Yes, today is bath day here at PMAT. 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 awhile when it’s necessary. But, I realized yesterday that not everyone even knows what these things are, much less how to set one up or how or why to use one. 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. Unless things really go south, we shan’t be getting wet, but bring your rubber ducky along for moral support.
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:
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.
But Why? I’m Glad You Asked
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. 1)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 325 degrees, F, 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. 2)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. To set one up, I place individual ramekins (or a large, one-piece pan) inside the larger container then put the whole thing in the oven. Once in the oven, I pour hot water into the larger container so that it comes 1/2 to 2/3 of the way up the sides of the ramekins. Water baths are also good to put in a cold oven to create a warm moist place for your bread dough to rise.
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 it 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 stove top 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 avoid that, I put a bunch of ice in a very large bowl and nestle a smaller metal bowl in the ice. Then, I pour the custard into the small bowl and stir it to cool it quickly. Quick cooling=no curdling. It is best to use a metal bowl. Since metal is a good conductor, it will actually conduct the heat of the custard into the surrounding ice. When your custard is cool, the ice has generally melted. 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.
A bain marie is useful for heating items up for service. For example, refrigerated caramel or hot fudge sauce can be very thick and stodgy. To get it to a workable consistency, transfer the stodgy sauce to a metal container with high sides. Place that container in a 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 for service, but not hot enough that you burn the soup. Trying to keep soup hot directly on the stovetop can result in scorched soup. This is also the way steamed puddings are often cooked.
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. Double boilers are great for cooking stovetop custards, curds, sabayons/zabagliones and for melting chocolate. For most of these items, having the water at a slow boil is perfectly fine, as long as you are whisking madly and Paying Attention. Chocolate is another story. It 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. (Here, I am using the voice of the Wicked Witch of the West: “These things 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 risidual 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.
As you can see, the hot baths are designed to heat ingredients gently and to keep them at a constant temperature. Ice baths are designed to cool things quickly. Don’t try and use a plastic or glass bowl for an ice bath–metal is really the only way to go. Once you start stirring, you will be amazed at how quickly ingredients cool down. Stirring in an ice bath can take a boiling gelatin mixture to a chilled, almost-set gelatin mixture in about 5 minutes. Take THAT, instant pudding!
So, I think that pretty much covers it, unless there are any questions. Just remember that a water bath alone cannot save a neglected custard. You still have to pay attention to what you’re doing, especially when working over a double boiler.
All present and accounted for? Everyone have your ducky? Right then; my work here is done.