One of the latest innovations in specialized kitchen equipment is a double boiler. This can best be described as a kitchen utensil consisting of two fitted saucepans. You will need to fill the large saucepan with water and bring it to the boil or gently simmer. The smaller saucepan, often described as the inner saucepan, will fit directly on top. This is typically used to indirectly heat and melt chocolate, for making sauces and an ideal way to cook custard. This method of cooking is even used to melt wax in the production of candles.
At one time or another you may have used an improvised version of a double boiler. This will usually consist of a large saucepan half filled with boiling water, with a bowl sitting directly on top. Conventional cooking in a saucepan will typically require you to direct heat straight under a metal or glass pan or food container. This is great when you are cooking food types such as meat and vegetables however you will find that substances such as chocolate and extremely delicate sauces will literally break down if they come into contact with direct heat.
When cooking delicate sauces, ingredients such as eggs and anything else that is extremely sensitive may curdle under the influence of direct heat. However should you use a double boiler you will immediately eliminate the possibility of overcooking or scorching the ingredients. It is also essential that you cook or melt chocolate in a double boiler. By trying to cook chocolate the conventional way you will find that the temperature may rise far too quickly and the consistency will then be ruined.
If you have ever considered working with wax or soap as a hobby you will need a double boiler to evenly melt down your raw materials. The beauty in this method is that, as we know, boiling water will rarely rise above 100°C therefore this will prevent the wax from solidifying or scorching once again. Even professional candle makers take advantage of double boilers to keep their syrups in top condition prior to molding.
If ever you come across a recipe that requires a double boiler, you will find it extremely difficult to use an alternative. As mentioned you can improvise by using two saucepans or the preferred method of a large pot with boiling water and a Pyrex bowl. You will also find that the majority of double boilers have a lid however I recommend you cook without the lid when melting chocolate. Unfortunately chocolate and water do not mix very well and by using the lid you have to deal with the elements of steam. It is also advisable to constantly stir melting chocolate.
Should you ever wish to cook foods such as baked custards or soufflés you can use the baking equivalent of a double boiler, namely a bain-marie. This is also known as a water bath, but works in the exact same way. Traditionally a bain-marie is cylindrical in shape, fairly wide and usually has an outer container that is used for holding liquid, and an inner, much smaller container that fits perfectly into the other one. This once again will allow the contents of the smaller container to be heated, but not at a temperature higher than 100°C.
There are a wide range of styles and varieties of double boiler and the choice is specifically down to your own individual needs. I would suggest that you always purchase a double boiler that has a water filler line on the bottom pot as well as detailed information about its heating instructions. This is obviously the safest option. One thing to remember when using a double boiler is that you should always cook on a low to moderate stove setting rather than high.
The majority of quality double boilers come with a lifetime warranty. You will actually find that the difference in price of a standard double boiler compared to that of a professional one is minimal. The professional quality ones are usually made from good stainless steel however you may also come across the non-stick variety, which is not considered a professional standard. It is important to also consider the cleaning and maintenance of this piece of equipment as many double boilers are not considered dishwasher safe. I would also suggest that if you do purchase a boiler with a lid that it is advisable to go with one that has a glass lid. This is simply a far easier way to see when your specific item of food has melted.