From Scratch: How to Cook in a Water Bath

May 31, 2012

water bath
Photo by Nicole Franzen; styled by Mariya Yufest

The warm, gentle heat of a good bath can soothe tired muscles or coax a creamy custard to life. For now, let's focus on the latter objective. Water baths, sometimes referred to as bain-maries in professional kitchens, limit contact with direct heat and insulate delicate ingredients (i.e. eggs and chocolate) from burning or overcooking. The basic procedure for this oven-based method involves setting a baking dish (or ramekins) in a larger pan or vessel, filling that pan partially with hot water, then baking either covered or uncovered. Today, we're breaking down the whys and hows of this gentle process.

Why bother?

  • Water baths help to evenly distribute heat and generally allow for a slower cooking process for more delicate dishes.
  • This method restricts the external cooking temperature of the dish because water can only be heated to its boiling point (212°F at sea level).
  • Water baths also add moisture to a dry oven, which can have a positive effect on the final appearance of a dish. Cheesecakes, for instance, tend to dry out and crack if not baked in a water bath.

What to bathe?

  • Egg-based desserts like custards, cheesecakes, and bread puddings often call for the use of a water bath to thwart overcooking.
  • On the savory side, terrines and pâtés are typically baked using this method to prevent a tough crust from forming.

How to rig one?

  • If using a springform pan (or any potentially leaky baking dish), wrap the base in aluminum foil to create a barrier.
  • Arrange the filled baking dish in a larger vessel, slide the entire contraption into the oven, then pour hot water into the larger pan.
  • The hot water should reach halfway to two-thirds up the side of the interior baking dish. Too little water won't make enough of an impact on the cooking process (and may evaporate completely); too much water threatens to drown the ingredients within the interior dish.
  • If the recipe requires doing so, cover the dish. Aluminum foil is often used to trap steam and create a reasonably airtight seal.
  • Once the dish is cooked, removing the contraption from the oven can be the trickiest part. Try partially sliding out the oven rack and using a dry towel to remove the dish from the water bath while the pan is still in the oven in order to avoid any sloshing disasters. Canning tongs work well for smaller ramekins.
  • Note: We have also seen a cold water technique used to ensure an extra-gentle cooking process.

wrapping cheesecake pan pouring water
Wrapping the springform pan with tin foil and pouring water in the exterior baking dish after the operation has moved to the oven (photos by Sarah Shatz)

Recipes

Espresso Pots de Creme
Coconut Flan
Airy Rosemary Citrus Pignole Bread Pudding [FOOD52]
Cappuccino Cheesecake [FOOD52]
Tuna and French Tarragon Terrine [FOOD52]

How do you use water baths in your kitchen? Share your cooking tips and ideas in the comments section below!

Like this post? See last week's From Scratch topic: Grain Salads 101.

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