Thursday, February 09, 2012

The Sounds of Simmering.

In yesterday’s post the fifteenth century instructions for poaching eggs advised to boyle. the water. Other common instructions for cooking in water that can be found in old recipes are to seethe and to sod. A modern recipe would advise to simmer. Do these represent subtle differences in the cooking method? Water boils at 100 degrees Celsius (at sea level), so a higher temperature process is impossible, and low temperature cooking in water was not generally performed – or fashionable - in the past. Any temperature differences must therefore be very subtle.

The Oxford English Dictionary is unusually poetic on the subject of simmering.  To simmer means ‘to make a subdued murmuring sound under the influence of continued heat; to be at a heat just below boiling-point.’ I will never again simmer anything without being especially attentive and appreciative of the sound. I do have a question though, for the food scientists out there. What does ‘just below boiling’ mean, exactly? How much below? Five degrees? One degree? Half a degree? Someone please put a thermometer in a gently murmuring pot of broth and let me know, soon.

To sod is an obsolete way of saying to boil, and sodden simply meant boiled – so it is possible to have sodden wheat (frumenty) or sodden milk, or even sodden beer.

To seethe, however, according to the OED, means ‘to boil; to make or keep boiling hot; to subject to the action of boiling liquid; esp. to cook (food) by boiling or stewing; also, to make an infusion or decoction of (a substance) by boiling or stewing.  The noun seethe (I did not know it was also a noun) is an ‘ebullition (of waves); intense commotion or heat.’ So, seething is more violent than simmering? I think we are agreed that the temperature of a good ebullition cannot be more than 100 degrees C.Someone please put a thermometer in a violently seething pot of broth and let me know, soon.

I give you a nice recipe for pork and cheese pies – or fried pasties, perhaps - from the fifteenth century. I don’t know what the origin of the word ‘raynolles’ could possibly be.

Nym sode Porke & chese, & sethe y-fere, & caste ther-to gode pouder Pepir, Canelle, Gyngere, Clowes, Mace, an close thin comade in dow, & frye it in freysshe grece ryt wel; an thane serue it forth.

Which is translated, more or less as:

Take seethed Pork & cheese, & seethe together, & cast thereto good powdered Pepper, Cinnamon, Ginger, Cloves, Maces, and close thy mixture in dough, & fry it in fresh grease very well; and then serve it forth.

Quotation for the Day.

The whole of nature, as has been said, is a conjugation of the verb to eat, in the active and in the passive. 
William Ralph Inge


T said...

When I get serious about simmering, I keep a thermometer in the pot and make sure the water temperature doesn't rise above about 85C. This is very important when cooking emulsified sausages, like bologna or bratwurst. If you really boil these sausages you can break the emulsion and destroy the texture.

Les said...

I don't know if this helps but I would think simmering in the sense given in your article would be about 90C to 95C which is just below the boil when bubbles are beginning to rise from the bottom of the pot. I only know this because I'm an impatient scientist who is forced to wait for water to come to a full boil (100C) before I can add my samples.

The Old Foodie said...

Thanks T and Les.
I have never put a thermomenter in the pot, but from your comments, and several emails, it appears that simmering is 85-90 degrees. We live and learn, as they say.