Cooking with a bain-marie – the secret to smooth melted chocolate and extra-creamy sauces
Whether in a saucepan on the stove, a springform pan in the oven or stirring over ice water: a water bath ensures gradual, even heating or cooling for especially delicate sauces.
A warm water bath – also known as a bain-marie – provides a more gentle method for heating food, making it ideal for melting chocolate or mixing several ingredients together, such as eggs and cream, to make a delicate crème dessert. The name is somewhat misleading as, with a warm water bath at least, neither the ingredients nor the bowl come into direct contact with water. Rather, the basin is suspended above the water in a saucepan and its contents are slowly heated by the steam.
The term water bath also describes the process of placing a basin in ice water and constantly stirring the crème or sauce in order to cool it down. Another type of bain-marie can be used for baking cakes and crèmes in the oven; the batter or crème is placed in ramekins, for example, which are then placed in a roasting dish filled with water. This is how soufflés are baked.
Creamy dishes which are high in egg yolk, such as Hollandaise sauce, turn out best when made with a bain-marie. Crème Brûlée will also bake more evenly if the ramekins are placed in a bain-marie in the oven. Bavarian Crème is another prime example; stirring over a cold water bath is what gives it its delicate texture.
Certain foods will burn or curdle in direct contact with heat, and this is where a bain-marie makes for a good alternative. For raw egg in particular, whisking over a bain-marie is the best way to heat the egg whilst retaining its fluid consistency. When using a bain-marie, the temperature rises gradually and never reaches or exceeds 100°C – making it the ideal method for melting things like chocolate, which will quickly burn if the heat is too intense.
Likewise, a cold water bath is all about moderate temperatures. In this case, however, the aim is to cool the mixture down as quickly and evenly as possible. This keeps the ingredients from separating again, for example in a sauce or creamy dessert. As with a warm bain-marie, stirring continuously is vital – this is the only way to ensure that the entire mixture heats up or cools down evenly throughout.
No special kind of saucepan is required for melting chocolate in a bain-marie. Of course, there are specific bain-marie saucepans available which combine a pan and melting bowl, as well as professional bain-marie melting bowls with a pouring lip – however, an ordinary saucepan and bowl is fine to start with. Just make sure that the bowl is not too small, otherwise it will move around in the saucepan and allow water in.
It is best to use a metal basin over the water bath. Metal not only ensures optimal transmission of heat or cold, but is also better at withstanding fluctuating temperatures than, say, glass. Finally, when placing a warm crème in ice water to cool it down, in addition to the saucepan and basin, you will also need a whisk in order to stir the mixture. If you plan on doing the rose test, you will also need a wooden spoon.
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