All About Double Boilers
A double boiler is a kitchen tool that consists of a large pot filled with water and a smaller, separate pot or bowl that fits snugly inside the larger pot. It is used for cooking or warming food over gentle, indirect heat.
Here are some reasons for using a double boiler:
- To gently cook or melt delicate ingredients: A double boiler can be used to gently cook or melt ingredients that are sensitive to high heat, such as chocolate, cream, or custard.
- To prevent burning or scorching: Using a double boiler can help prevent ingredients from burning or scorching, as the indirect heat of the boiling water helps to regulate the temperature.
- To avoid overheating: A double boiler can be used to avoid overheating ingredients, such as sauces or dips, which can cause them to break or separate.
- To cook evenly: A double boiler can help to cook ingredients evenly, as the indirect heat of the boiling water helps to distribute the heat evenly around the pot or bowl.
- To keep food warm: A double boiler can be used to keep food warm without drying it out or overcooking it. This can be useful for dishes that are served at a buffet or for keeping sauces or dips warm while serving.
Do You Need A Double Boiler?
Now comes the question: do you really need to purchase a specialized pan set?
The answer is no. A double boiler can easily be rigged at home. All you need is a deep and wide pan and a large glass or metal bowl whose bottom will fit down in the pan.
If the pan is too small or the bowl is too big, the heat will be concentrated right at the very bottom of the bowl. You want as much of the bowl inside the pan as possible to promote even heat distribution. (see photo)
A homemade double boiler can work better than a store-bought set. Often, the bottom of the insert is a little flat on the bottom but with rounded sides that have a rim pressed into the pan.
This little rim keeps the insert from falling into the bottom pan. Unfortunately, it's also a place where food can get stuck.
The shape of these pans is not very conducive to whisking, and whisking is what you generally do in a double boiler. So, skip the store-bought version and make your own double boiler using a whisk-friendly metal or glass bowl for the top.
Why You Need A Double Boiler
Now that you know what a double boiler is and can make your own, let's spend a minute talking about why you need one and how to use one. Honestly, there are not many times in a home kitchen that you will need a double boiler to prepare your everyday recipes.
Sometimes, though, you want to melt chocolate or make a pastry cream or lemon curd, and a double boiler comes in handy. A double boiler provides gentle, indirect heat to whatever you are cooking.
Rather than the heat of a burner transferring directly to the food, the heat is transferred to the water in the bottom pan and then through steam. The steam bathes the bottom of the double boiler in very even, gentle heat that can easily be controlled on a home stove—move the pot off the heat if the water starts boiling vigorously.
My Version of a Double Boiler Using a Pasta Pot & Stainless Mixing Bowl
How to Use a Double Boiler
To use a double boiler, you will need to follow these steps:
- Fill the large pot with water: Fill the large pot of the double boiler with enough water to reach the bottom of the smaller pot or bowl when it is placed inside.
- Place the smaller pot or bowl inside the large pot: Place the smaller pot or bowl inside the large pot, making sure it fits snugly and is not touching the bottom of the large pot.
- Bring the water to a boil: Place the large pot on the stove and bring the water to a boil. Reduce the heat to a simmer.
- Add the ingredients to the smaller pot or bowl: Place the ingredients that you want to cook or melt in the smaller pot or bowl.
- Cook or melt the ingredients: Allow the ingredients to cook or melt in the smaller pot or bowl, using the indirect heat of the boiling water to regulate the temperature. Stir the ingredients occasionally to ensure they are cooking evenly.
- Remove the smaller pot or bowl from the large pot: Once the ingredients are cooked or melted, use oven mitts or a potholder to carefully remove the smaller pot or bowl from the large pot.
- Use the ingredients as desired: You can now use the cooked or melted ingredients in your recipe as desired.
Keep in mind that the cooking time and temperature may vary depending on the specific ingredients and recipe you are using. It is important to pay attention to the instructions in your recipe and to monitor the ingredients as they cook or melt to ensure they are not overheated or burned.
When to Use a Double Boiler
Recipes that most often call for the use of a double boiler include all custards (pastry cream, pudding, sabayon, zabaglione, etc.) as well as lemon curd and delicate emulsions like Hollandaise sauce. While some of these recipes can be prepared over direct heat, using a double boiler keeps the heat more even and gentle and can prevent scorching.
The ability to deliver gentle heat is the main advantage of using a double boiler. Most disadvantages arise from buying specialized equipment: storage issues, buying a one-trick pony, and expense. These disadvantages do not apply if you use a bowl and a pot you already own to create your own double boiler.
Don't Forget About Bain Maries
"Wait! What about bain maries?"
A bain marie is similar to a double boiler as both deliver more gentle heat to whatever you are cooking.
A bain-marie and a double boiler are essentially the same thing and are used for the same purpose – cooking or melting food over gentle, indirect heat. The main difference is in the terminology: "bain-marie" is the French term for this technique, while "double boiler" is the English term.
A bain-marie is a French term for a cooking technique that involves cooking food in a water bath. It is also known as a "water bath" or "double boiler."
A bain-marie consists of a large pot or container filled with hot water, into which a smaller pot or container with the food to be cooked is placed. The food is then cooked slowly over gentle, indirect heat, which helps to regulate the temperature and prevent the food from overheating or burning. This technique is often used for cooking or melting delicate ingredients, such as custards, chocolates, and cheesecakes.
The bain-marie technique can be used in a variety of dishes and can help to cook or melt ingredients evenly and gently without overheating them. It is also a useful technique for keeping food warm while serving.
Dear Reluctant Gourmet:
I've recently purchased a stainless steel double boiler (I've not yet used it). I intend to use it to steam vegetables as I understand the broccoli or whatever will cook at much lower temperatures, thus destroying fewer enzymes; in a word leaving the finished product in a more nourishing state. I understand a double boiler can also be used to steam oatmeal but will take longer. I don't know if any of this is true but would appreciate your opinion and any advise you might offer. Thank you.
If you are intending to put the steamer basket in the top pot it would take a lot of extra energy to get the water in the top pot to boil, and if you do get to that point it would likely take a long time to actually steam the veggies. Better to just steam them normally in a pot, you can use the bottom pot with a steamer basket, but keep the heat a bit lower so the water doesn't boil as rapidly. I've never tried "double steaming" water from bottom to top pot but I just have a feeling it might not work so well.
Spot on with this write-up, I absolutely feel this amazing site needs a lot more attention.
I'll probably be back again to read more, thanks for the information!
can you cook in a double boiler pots if you separate them on the stove...silly question but new to cooking in double broiler.
The Reluctant Gourmet
Great question Sheila. I guess it depends on the bottom of the double boiler insert pot. I don't own a double boiler but make my own with a larger and smaller pots when I need one. Some double boiler insert pots have rounded bottoms which would make it a little tricky to use as a stand-alone pan but if both have flat bottoms, I don't see why it wouldn't work.
Any other thoughts on this out there?
why get a double boiler for that, just use to regular pots or pans. I have an old double boiler from my grandparents. I actually do use the pots individually to heat soup or other things. That is just using them as if they were normal pots and not using them for the express purpose of the double boiler. I think the name double boiler is a bit of a misnomer because only the bottom pot actually boils. You don't want the ingredients in the top pot to boil, and I'm not even sure if that is possible but I've never tried it either. Thanks 🙂
G. Stephen Jones
Hey Jeff, I agree if you don't have a double boiler, use a couple of pots and/or pans that you do have. I'll have to look up the history of the name, "double boiler" since you are right, you only want the lower pot to come to a boil. Thanks for sharing.
No you generally should not. Why not? Because you will notuce most inserts are not made of 18/10 thick stainless steel. They are often thin single ply metal or aluminum and if placed onto a direct heat source will warp and be ruined. They are made of thin materials so they can heat up just enough for the delicate sauces in them to heat easily with just the steam from below them. Its called Double because you have two pots. Boiler because the water in the bottom pan boils
when I bought my pots and pans set the large pot came with an attachment which I assumed was for steaming vegetables and melting chocolate just as a double boiler does. I haven't used it yet but tonight I was planning to boil potatoes and stem frozen vegetables in the top attachment. Is this wrong and if so what is this for?
The Reluctant Gourmet
Hi Beverly, not sure without seeing the attachment. Does it have holes in the bottom?
I just bought a recipe book with many cream-based soups listed, and the author encourages use of a double boiler to heat the cream in a safe manner so it is unlikely to scorch.
My problem is that I would like to make at least six generous portions of soup, so I do not understand why finding a ready-made 4-quart double boiler is nearly an impossibility! It seems like home-use ones are no more than three quarts -- and the commercial ones are HUGE - like sixteen quarts. Do you have ANY advice for me, please??
An older friend of mine just purchased a double boiler and is looking for additional recipes. Is there a cookbook I could get for him that he might enjoy working his way through?
G. Stephen Jones
Hi Sandra, I don't know of any cookbooks specifically for double boiler recipes but they are often used for making cream-based sauces, dairy-based soups, or for melting chocolate for dessert recipes.
re. using a lower pot of the double boiler: As the r-gourmet said, no problem. At least, if you wash out the lower pot.
I say this because, I have the lower pot of my Mom's and it has hard water spots which would prevent any quality cooking. It, by the way, is made of Aluminum (now try not to use that metal). I have recently been trying to find a non-aluminum double boiler -- to no avail. I did a few years ago -- it was large, nice and the set included a pan with holes for steaming veggie etc. But now no replacements, w/o ordering an expensive set on line. So surprised at the scarcity of this cooking staple (former staple).
My son bought me a stainless steel double boiler/steamer set by Tramontina. I think it was a little pricey ($50ish range?) but it is very nice. I use it at least twice a week, and I'm trying something new in it today: no-peel hard boiled eggs. Good luck finding one for yourself.
I have a glass double boiler that has a wire that you put on the electric burner and then place your double boiler on it. It was originally my mom and now I use it. My neighbor just bought a glass double boiler and hers does not have the wire that mine does can it still be used on an electric stove or should we make some type of wire to put on the burner and then set the double boiler on
Diane A York
My Aunt, who would be in her late 80's today, used a double boiler when making her (spaghetti sauce.)It smelled so good and the smell was like no other, making your mouth water. I could not believe it when I tasted it! I was just a young girl and thought, how did she make it so good! Later,after I got married, I asked her how she made it but only found out that she used fresh tomatoes.
While she cooked it, when I was a young girl,I watched her poor more water in the bottom. Then she stirred it and left the cover off the whole time. Now I wish I would have found out more details because I crave that special tomato sauce. I'm thinking of looking up her daughters to find out. I'd love to find out more details. It's to die for! I've had some good sauces, but I tell you, nothing like this one!
A logical way to forestall the boiling of water time...measure the amount of water you need and microwave it until it boils put it in the bottom pan of the double boiler, put the top pan over it, load your food and put on the lid.
since the water is already boiled, you can use a gently flame to keep the water boiling gently and you will have steamed meats, vegetables and whatever else you like.
It works as I just did it today, 25, August 2020.
G. Stephen Jones
Hi Floy, thanks for this very interesting tip. I'll give it a try.
BTW, There was an old double boiler company called Savory. (They also made slow cookers). Their specialty let the steam come up and then drip back down thru tiny holes into the top pot. I learned this when trying to get a Double Boiler recipe book & read it. One might find this pot on Etsy etc. (which is where I found this book). I am right now steaming up my vegetable crumbles in my DB. I did add some water to those crumbles. My electric steamer via Crock-Pot is the main steamer I have. It is 6qt & no I did not need that much for steaming them. I will learn more after they are done.
Replying to my crumbles vegges — they came out okay. The bag wanted me to microwave them. But this DB style was fine for me