I want to talk a bit about water baths and ice baths. In the commercial kitchen, I used both on an almost daily basis. At home, I set up an ice bath or a water bath every once in a while when it’s necessary.
I recently realized that not everyone knows what ice baths and water baths are, much less how to set one up or how or why to use one. You might also want to read more about uses for ice in the kitchen.
So, today is Bath Demystification day. I want you to know how to set up an ice bath or a water bath, why you’d want to in the first place, and how to decide which you’ll need.
Culinary Terms, So We’re Clear
First, the basics. Please remember that there are very few absolutes when it comes to baking and cooking jargon.
What I’m going to describe and call by name A, you might call name B.
If you work in a professional kitchen, please call these things what your chef calls them to avoid any unpleasantness.
If you’re a home cook and need to set one of these things up for some reason, I don’t care if you call it “Passamaquoddy” as long as you know how and why you are doing it:
Click on each link to see a photo of the setup.
The Water Bath
A water bath is a large pan of hot water in which you place Items to be Baked.
The Ice Bath
An ice bath is usually a large bowl of ice into which you set a smaller bowl full of liquid ingredients.
The Bain Marie
A bain marie is a container that can be set inside a larger vessel full of hot/simmering/boiling water.
The Double Boiler
A double boiler is a pan of simmering/boiling water over which (not in which) you set another pan of ingredients.
Why Use a Hot Water Bath?
A water bath is most often used for baking custards–ingredients with a lot of eggs, like cheesecake, flan, creme caramel, even bread pudding.
Here’s why: eggs are very finicky, and if you heat them too quickly, they will curdle.
If your flan curdles, rather than silky smoothness, you’ll have stupid sweetened scrambled eggs. Not pretty.
Baking delicate custards in a pan of hot water does two things for you.
- The temperature of the water will never exceed 212 degrees, F (the boiling point of water). This means that, even if the oven is set to 275, 300 or even 325F, the sides of your baking pan (and pretty much whatever is in that pan) will never exceed the boiling point of water, allowing the eggs to cook at a leisurely pace and set up smoothly.
- The water bath provides a moist cooking environment. This is good for custards, too, because it can help keep the surface of your custard from drying out and forming a skin. Ew.
How to Set Up a Water Bath
To set up a water bath:
- place individual ramekins (or a large, one-piece pan) inside the larger container then put the whole thing in the oven.
- For extra insulation, line the larger pan with a terrycloth kitchen towel. Doing this can also keep the water from the next step from splashing.
- Once in the oven, pour hot/boiling water into the larger container so that it comes 1/2 to 2/3 of the way up the sides of the ramekins (or pan).
Water Bath Tip
Hot water baths are useful to put in a cold oven or microwave to create a warm moist place for your bread dough to rise.
Recipes Using a Water Bath
Or if cheesecake is more your style, try my Nutella cheesecake. Baking it in a water bath ensures it stays nice and creamy with a level top that doesn’t crack.
Why Would You Need An Ice Bath?
An ice bath is useful when you want to cool down liquids quickly.
I use them frequently with stovetop custards (again) as well as with stock and broths and even for whipping cream.
In the case of custards, even after you take them off the heat, carryover cooking can cause the temperature to continue to rise. I’ve seen it happen.
Your smooth, lovely creme Anglaise that you slaved over comes off the stovetop perfectly smooth and perfectly thickened. You pour it in a container and let it sit, and all of a sudden, you have a container of scrambled eggs.
To Set Up an Ice Bath
- Put a bunch of ice in a very large bowl and nestle a smaller metal bowl in the ice.
- Pour the custard into the smaller bowl and stir it to cool it quickly. Quick cooling=no curdling.
Ice Bath Tips
It is best to use a metal bowl. Since metal is a good conductor, it will actually conduct the heat of the custard (or whatever you’re cooling) into the surrounding ice.
Whipping cream in an ice bath keeps the fat in the cream very cold. It actually takes a bit longer to whip, but you have much more control over the final product with much less chance of overwhipping.
Recipes Using an Ice Bath
I chill all my panna cotta mixtures in an ice bath to make sure they’re thickened enough to suspend vanilla specks rather than having them all sink to the bottom.
Give my basic panna cotta recipe a look, and then you can use that procedure to make your favorite flavor.
And especially if your kitchen is very hot, you may want to whip cream in an ice bath.
Why Would You Need a Bain Marie?
A bain marie is useful for heating items up for service, whether at a restaurant or at home.
For example, refrigerated caramel or hot fudge sauce can be very thick and stodgy. Reheating in a bain marie will thin it out to a pourable texture.
How to Set Up a Bain Marie
- Transfer the stodgy sauce (or soup or dip) to a metal container with high sides.
- Place that container in a larger pot of hot/simmering/even boiling water to “melt” it.
This is the way we heated soup at the restaurants–remember, it will never get hotter than 212 degrees, as long as there is water in the outside pan. Certainly hot enough to serve, but not hot enough that you burn the soup.
Bain Marie Tip
Trying to keep soup hot directly on the stovetop can result in scorched soup.
Steamed puddings are often cooked in a bain marie.
Recipes Using a Bain Marie
My brown butter cauliflower soup is very rich and will thicken up into almost a solid block when chilled. Reheating in a bain marie ensures it reheats gently without breaking or getting grainy.
Reheat butterscotch ice cream sauce in a bain marie.
What Is a Double Boiler?
A double boiler is similar to a bain marie with one big difference.
Rather than setting a pan of ingredients in the hot/simmering/boiling water, the pan of ingredients is set over the pan of hot water.
Why Would You Use a Double Boiler?
Double boilers are great for cooking stovetop custards, curds, sabayons/zabagliones, and for melting chocolate.
Whenever you want a little insurance to keep delicate foods from scorching over direct heat, that’s when you’d want to break out your double boiler.
How to Set Up a Double Boiler
You can certainly buy a double boiler if you’d like, but I find that dedicated double boilers have some downsides.
The main issue I have with them is that the double boiler insert isn’t designed to hold a ton of ingredients and rarely are they made with sloped sides.
Having sloped sides makes it much easier to whisk without any ingredients getting stuck around the edges of the top pan.
My preferred method? Set up your own.
Use a regular old pot on the stove, and then place a sturdy, stainless steel bowl on top. The bowl should be large enough that it doesn’t fit down inside the pan so the bottom of the pot touches the water.
You want to make sure the only thing that’s touching the bottom of this bowl is the steam rising from the water and not the water itself.
For most of the recipes you would make using a double boiler, having the water at a slow boil is perfectly fine, as long as you are whisking madly and Paying Attention.
The Special Case of Chocolate and Double Boilers
Chocolate is another story.
Chocolate can scorch at ridiculously low temperatures (some as low as 115 degrees), and it begins to melt at body temperature. So, chocolate must be handled delicately.
To melt chocolate in a double boiler, place the chocolate in the top vessel, bring the water to a boil, and then take the whole contraption off the heat.
The chocolate will then melt slowly, just from the residual heat of the water underneath.
When melting white chocolate, don’t even bring the water to a boil. White chocolate is extremely finicky and will make your life a Living Hell if you try to rush it.
Double Boiler Tip
Since chocolate will seize up if just a tiny bit of water gets into it, take extra care that no water from your double boiler gets into your chocolate. This is another reason to use a larger bowl set over a pot rather than a dedicated double boiler.
Recipes Using a Double Boiler
Lemon curd is another example of a delicate, custard-like recipe that is cooked over a double boiler.
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