Simmer is a cooking method that is routinely confused with both boiling and poaching.

While the three share a slight difference in “heat amount” and “bubble sizes,” they all are different, and using one in place of the other will fail to give you the intended results.

In this article, we take a detailed look at simmering, what it means, what it looks like, and how to actually simmer.

What does simmering look like

What does simmer look like?

You can easily gauge a simmer by observing:

  • The amount of small bubbles rising from the bottom of the pot to the surface of the liquid.
  • The tiny, sporadic wisps of steam escaping from the pot.

Foodsmiths have even gone a step further and divided simmering into three practical stages:

  1. Low simmer
  2. Full simmer
  3. Rapid simmer

There is almost no difference between the three. In fact, if you are new to simmering, you won’t even notice the difference.

There is zero to minimal activity on the “low simmer” stage. A stray bubble or two will rise on and off, accompanied by little shreds of steam.

The “full simmer” stage sees the small bubbles at the bottom of the pan trying to continually break the surface. The liquid is more likely to flicker, as though it’s about to move.

In the “rapid simmer” stage, also referred to as a gentle/low boil, the bubbles are more steady, rising and multiplying every other second.

These break the surface occasionally but most of the motion remains under the surface.

Simmered Japanese Dish

What does simmer mean?

Occasionally, a recipe will call for you to simmer. But, what exactly does simmer mean?

To simmer is to simply cook a liquid or cook in liquid at a temperature just below the boiling point, 212F.

Simmer/simmering is a cooking technique that requires low to moderate heat, to gently soften food in hot liquids kept just below the boiling point of water; 185-205F(85-96 degrees) and slightly above the poaching temperature: higher than 71-80 degrees.

This method is best suited for soups, stews, and stocks as it slowly combines the ingredients and seasonings inside the dish.


What does simmering look like compared to boiling?

Boil and simmer are typically a variation of the same process.

The intimate relation between the two methods can confuse you into thinking that they are actually one of the same when in reality they are not.

How do you exactly tell them apart?

Well, at sea level, water boils at 100 degrees Celsius(212F).

The evidence of a boil/boiling is the presence of large bubbles vigorously rising from the bottom of the pot and continually breaking the surface.

You will also notice a good amount of steam escaping from the pot’s surface.

On the other hand, when you compare simmering to boiling, a simmer starts at a slightly lower temperature than boiling; somewhere around 85-96 degrees (185-205F).

A simmer is signaled by small bubbles rising from the bottom of the pot and occasionally breaking the surface.

Unlike boiling where the steam can be visible from a distance, the steam in simmer is on-and-off in little wisps.

Do you simmer with a lid on or off?

This is the most common simmering question. Lid or no lid?

Simmering with or without a lid is entirely dependent on what you are trying to achieve.

Either way, the simmering technique will do justice to your dish by slowly concentrating and incorporating all your favorite ingredients and seasonings into your dish.

Now, If your goal is to reduce the sauce/liquid and achieve that thick soup that you really like, you certainly should bypass the lid.

On the other hand, a lid can be your best friend if all you want is to keep both the heat and moisture in. Your pot will remain up to temperature without even having to adjust the heat.

Be advised though, if you go the “lid way” stay put to carefully monitor your dish. Adding a lid can step up the heat, turning a simmer into a boil!

How do you know if something is simmering?

Simmering is a game of the eye. As long as you know what to look for, you can pinpoint a simmer from a distance.

As mentioned earlier, a simmer is signaled by two factors: the small bubbles at the bottom of the pot and the irregular wisps of steam.

When you notice a small bubble or two occasionally breaking through the surface of the liquid, that’s simmering.

Additionally, you will see little, sporadic shreds of steam escaping from your pot every second or two. The liquid will also shimmer as if to move.

How to simmer

Simmer heating dish

A successful simmer will depend on:

Your stove type: gas stove heats faster as compared to electric stoves.
Type of cookware: simmer is best when done on a heavy-bottomed pot.

Now, there are two primary approaches to simmering:

You can either directly simmer by initially setting your stove heat to simmer (medium-low heat) OR initially bringing the liquid to a boil before reducing the heat to a simmer setting.

However, you cannot assume that using either of the approaches will yield the same final results.

To simmer:

  • Fill your heavy-bottomed cookware with enough water/liquid (refer to the exact amount in your recipe).
  • The water/liquid should be enough to cover and submerge all the ingredients that you will be using.
  • With your cookware placed on the heat, if your recipe calls for you to first bring it to a boil then reduce to a simmer, set the temperature to medium or medium-high heat.
  • The large, vigorous bubbles will tell you that it’s time to lower the heat to low or medium-low heat, depending on your stove type.

On the other hand, if your recipe requires you to directly simmer, the control knob should rest at low or medium-low heat, again, depending on your stove type.

Either way, the small bubbles trying to break the surface, the little wisps of steam and the shimmering of the liquid should show you that you are on the right track.

The hardest task about simmering is maintaining a constant simmer.

You will be required to regulate the heat, adjusting the heat periodically to ensure that your simmer does not turn to poaching or worse boiling.


To say the least, simmer is a technique that you can DIY at home and master everything, from identifying the simmering stages, all the way to maintaining a consistent simmer.

The only requirement is utmost patience, continuous practice, and above all, super observation skills.

Happy simmering!