Cooking School TM_CS_SIMMER_FI_001

Simmer Down

What's really happening when you simmer that soup? Our cross-cultural guide to a deceptively simple cooking technique.


If you ask James Feustel and Jonathan Deutsch, the way we learn to cook is all wrong. Faculty and students at the Drexel University Center for Hospitality and Sport Management have embarked on a project to create a new type of culinary text. Rather than teaching classic French recipes, the book teaches proper cooking by method, and then applies the learned method to a variety of dishes from around the world. Each installment will bring a new technique to master, and new recipes to enjoy and perfect. Welcome to Cooking School.

We all have that relative or friend who, after presenting yet another flawless dish, claims to have no idea how to cook. “I just followed the recipe,” they’ll say, as we devour their jams, macarons, or pickles. When you learn cooking by recipe, you risk becoming a step-following technician. First do this, then do that and voila! We think there’s a better way. By starting with culinary techniques – digging into what’s really happening when you braise or sear – you can develop a deep understanding of how to cook. Once you understand that, you can get to what to cook (with or without a recipe) later.

We begin with what is arguably the simplest of methods. Simmering requires only a pot, heat, some liquid, and some food, but is too often done poorly by cooks watching the clock rather than the food.

Simmering as a cooking method is thought to have been invented, rather than discovered, because it required the development of cooking vessels to hold liquids. It has generally been associated with peasant foods for a few reasons. Simmering relies on tougher (hence, cheaper) cuts of meat to make quality dishes, it allows dishes cook it for a long time without tending (presumably because peasants were busy doing other work), and allows easy incorporation of additional ingredients such as foraged greens, small amounts of grains or beans, vegetable scraps, or nearly any other edible.

To be precise, simmering takes place when foods are cooked submerged in aqueous liquids with a temperature between 185°F and 205°F. Though most home cooks don’t use a thermometer to accurately measure the temperature of cooking liquids, a gentle simmer can be characterized as a liquid with a few bubbles breaking the surface every few seconds. A brisk simmer would have more bubbles rising to the surface but still be below a full, rolling boil. Simmering is most often used with tougher cuts of meat that require a long time to cook (and tenderize), as well as with soups, root vegetables, and dried beans and grains.

Simmering is a delicate balance between time and temperature. It takes a long time to tenderize simmered cuts of meat. However, even though simmered foods are submerged in liquid, they can be overcooked and even dry if the temperature remains too high for too long. Simmered dishes are cooked “low and slow” – for extended periods of time at gentle temperatures until they are fall-apart tender. Of course, simmering can be done at lower temperatures for longer time as well.

What makes certain cuts of meats tougher than others is connective tissue, intramuscular fibers mostly made up of a protein called collagen. Since this connective tissue runs throughout (in and around) muscle fibers, it cannot easily be removed with a knife and is best handled through long, slow cooking processes. Gentle, extended periods of cooking help collagen turn into gelatin, which is much easier to eat and serves to give body and richness to cooking liquids. The softening of collagen into gelatin can take several hours.

While collagen is gelatinizing, the proteins that make up the muscle fibers of our meat are coagulating, or becoming firmer. These long chains of proteins begin unfolding and untangling when heat is applied (a chemical transformation known as denaturing). Once these lightly folded chains become denatured, they are free to fold and bind with the other protein chains into a more solid formation – which is exactly what happens as the temperature continues to increase. As these chains of proteins and amino acids denature and solidify, they squeeze out the internal moisture inside a cut of meat. The amount of moisture exuded depends upon the internal temperature of what’s being cooked, with simmered meats typically being cooked to an internal temperature of 165°F. Higher internal temperatures result in more moisture being squeezed out. Since this is a one-way transformation, simmered meat can easily get too dry, even though it remains submerged in liquid.

This is why simmering takes a long time (to soften the collagen) at gentle temperatures (to prevent proteins from becoming overly dry). Simmering in a liquid instead of roasting at a low temperature often produces better results, because liquids such as stock, wine, and water conduct heat much more efficiently than air.

Cooked properly, simmered meats are “fork-tender,” meaning they pull apart easily with a fork. Some cooks test simmered meat or root vegetables with a paring knife for doneness, but we find a fork much more effective, since a sharp knife will easily cut through a variety of foods.

When simmering meat, fish or fowl, the finished item could be removed from the liquid, portioned and served, as in the case of an Irish corned beef and cabbage. Alternately, the simmered item could be served together with the broth as in the case of posole, a Mexican soup of pork and hominy. In any case, and as with all these columns to come, the core technique is the same regardless of the dishes you choose, their cultural influences, or the seasonings.



Nikujaga is a hearty beef and potato stew from Japan. Typically eaten in the north in winter, the potato’s starch, along with the gelatin from the beef, adds viscosity to the liquid without additional thickeners. The term comes from niku meaning “meat,” and jaga short for jagaimo (“potatoes”). The dish is purported to be a 19th-century Japanese version of a Western beef stew. Like many Japanese dishes, an authentic version will be more vegetable-rich than a European beef stew. Typical of Japanese dishes, the dish uses dashi, a stock made from kelp and bonito flakes as a base. While a seaweed and fish stock may seem unusual for a beef dish, the result is a heady umami overload. Nikujaga is typically served with white rice, since potatoes are treated as a vegetable in Japanese dishes, not as a substitution for other starches as they are in Western cooking. Our version adds diced kabocha, a Japanese pumpkin, eaten skin-on to adds sweetness and interest to the dish.


For the dashi:
16 inches kombu (kelp)
2 cups bonito flakes
2 quarts water

For the nikujaga:
2 quarts dashi
¼ cup mirin (sweetened rice wine)
1 cup soy sauce
1 inch ginger, minced
1 pound beef chuck, sliced thinly
2 pound potatoes, peeled and diced into 1″ chunks
1 kabocha, diced into 1″ chunks
1 carrot, peeled and diced into 1″ chunks
1 onion, sliced


To make the dashi, soak the kombu in water for 20 minutes. Place in a large pot and heat on medium. Add the bonito flakes and bring to a simmer until the flakes sink to the bottom. Strain through a cheese cloth.

Bring the dashi, mirin, soy, and ginger to a simmer. Add the potatoes, kabocha, carrots and onions, simmer until the vegetables are soft, about 20 minutes. Add the thinly sliced beef and cook for 10 more minutes, adding water to cover if needed.

Serve with rice and garnish with chopped scallion.

Recipe by Ally Zeitz



More than just a great band, menudo is a Mexican tripe soup with a chile base. Reputed to be a hangover cure, it is often served as a weekend brunch dish. Some regions skip the hominy, but it makes the soup heartier and adds a contrasting texture to the silky (or slimy, depending on your perspective) tripe. It is wise to start with less than one can of chile and add more as needed. Other cuts of beef, such as tendon or muscle meat like shank, may be added in addition to the tripe.


1 pound tripe, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 onions, diced
1 tablespoon chili powder
2 teaspoons oregano
1 teaspoon cumin
1 can chipotle chiles in adobo
15 ounces hominy, canned
Cilantro and lime, for garnish


In a large pot, place tripe, garlic, and onion. Cover with water and season with salt and pepper, then bring to a simmer. Cook for 3 hours or until the tripe is tender. Add the seasonings and hominy and simmer for one additional hour.

Garnish with small-diced onion, cilantro, and lime.

Recipe by Ally Zeitz



Pot-au-feu, literally “pot on the fire” is a classic French dish with its roots in home country cooking. Although original recipes probably varied by season and region, incorporating any combination of long-simmered meats and vegetables, the modern recipe uses beef with winter vegetables like cabbage, potatoes and leeks. The dish is traditionally served with mustard, horseradish, and/or gherkins.


6 quarts water, simmering
3 pound brisket
3 pound short ribs
1 onion, diced
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 garlic head, cut in half
3 cloves
10 peppercorns
Salt, to taste
Bouquet garni
2 leeks, dark green removed, chopped
4 celery stalks, chopped
5 pound carrots, peeled and chopped
5 pound parsnips, peeled and chopped
1 head cabbage, quartered
5 pound potatoes, peeled and diced


Bring 6 quarts water to a simmer. Add the meats, onion, tomato paste, garlic, and spices to the simmering water and cook for 3 hours. Then add the leeks, celery, carrots, and parsnips to the simmering beef. Continue simmering for 2 hours.

Cook the cabbage and potatoes separately in salted water. Drain. Add the potatoes and cabbage to the soup and cook for another 10 minutes.

Remove the peppercorns, cloves, bouquet garni and garlic halves.

Serve with cornichons and Dijon mustard.

Recipe by Ally Zeitz

Lead photo by Anathea Utley via Flickr (Creative Commons). Nikujaga and Pot-au-Feu photos by Julia Silva. Menudo photo by Rachel Wisniewski.


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