When the weather turns cold, soups and stews become a winter cooking staple for many of us. All across the country, households fill with the warming aroma of pots simmering on the stove, reminiscent of childhood memories when we came home to a house full of delicious food smells.
But what exactly does it mean to simmer, and why is it included as a direction in so many recipes? If you can turn up the heat to high to speed up the cooking time of whatever pot you’ve got on the stove, why not do it? Can simmering really be that important to the cooking process? Short answer: Yes, it absolutely can. And we’re going to tell you why.
What Is It?
Simmering is a technique similar to boiling, in that it cooks food through heating liquids rather than in an oven or a hot pan. You actually begin the simmering process with bringing whatever liquid you’re cooking with to a boil—whether water or milk or a soup or stew itself—then reducing the heat until only the occasional bubble burbles up and pops on the surface every few seconds. There’s some debate about the proper temperature, but it’s certainly below 200℉, and commonly cited as 180 to 190℉. But numbers aside, in practice it’s usually the lowest possible setting on your stove.
Because you’re aiming for that sweet spot that’s lower than boiling but higher than poaching, you do need to keep a pretty close eye on your pot at the beginning to make sure you’ve reached the right balance. When done right, the surface of the liquid should have a “shimmer” to it; when you see that, you know it’s safe to leave the pot and focus on other tasks for a while.
(Beef Stew with Carrots, Parsnips, and Collard Greens. Look delicious? Find dishes like this on our menu.)
What Does It Do?
Simmering cooks the food gently and slowly, allowing it to maintain its structure in ways that are impossible with boiling. If you’re cooking fish, simmering allows it to stay together without flaking apart; if you’re cooking meat, simmering keeps it tender and juicy instead of drying it out like boiling, which hardens the proteins.
But even though simmering is a gentle process, it’s still efficient. It’s one of the best ways to cook root vegetables like carrots and potatoes because it cooks them uniformly and consistently without turning them mushy by applying low heat from every angle.
(Thai-Style Tom Kha Soup with Salmon and Tomato)
What Should You Use It On?
As mentioned above, it’s great for meats you want to remain fork-tender, flaky white fish, and root vegetables, although leafy greens can also benefit from the simmer treatment. But simmering is perhaps most useful when making a soup or stock, because it allows the various tastes to mingle and layer one over the other, creating a depth of flavor over time that can’t be fabricated with another method. For the same reason that soup or stew typically tastes better the next day because it’s had more time for flavors to meld, simmering can only improve dishes by making the interweaving process more efficient.
(Spanish Chickpea Spinach Stew)
…And For How Long?
That really depends on the recipe. Simmering is a lower-impact cooking method than searing or boiling, which makes it hard to mess up. Length of cooking really depends on your own preference, so taste often and trust your own judgement. Don’t be afraid to give it a few extra minutes on the stove, or to take it off early if you notice any of the green ingredients beginning to fade to a browner shade—that can be a sign that they’re on the edge of being overcooked.
Anything Else To Remember?
Just one more thing! Simmering releases the fat and proteins out of whatever meat you have cooking in the liquid, and that stuff will float to the top. Sure, you can stir it back in if you like, but you can also skim it off the top, which will keep your stock clear and unclouded.
So that’s simmering. Just another versatile cooking method to have under your belt the next time you take on a warming winter meal. And while we understand your inclination to dial the heat up under a pot of soup or stew to speed up the cooking time with a nice, quick boil, trust us: Leaving the heat on low and slow is just a better way to go.