Monday, August 27, 2012

Quest 1.1 - Boiling Water! No...I'm not kidding.

Welcome back, apprentices! Have you finished those character tomes? Good! Because now you need them!

Today we are boiling water. The reason I chose this as your first quest is twofold. First, because being able to bring water to a controlled boil is actually a very important component to a lot of dishes (i.e. anything with rice, pasta, boiled potatoes for mashed potatoes, poaching eggs, fruit, fish, making soups or stews etc...). You might even run into some recipes along that way that require your water or liquid temperature be very specific. Second, over the years, many people have said to me, "I can't cook. I can't even boil water!" Well, this is to prove you can. And don't worry, those of you who are experienced boilers might learn something here, too. We are also going to discuss the science of boiling water and the different factors that affect the boiling point temperature.

Materials for his Quest:

Cold Water
Pot (with a fitted lid)
*Candy Thermometer (optional)

Choose your pot. For this quest, a one or two quart saucepan will do the trick. Fill your pot a little more than halfway with cold water from the tap.

Why cold water, you ask? You may think that by using hot water from the tap, your water will boil faster. Although it may shave a precious five seconds off your boiling time, that hot water has been hanging out in your pipes, getting stale for a long time. And that's gross. You may also be asking, why tap water? Well, let me ask you, why waste filtered water? If the dish you're making doesn't involve water as a main ingredient (soups, stews, etc.) and you'll only be discarding the water when you're finished, then you're good. Tap water doesn't affect the taste of pastas or potatoes. For rice, however, I do recommend using filtered water or vegetable, chicken or beef stock since the liquid is fully absorbed into your food.

Now, look at the different burners on your stove and you'll see they are each a different size. You ever wonder why they make them all so different? This is actually pretty important in cooking. You need to make sure to choose a burner on your stove relative to the size of the bottom of the pot. In other words, not too big or too small. If the burner you use is too large for the bottom of your pot, you are going to have a difficult time controlling the temperature of your food and it will burn or boil over before you know it. And if the burner you choose is too small, the fire won't be sufficient to do what you need it to do. It is also a "greener" way of cooking. If your burner is too big or too small, you are wasting energy and heat. It's also important to make sure your burners are clean so they can distribute heat properly.

Okay, now that you've chosen a burner, put your pot down and turn the gauge to high.

So, you know that saying, "A watched pot never boils,"...? Yeah, I hate that saying. In the kitchen, that saying DOES NOT apply. A watched pot DOES boil - it boils quite sufficiently, thank you very much!  And in this case, you need to WATCH THAT POT!

**Candy Thermometer: At this point, if you've chosen to use a thermometer, clip the thermometer to the side of the pan so that the tip is submerged in the water but NOT touching the bottom of the pan. It is important that you're reading the temperature of the water and not just the bottom of the pot as the bottom of the pot will be hotter than the temperature of the water itself.

Water goes through several stages before it gets to a boil. A lot of packaged food, like macaroni and cheese for example, will tell you to "bring water to a boil." The "boil" they are referring to is actually called a "real boil," which is the last stage of the boil.


Temps based at Sea Level:

Tepid Water - 85ºF - 105ºF Temperature is comparable to the human body. So if you stick your finger in it, you don't feel much.

Warm Water - 115ºF - 120ºF Water is touchable but not hot (luke-warm) If you order a Kid's Hot Chocolate at Starbucks, the temperature of the beverage will be around 120ºF. This is also the ideal stage to activate yeast when baking...but we'll cover that in a later quest.

Hot Water - 130ºF - 135ºF The water is too hot to touch without burning yourself. So, don't do it!

...and here's where things start to get interesting! Well, maybe not interesting per se, but this is where we cross the line between heating and actually cooking.

Poach - 160ºF - 180ºF The water is beginning to move and shimmer under the surface. Tiny bubbles form on the bottom of the pan but do not break the surface of the water.

Poaching is a very precise way of cooking. It involves a lot of control over the temperature of the water and is typically used for more delicate foods like eggs, fish and fruit. Personally, I don't make a lot of dishes that require poaching but it's good to know how to do it and what the water looks like at this stage.

Simmer - 185ºF - 200ºF The water is beginning to move and small bubbles are forming and breaking the surface. Things begin to really pick up the pace at this stage.

The simmering stage is the first stage of the boil that is really important to know. A lot of packaged food and recipes make it a point to tell you to "reduce heat to a simmer." Therefore, knowing exactly what a "simmer" looks like is crucial. If you've ever over-cooked rice and ended up with a pot of mush with a scorched bottom, then your simmer was probably still a slow boil. Which brings us to our next stage...

Slow (Soft) Boil - 205ºF You will see more movement and larger bubbles.

So close! We're almost there! We've got some nice, big bubbles and a little steam.

Real (Hard) Boil - 212ºF The water is bubbling vigorously and giving off a good amount of steam and heat.

And here is the magic stage! Pasta, hard-boiled eggs, rice and various other dishes are all cooked or started at this stage.  Pat yourselves on the back Pirates, Wizards and Star Fleet cooks! You just boiled water! And now, you can never again utter those awful words, "I can't even boil water."

On to the science!

There are LOT of factors that will affect the boiling point of water.

SALT - Adding salt, sugar or any other substance to your water will elevate your boiling point and shorten cooking time.

ELEVATION - The higher your altitude, the lower your atmospheric pressure. Low atmospheric pressure means there is less pressure on the molecules of the water which allows them to escape faster into the air. Less pressure means water heats faster and comes to a boil at a lower temperature. The same rule is true for baking. A cake bakes faster at higher altitudes than lower altitudes. For each thousand feet above sea level, the boiling point temperature drops roughly 2ºF.

HARD WATER - Hard water has a higher level of dissolved mineral salts and boils at a higher temperature. The difference between hard and soft water is 1ºF - 2ºF.

ALCOHOL -  Alcohol has a lower boiling point than water at about 175ºF. Diluting water with alcohol will lower the boiling point until the alcohol evaporates. It is important to cook alcohol based stews and sauces at a slightly lower temperature to avoid scorching or over-cooking.

POT/PAN SIZE - Boys and girls, size DOES matter. The water distribution and depth will affect the boiling temperature of your water. A tall, narrow pot will boil at a higher temperature than a short, wide pot simply because of the distance between the bottom of the pot and the surface of the water. Heat has to work harder to completely distribute throughout the water because of the pressure the water puts on itself. The difference is about 1ºF.

WEATHER - Boiled food takes longer to cook on a stormy day. Atmospheric pressure is higher and puts more pressure on the molecules.

Congratulations! Now you know a lot more about boiling water! Now, give your pot a rinse, dry it off and put it away. A happy kitchen is a clean kitchen...especially if you have roommates, a spouse or live with your parents. If anything, clean up just to avoid any snarky comments.

For our next quest, you will put your boiling skills to work as I teach you how to cook pasta without turning it into a gross, mushy mess. Each stage in this quest chain will be important as you work towards your first boss fight - a recipe that will involve every step in this chain. At the end of the chain, I will give you a recipe to complete WITHOUT my step-by-step instruction as you will be using skills that I already walked you thru.



Later this week, I'll be posting a special, fun project (no points) for more advanced cooks and my fellow Whovians in celebration of the series 7 premiere of Doctor Who! Make sure you subscribe to my blog so you don't miss a thing!

Until next time, keep cooking! Because the more you cook, the better you cook!

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