How to boil water, how to steam food and why it is important to know

The fundamental techniques of boiling and steaming water is crucial for anyone interested in cooking. While these methods might seem basic, they are the foundation for many recipes and culinary techniques. This article will delve into the intricacies of boiling and steaming, their differences, and why mastering these methods is essential for culinary success.

Boiling Water: The Basics and Beyond

What is Boiling?

Boiling water means heating it until it reaches its boiling point, where it starts to turn into steam. At sea level, water boils at 212°F (100°C). However, this boiling point changes with altitude due to variations in air pressure. For instance, water boils at a lower temperature at higher altitudes because the air pressure is lower.

How to Know When Water is Boiling

  • Watching for Steam: One way to identify boiling water is by watching for steam rising above the surface.
  • Using a Thermometer: For precision, use a thermometer to check when the water reaches 212°F.
  • Bubble Technique: Observe the bubbles forming at the bottom of the pot. Here’s a breakdown:
    • Small Bubbles: As water heats up, small bubbles form at the bottom. This stage is often referred to as the poaching temperature. The water is hot but not yet agitated, ideal for poaching eggs.
    • Rising Bubbles: As the temperature rises, the bubbles start to move upward, indicating the water is nearing a simmer.
    • Simmering: When small bubbles rise continuously and create constant, slight agitation on the surface, the water is simmering.
    • Boiling: When large bubbles cover the surface and steam is profuse, the water has reached its boiling point.

Why Boiling Water is Important

  • Cooking Pasta: For pasta, water must be boiling profusely. If the water isn’t hot enough, the pasta releases too much starch, leading to cloudy water and soggy pasta.
  • Killing Bacteria: Boiling water is essential for sterilizing. Before bottled water, mothers boiled water to ensure it was safe for their children. Bacteria can’t survive at boiling temperatures.

Adjusting Heat After Boiling

Whether you need to maintain a rolling boil or lower the heat depends on what you’re cooking:

  • Simmering Meat: Once the water reaches boiling, you can turn down the heat to simmer.
  • Steaming Food: If you’re boiling water to create steam for cooking, the water must remain at a constant boil.

Steaming Food: Techniques and Tips

What is Steaming?

Steaming cooks food using the heat from steam. The food doesn’t touch the water but is surrounded by hot, moist steam that cooks it evenly. This method is particularly beneficial for preserving nutrients and natural flavors in food.

How to Steam Food

Steaming Food

  1. Preheat Your Steamer: Just like preheating an oven, you need to preheat your steamer. Boil the water before placing the food in the steamer. This ensures that the food starts cooking immediately.
  2. Arrange the Food: Place the food in a single layer in the steamer basket. Ensure there’s enough space between pieces for steam to circulate.
  3. Cover and Cook: Cover the steamer and cook the food until done. Keep the water boiling throughout the steaming process to maintain a constant supply of steam.

Why Preheating and Constant Steam are Crucial

  • Immediate Cooking: Food starts cooking as soon as it encounters the steam. This is crucial for items like puto (steamed rice cakes), which need the immediate heat to rise properly.
  • Consistent Texture: Without constant steam, the cooking process slows down, leading to unevenly cooked food with altered texture.

Stove Settings for Steaming

  • High Heat for Uncovered Steamers: If your steamer setup involves an uncovered pot or wok, keep the heat on high to maintain the boiling water.
  • Medium Heat for Covered Steamers: For steamers with lids that minimize heat loss, you might be able to lower the heat to medium while maintaining a steady boil.

Practical Applications and Culinary Benefits

Boiling for Different Recipes

  • Vegetables: Boiling vegetables can be quick and effective, but it can also lead to nutrient loss. Blanching, a quick boil followed by an ice bath, helps retain color and nutrients.
  • Eggs: Boiled eggs are a staple, but the timing affects the result—soft-boiled versus hard-boiled.

Steaming for Healthier Cooking

  • Nutrient Retention: Steaming is one of the healthiest cooking methods as it retains most nutrients in vegetables and fish.
  • Flavor Preservation: Steaming preserves the natural flavors of food without needing added fats or oils.


Understanding how to boil water and steam food correctly is fundamental for any cook. These basic techniques underpin many recipes and ensure that food is cooked safely and efficiently. By mastering the stages of boiling and the nuances of steaming, you can enhance your culinary skills and produce better, more consistent results in the kitchen. Whether you’re boiling pasta, steaming vegetables, or preparing delicate dishes like poached eggs and puto, these techniques are essential tools in your cooking repertoire.

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