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What is a Double Boiler?

Michael Pollick
Updated May 16, 2024
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A double boiler is a specialized piece of kitchen equipment consisting of two fitted saucepans. The larger saucepan is partially filled with water brought to a simmer or boil. The inner saucepan uses this indirect heat to melt chocolate, cook custards and sauces, or even melt wax for candlemaking. One can also be improvised with a large saucepan and a bowl, or two saucepans separated by a trivet or other heat-resistant spacer.

Conventional stovetop cooking calls for direct heat under a metal or glass food container. This works well for heartier foods, such as meats or vegetables, but delicate sauces and chocolates often break down under direct heat. A double boiler allows eggs and other heat-sensitive sauce ingredients to heat slowly and evenly, eliminating the possibility of scorching or overcooking. Chocolate must almost always be melted this way, because direct heat will cause the temperature to rise too quickly and the consistency to be ruined.

Hobbyists working with wax or soap may also use a double boiler for melting their raw materials. The boiling water rarely rises above 212°F (100°C), which will prevent the wax or soap from scorching or solidifying between projects. Candy makers also use this type of pan to keep their syrups viable until molding.

If a recipe calls for a double boiler, there is rarely an alternative method. Cooks without this pan can improvise one with two sauce pans or a large pot of boiling water and a heat-proof bowl. Most models have a single lid, but many sauce recipes require constant stirring. Chocolate and water are not a good combination, so a lid should never be placed on melting chocolate. If a cook is using an improvised pan, he or she needs to be careful around the steam. The two elements should be kept separated — if the inner pan touches the bottom of the outer pan, the result could be a counterproductive direct heat.

There is a baking equivalent called a bain-marie. Some foods such as baked custards and souffles are placed inside a larger pan partially filled with water. The bain-marie provides the same sort of indirect heat, but inside the oven.

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Michael Pollick
By Michael Pollick
As a frequent contributor to DelightedCooking, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a wide range of topics. His curiosity drives him to study subjects in-depth, resulting in informative and engaging articles. Prior to becoming a professional writer, Michael honed his skills as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.
Discussion Comments
By anon213710 — On Sep 12, 2011

I had a similar problem with a pie. I was making a coconut cream pie that used a double boiler to boil the custard inside the pie. I waited an hour or longer for it to boil. The pie filling and water in the lower pot had lost over 1/2 of its body to evaporation.

I finally gave up and finished the recipe without boiling it and it was a runny mess. How do you get it to boil?

I used a double boiler that I have always used to melt chocolate. I had lots of water, but also a layer of air between the two. Should I have covered the top pot?

By anon169505 — On Apr 21, 2011

I'm trying to figure out what temperature the water in the double boiler needs to be to keep the melted chocolate at 100 degrees F.

By anon136367 — On Dec 22, 2010

I am having a very hard time using my double boiler. Is the custard or pie filling supposed to come to a boil? I made a chocolate pie last week, cooking it the allotted time according to the directions, and it was a complete disaster. It was chocolate pudding in a crust, and of course it ran all over the place when sliced.

Today, I made cafe con leche custard. After an hour over high heat, it still didn't boil. It did thicken up better than the pie filling did. I finally added the eggs and hoped for the best. We live at 7000 feet, so everything takes forever to boil!

I used to have a different double boiler and never had any problems making anything. Like a fool, I gave it away!

By anon106858 — On Aug 27, 2010

anon85: don't cover the bowl/pot. the condensation that drips down will stiffen the chocolate, and water and chocolate don't mix well. Also, don't crank up the heat. you want the water to get hot enough to steam but you don't really want it boiling. also you have to stir, stir, stir. I suggest a whisk.

By anon73905 — On Mar 29, 2010

@anon, don't let your top pot touch the water. make sure it sits just above the water to get the steam. good luck. --mama10

By anon72337 — On Mar 22, 2010

put a tiny bit of butter with it.

By anon5401 — On Nov 23, 2007

My turkey took up the oven and I was thinking about how I was going to bake my dressing...I decided not to stuff the bird. Suddenly I got this amazing idea that was something I have never done. I was totally happy with the result.

Here is my recipe, we had 6 eating dinner and had 1/2 of the pan leftover~ Happy Thanksgiving

I used a large pasta pot filled with water and a smaller version of the pot which fits inside with room to spare (double boiler method). You don't want to add the inner pot until you have cooked the ingredients below on the stovetop:

1 cube of butter (I use butter you can use what you like)

2 granny smith apples- chopped (I like big hunks, you can dice if you want)

2-3 stalkes of celery- chopped

1 large onion- chopped

12 oz bad of pecans- chopped

add those ingredients over a med flame until the onions are clear and you can smell the apples...yum

Then add 1 can of whole cranberry sauce

Next stir in 2 cans of chicken or turkey broth and heat until nearly boiling. Stir in 3 bags of dressing cubes. Mix well. Turn off the flame. Cover with a tight lid and place into the inner pot into the water. You will want to do this at the sink because the weight will displace the water. I put water 3-4 inches from spilling! When the inner pot sits low, that's the amount of water you need. Turn on the flame and let the water boil. It totally baked the dressing and it was moist and fluffy and wonderful. Best I have ever made. After I removed the turkey from the oven, I put a baking dish into the oven and it got a nice crusty top.

I felt like it was probably the traditional way to cook this bread type of dish. The pecans were a perfect addition and added a nice crunch.

There you go, I just had to pass it on. I will never cook dressing another way. Maybe different ingredients but same method.

Be well everyone!

By Monners — On Nov 18, 2007

I had trouble melting chocolate without it becoming a stodgy mess until I saw a TV chef do it. The trick is NOT let the glass bowl touch the water in the saucepan (I don't have a double-boiler) so I tried the 'glass bowl over a small pot of boiling water on the stove' method.

I tried it and it worked a treat!


By anon669 — On May 01, 2007

Can you cook a brunswick stew with a double boiler?

By anon85 — On Mar 05, 2007

Ack! Even _with_ a double boiler, the chocolate gets stiff! What am I doing wrong?

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick
As a frequent contributor to DelightedCooking, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a wide...
Learn more
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