dinner wherever it can be found. Follow him on Twitter @iknauer.
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