In Cooking, what is a Hot Water Bath?

Malcolm Tatum
Malcolm Tatum

The idea behind a hot water bath is to provide heat for cooking various foods, while lowering the chance for the food to scald or burn. This is accomplished by preparing a bath of hot water, placing the food in a cooking dish, and placing the dish in the hot water. Perhaps the most common example of this method of cooking is the double boiler.

Chocolate pots de crème are cooked in individual ramekins in a hot water bath.
Chocolate pots de crème are cooked in individual ramekins in a hot water bath.

A double boiler includes a pot on the bottom that is filled with water. A second pot fits on top and serves as the container for the food. As the water boils in the bottom chamber, heat is generated that rises into the top chamber and slowly heats and cooks the food. Pie fillings, home made chocolate pudding, various forms of egg custards, and delicate sauces are just a few of the dishes that are prepared using the double boiler. Since each of these recipes call for ingredients that could easily scald or burn if direct heat were applied, the indirect heat that is generated with this method is a better way to cook them.

Of course, it is possible to employ a hot water bath even if a double boiler is not available. For example, combining a stainless steel Dutch oven with an aluminum or stainless steel mixing bowl that is roughly half the size of the Dutch oven will work very well. A cook can simply fill the Dutch oven about half full of water and bring it to a boil. The mixing bowl is them placed into the boiling water, with the cook making sure that the water will not rise over the lip of the bowl. From there, it is an easy task to prepare the custard, pudding, or sauce in the bowl without having to be concerned about burning the mixture during the cooking process.

Cooking over hot water is not a new process, and the technique has been around so long that no one is exactly sure when it first made an appearance. While some people tend to think that using a hot water bath has to be a complicated process or that special pots are needed, the fact is that most kitchens already contain everything required to cook in this fashion. As a means of preparing foods that are subject to burning easily, it is an excellent option.

Malcolm Tatum
Malcolm Tatum

After many years in the teleconferencing industry, Michael decided to embrace his passion for trivia, research, and writing by becoming a full-time freelance writer. Since then, he has contributed articles to a variety of print and online publications, including wiseGEEK, and his work has also appeared in poetry collections, devotional anthologies, and several newspapers. Malcolm’s other interests include collecting vinyl records, minor league baseball, and cycling.

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Discussion Comments


People who like to can foods and jams at home can use a hot water bath to can and preserve their foods. The foods being canned must be acidic, with a Ph level equal to or less than 4.5. To can non-acidic foods, a home canner must use a pressure canning device. This is for safety, as botulism is a risk with improperly canned foods.

Anyway, the heat from a hot water bath will kill all molds, spores and yeast in acidic foods, allowing them to be preserved for months (as long as they are not exposed to oxygen after the heating process. Canning things like meats and non-acidic vegetables require more heat to kill all microorganisms (115 degrees centigrade to be exact). Boiling water can only reach temperatures of 100 degrees centigrade unless there is pressure to prevent the steam from escaping; hence the need for a pressure canner.


Hot water baths can also be used for melting chocolate for things like chocolate brioche pudding and cakes. An improvised hot water bath can be made with a oven/heat safe glass bowl placed atop a small saucepan with gently boiling water. Just be careful not to grab the hot bowl with a bare hand. Hot baths can also be used in the oven to set custards, bread puddings, and keep slow cooked meats moist. You can place your loaf pan inside of another baking pan and fill the outer pan with water just off boil. This technique allows for even heating throughout, and creates a sort of steam oven effect that keeps foods moist.

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