Pasta, vegetables, and even poached meats will come out better if you follow these three steps.
Use a lot of water:
The main problem that I have with some peoples water boiling technique is that they don't use enough water. In my mind this is the most critical part of getting a good pot of water going, even more important than temperature. Why is that you ask? Isn't the whole point to cook something in very hot water? Yes, it is. However, when you use an inadequate amount of water, you won't have hot water for long.
Why won't you have hot water for long? This answer can be complicated if you want to take science into account. While that answer is interesting to a nerd like me, I have a different way of answering why we wont have hot water for long:
You and a friend are having a competition. The object of the game is to see who can melt an ice cube faster. You have the choice of using one cup of water at 100F or one gallon of water at 100F to drop the ice cube into. Which amount of water do you choose?
The gallon of course. You know that one gallon of hot water will stay warmer for longer than one cup of warm water and because of this fact, your ice cube will melt faster.
When we cook food in boiling water the same idea applies in reverse. When we throw our food in, we want the water to stay as hot as possible. Therefore, we use more water so that when we do drop our food in, the water temperature drops less than if we used a smaller amount of water.
- Using more water will enable you to cook pasta faster and avoid that gluey coating of cooked starches on the outside of the noodles.
- Vegetables blanched in large amounts of water will cook faster, retain better colors, and be more crunchy since the biological compounds contained within have less time to change.
- Poaching proteins like chicken in larger amounts of water will enable you to cook it faster and give you better results as far as tenderness goes.
Salt the water:
I am pleased to say that most people do know about salting their water. The problem is, most people don't salt it enough. I also have to note that its a good idea to salt your water once it is boiling and then let it come back up to a boil. You'll save yourself a little time and energy if you do it after it is boiling. Just be sure that your water does not boil over. (To avoid this just don't add the salt all at once, instead add portions at a time until all the salt is in the water.) But first, why do we salt the water?
Again, we could explain this in terms of science, but the most effective illustration of salt's effect on water is all around us during the winter:
When it snows during the winter and ice becomes a problem, people salt the ice and the ice melts away. Why? Well, when you add salt to ice the melting temperature of the ice is lowered, leading to more melting ice. Forget about knowing why it works, just remember that fact.
Now, instead of salting the road, salt some hot water instead. What happens? The boiling temperature of the water rises because of the added salt. In the end we are left with boiling water that's hotter. We want hotter water temperatures because this will result in quicker cooking times, better looking food, and more importantly, better tasting food.
So, how much salt do we use? A lot of people will tell me that one tablespoon per quart of water is too much, but this is what I use for pasta and vegetables. (One teaspoon per quart when poaching meat.) Their main argument is that the salty water will in turn make salty food. This won't happen. If you know anything about brining, you know that as long as you don't leave the food in the brine too long, there will be no detectable traces of salt in or on your food. The same rule works with salted boiling water; don't overcook your food in the salted water and you'll be fine.
A rolling boil:
When I think of what boiling water should look like I think back to science class in high school. I remember when we would use Bunsen burners to heat the water in flasks and get the water to a boil. When the water was really going, huge bubbles of air would be escaping the water at every moment and the water would boil so vigorously that you could literally hear it. That is what a rolling boil is. You should wait until you see and hear these same signs of boiling before dumping your food in. Here are some guidelines to follow to get the perfect boil going:
- First, start off with the hottest water from your tap that you can achieve. The hotter the temperature of the water, the less time and energy you'll spend heating it up.
- Plan ahead and get your water boiling ahead of time. Before you do anything, put your water on high heat and get it rolling, and keep it rolling. While you wait for that to happen, proceed to prepare the rest of the food. This eliminates waiting for the water to boil and streamlines your kitchen time.
- Put a cover on top. This is a no-brainer. The cover retains heat and therefore reduces the heating time of the water.
- Once the water is rolling, add your salt. Wait for it to come back up to a rolling boil and then cook your food.