Just think about it. How many times has a recipe instructed you to simmer something?
And how many times do you find yourself heating your liquid on the stove to some random point below boiling and calling it good?
What is a simmer? A simmer is to maintain the temperature of a liquid between 185 and 200 degrees Fahrenheit.
Well, it turns out that mastering the art of simmering isn’t that hard after all.
You might be asking yourself, ” Does it really matter if I’m off by a few degrees?”
Yes, it does. That’s why it is always a good idea to have an accurate instant-read thermometer on hand to help you with everything you cook.
It can be difficult to notice the difference between a liquid at a perfect simmer versus one that is poaching, or even one at a boil.
Being off by a few degrees could result in your meat being tough and chewy rather than moist and tender.
In this article, I will show you all the tips and techniques to simmer foods at the right temperature, with or without a thermometer.
If you want to save a ton of time and guesswork in the future, read on to learn the proper way to simmer food. Let’s go!
What Temperature is Simmer?
If you are looking for a simmer definition, there is no better place than to consult the great culinary institutions of the world.
According to Le Cordon Bleu*, to simmer means to cook in a liquid bubbling very gently. Temperature is around 185 degrees Fahrenheit to 205 degrees Fahrenheit (85 degrees Celsius to 96 degrees Celsius).
Okay, what about the Culinary Institute of America? They define a simmer as ” Maintaining a temperature of a liquid just below boiling. The temperature range for simmering is 185 degrees Fahrenheit to 200 degrees Fahrenheit/ 85 degrees Celsius to 93 degrees Celsius” **
And to further drive home the point, here’s the definition from Larousse Gastronomique, the world’s greatest culinary encyclopedia. They define a simmer as ” to cook food slowly and steadily in a sauce or other liquid over a gentle heat, just below boiling point, so that the surface of liquid bubbles occasionally.
The main takeaway from all three definitions is that simmering is the range just below boiling. That’s great but what if you don’t have a thermometer around to measure the temperature of the liquid? It is possible, which leads us to……..
How to Tell If Water Is Simmering Without a Thermometer
A watched pot never boils. Well, unless you are paying close attention and have too much time on your hands.
I watched a skillet full of water slowly heat up on medium heat on the stove.
Mind you, this is based on slowly bringing the water temperature up.
Here’s what I observed.
At 140 degrees Fahrenheit there are air bubbles on the bottom of the pan. I would say about a quarter of the bottom of the pan has air bubbles.
- 150 degrees Fahrenheit, half the space at the bottom of the pan has air bubbles.
- 160 degrees Fahrenheit, three-quarters of the bottom has air bubbles as well as lots of little bubbles forming up the sides of the pan.
- 170 degrees Fahrenheit, most of the bottom of the pan is covered with air bubbles, as well as a lot of steam coming up from the water.
It is around 178 to 180 degrees Fahrenheit that bubbles start coming to the surface from the bottom of the pan, little by little, every few seconds.
When the water is at 185 degrees Fahrenheit you will see air bubbles coming to the surface every second or so, with some decent bubble movement at the bottom of the pan.
At 195 degrees Fahrenheit there will be a lot of bubble movement at the bottom of the pan with multiple bubbles popping up continuously.
From 195 to 205 degrees Fahrenheit, the bubble action will increase more and more, at the bottom of the pan and rising to the surface
At 205 degrees Fahrenheit, it looks like the water is boiling at the bottom of the pan and in a few more degrees (212 degrees Fahrenheit, the temperature for boiling water) it will transfer this action to the surface.
Simmer vs Boil
A simmer occurs in the temperature range of between 185 degrees Fahrenheit/ 85 degrees Celsius to 200 to 205 degrees Fahrenheit/93 to 96 degrees Celsius. Air bubbles on the surface of the liquid will be less prominent during simmering as compared to boiling.
The surface of the liquid will increase in bubble activity the closer to boiling the temperature of the liquid gets.
Boiling occurs at 212 degrees Fahrenheit/100 degrees Celsius with large bubbles actively breaking the surface of the liquid.
Simmering versus Poaching Temperature
The poaching temperature of a liquid occurs just below simmering at a temperature of 160 degrees Fahrenheit to 180 degrees Fahrenheit (71 degrees Celsius to 82 degrees Celsius).
Poaching is usually a technique used to cook delicate foods such as fish and eggs, foods that would fall apart at higher temperatures.
The simmering technique is employed on tougher cuts of meat that will become tender and moist during cooking. Large cuts such as corned beef brisket is a classic example of the simmering technique at work.
Let’s look at a standard recipe for cooking corned beef.
For a 10 lb, corned beef brisket split into two pieces. Place it into a pot of water with enough stock or water to cover. Bring to a boil, and then reduce the heat to a low simmer, or 185 degrees Fahrenheit. Simmer until the brisket is fork-tender, about 2 1/2 hours.
The simmering action breaks down the tough fibers and collagen in the brisket. It becomes tender because of the simmering temperature of the water.
Perhaps one of the most popular uses of simmering is cooking fresh sausages.
Place your sausages in a pan with enough water to cover. Don’t let the water boil, this will cause the casings to burst.
Simmer them at 185 degrees Fahrenheit for around 20 minutes. You can then finish them with a quick fry in a skillet or on the grill to get the outside nice and brown.
Hopefully, you now have a better grasp of what simmering is after reading this article. As long as you keep your liquid’s temperature between 185 degrees and 205 degrees Fahrenheit you should have great success the next time you simmer something.
And as always, using an accurate instant-read thermometer to monitor your temperature is a very useful tool. If you are still using the same old thermometer at the back of the random drawer of kitchen utensils, it might be time for a new one. You can get some awesome, accurate ones for pretty cheap here.
For more tips and advice on how to cook meat to the proper temperatures, check out our other content here. Happy cooking!
*Gisslen, Wayne (2003) Le Cordon Bleu: Professional Cooking Fifth Edition. New York, New York: John Wiley and Sons Inc.
** The Culinary Institute of America (2006) The Professional Chef, The Culinary Institute of America, 8th Edition. Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley and Sons Inc.