Everything You Need to Know About Double Boilers

Everything You Need to Know About Double Boilers

They might not be something that’s familiar in the average home kitchen, but double boilers are an essential part of a professional kitchen’s equipment arsenal.

The double boiler consists of two containers. One of them is nested inside the other. The big container has hot water, and the smaller container heats whatever material you’re using to cook.

Double boilers provide precise temperature control. They provide even, radiant heat by using water to heat the conductive surface of the smaller container. That makes the double boiler a popular method for creating specific kinds of dishes and ingredients like:

  • Chocolate sauce
  • Cheese sauce
  • Egg sauces (such as hollandaise)

What do all of these have in common? If exposed to high heat too quickly, the ingredients will break down. The cheese will curdle, the egg will separate. The chocolate will be ruined by the separation of the cocoa solids. The egg is a prime example: overheating an egg makes “scrambled eggs,” which may not be the texture that the chef wants to add to a sauce or other preparation.

Using a double boiler will slowly bring internal ingredients to a stable and precise temperature. Double boilers are great for baking, because chefs can create all kinds of tasty frostings, toppings and sauces with rich creamy textures, relying on the carefully controlled heat inside the double boiler.

The Double Boiler by Another Name: Bain Marie

The double boiler may also be called a ‘bain marie.’

This French name has essentially the same meaning as the double boiler. It’s a container that gives internal ingredients a ‘hot water bath’ in order to maintain or preserve a specific temperature. A bain marie is something many chefs are familiar with in making traditional French cuisine. For example, they are instrumental in making the custards used for the traditional “crème brulee” or “crème Anglais” that has been so much a part of the French, Spanish and Catalan imported dessert cuisine that diners love around the world.

There are “electric bain marie” models that just use electricity to heat the food trays. However, the traditional water-heating bain marie (which is, essentially, the same mechanism as the double boiler) is considered a more sophisticated way to heat foods. It’s a part of higher-class food handling in many restaurants and catering operations. Some chefs, French and American alike, find that the bain marie or double boiler method elevates the kitchen’s process.

Uses of the Double Boiler

Here’s where things get a little complicated. You wouldn’t usually talk about using a double boiler as a buffet heating tray. However, it’s common for caterers and other professionals to talk about using a “bain marie” to keep hot foods above a certain temperature without scorching them or exposing them to high heat.

Professional food service businesses know a lot about HACCP temperature control – the government’s scientific temperature standards for preventing food spoilage. For all of those foods that have to be sitting on a buffet, or in a kitchen ready to serve at a specific temperature, the bain marie can be a lifesaver for daily operations.

The term “double boiler,” on the other hand, is most commonly used to describe that single pot with boiling water and the interior pan that goes inside. Chefs may use the double boiler to perfect their scrambled egg game, or, as mentioned above, for various types of sauces. But, if they’re using the same kind of equipment in a larger steam table for heating, they’ll probably refer to it as a bain marie.

Best Features for a Double Boiler

Here’s some of what professional chefs look for when they shop for a double boiler for a kitchen.

First, many chefs want non-stick surfaces for the interior container to make whipping those creamy sauces easier. It’s important to use soft spatulas or other tools on the non-stick surface to avoid flaking and other kinds of damage.

Another important  consideration is whether the critical parts of this equipment are dishwasher safe. In general, hand-washing kitchen equipment is a labor-intensive process and is going to cost the kitchen a lot of money over time. Most kitchens have industrial-sized dishwashers where the person who washes dishes can run everything through in a cycle. So having a dishwasher safe double boiler is a value for many professional kitchens.

Another ideal feature is transparency. See-through glass lid designs help chefs monitor the ingredient while the double broiler is heating it to perfection.

Chefs may want other features when they’re looking for a larger heating tray that could also be called a double boiler or bain marie. For these larger installations, it’s important to have an easy drain to get the water out when the equipment is not in use. Many of the most innovative buffet tray water heating equipment comes with specific thermostatic controls, with displays to show how hot foods are kept. These are extremely valuable to kitchens at health inspection time because they can clearly show inspectors that foods are within the appropriate temperature range.

Other Practical Considerations

Another issue is the size of the equipment. As mentioned, chefs who are making small batches of sauce will want a pretty small double boiler, maybe even a 1-quart model, so it takes up less space on the range and is easier to wash.

On the other hand, restaurants that are using double boilers for larger volumes or for tray warmers will want a larger size.

Think about whether this type of equipment needs to be portable. Some caterers use specifically sized bain marie trays, with or without sneeze guards, on a jobsite. While they have to be large enough to accommodate the food volume, they also have to be small enough to fit inside the vehicle in which they’re transported.

Are you looking for this kind of double boiler equipment for your kitchen? At Chefs’ Toys, we are “for chefs, by chefs,” and we have real experience in professional kitchens. That helps us give you the run-down on the best models for your kitchen needs and helpful tips for implementation. Take a look and ask us about what you need.