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How does a Chef create fork-tender foods rich in flavour?

He does it by doing one of the most fundamental technique in cooking – simmering. 

Simmering is done by raising the temperature of the liquid where either meat or vegetable is cooked into, to just below boiling point. The temperature is between 185 to 205ºF (85 to 96ºC).

When foods are simmered, the flavours are more fused and the cooked ingredient, usually meats, are more tender. The meat’s collagen or connective tissues melt and convert to gelatin when temperatures are ideal. The gelatin coats the muscle fibres of the meat and causes it to feel moist and succulent. 

This is why simmering is better than boiling if tender cuts of meat are desired. Boiling usually results in tough and stringy meat because the higher temperature causes the proteins to denature. Denaturing results in a change in texture as a result of the protein molecules clumping together. 

But is there a skill to simmering? Isn’t it just like letting the water boil? 

Simmering is different from boiling in that with simmering, the liquid is brought to a state of just below boiling. Bubbles are visible, but the movement is not as active as in the boiling state.  Simmering is way more gentle. Food is cooked in a liquid that is maintained at a constant temperature, ensuring even cooking. Because of this, simmering is a great way to cook delicate proteins like shellfish and fish.

Chef skills come in when monitoring the consistency of the bubbles because simmering needs supervision. You may need to raise and lower the temperature now and then to achieve a steady simmer.

 

Here are the three stages of simmering:

  • Slow Simmer: Heat level is low that it looks as if there is very little activity in the pot. Steam is visible, and few bubbles are present. This is best for braising liquid and cooking stocks. 
  • Simmer: Heat level is medium-low that there is gently bubbling. This is the most basic simmer technique used for sauces, stews, braises and soups. 
  • Rapid Simmer: Heat level is medium to medium heat. There is more bubbling, but bubbles are relatively small—best for reducing sauces. 

 

Here are some tips for a fail-safe and flavourful simmer:

  • Check the recipe instruction as simmering can be done in two ways. First, it can be done by bringing the liquid slowly to just below boiling point and maintain low heat (done when making stocks). The other (and most common) is by getting the liquid to a boiling point first and then lowering the heat. 
  • As mentioned in the above, when making stocks, it is best to raise the liquid temperature slowly to just below boiling point. The heat is enough to break down the bone cartilage but gentle enough to not produce big and active movement of bubbles. The large bubbles and increase in bubbling activity disturb the clarification process resulting in a stock that is cloudy.
  • Again, when making stocks, begin with a cold liquid and add meat before turning on the heat. If raw meat is added to a hot liquid even if it is only simmering and not boiling, the meat releases proteins quickly, clouding the broth. Whereas if done gradually, the meat produces a frothy mass which can easily be skimmed off the surface.
  • For a more enhanced flavour, a flavoured liquid such as broth, wine or stock can be used. Even apple cider can be used. 
  • Since temperature adjustments are needed when simmering, one option to lower the temperature is to add extra broth or cooking liquid.
  • If the pot gets too hot, stirring the liquid can help cool it down.  
  • Aside from adjusting the heat of the burner, you can raise the temperature of the pot by covering it for a few moments with a lid. But only for a few moments, because if you keep the lid on, it will intensify the heat and you will be raising the temperature that it might reach a boil. 

 

RELATED READ: Parboiling: A Not So Secret “Secret” To Speedy and Flavourful Cooking

 

In Summary:

Another one of the skills possessed by a Professional Chef is executing the seemingly simple technique of simmering. Simmering is one of the most fundamental methods of moist-heat cooking done by gently cooking food through a consistent low heat. It is less intense than boiling, which allows for the flavours of the food to cook synergistically. When done right, that is with focus and patience,  it results in a dish with a more fully developed flavour and fork-tender texture. 

 

That’s it for this week.
As always, Professional Chefs on Call at Anytime!

Ciao for now,
Thomas 



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