What is a bain marie used for in cooking?

How To Use A Bain-Marie (Water Bath)

A bain-marie (French for water bath) is a simple technique used for baking delicate dishes like custards, cheesecakes, mousses and terrines. It works to prevent cracking or curdling by surrounding the food being baked with hot water to produce an even, gentle heat.

Making and Using A Bain Marie or Water Bath

To make a bain-marie, choose an outer container that is deep enough to hold water at least 1/2 to 2/3 the depth of your ramekins, souffle dish, etc. and large enough to allow for at least 1/2-inch between the individual containers.

You can line the outer container with a kitchen towel to keep the inner dishes from sliding in the pan if desired, but it’s not required.

Slowly pour boiling water into the outer container, move it carefully to the oven and bake your recipe according to instructions.

Be sure to remove your food from the bain-marie as soon as it’s done, because if left in the hot water, it will continue to cook, even once it’s out of the oven.

Recipes Baked In A Bain-Marie

  • Grape Nut Custard Pudding
  • Savory Bacon, Leek and Thyme Bread Pudding
  • Caramel Apple Bread Pudding
  • Pineapple Bread Pudding with Lemon Custard Sauce

For perfect baked custards, creme brulees and cheesecakes, a recipe will often recommend setting them in a bain-marie, or water bath, when they go in the oven. It’s a nifty trick to better regulate the cooking temperature in recipes that rely mostly on eggs for their structure.

Because eggs are extremely sensitive to heat, they require a gentle, even temperature – no more than 212 degrees F. (100 degrees C.) – so they don’t cook too quickly and curdle or split. The water bath works by absorbing the heat and distributing it gently and evenly around the custard.

Follow these steps to assemble a bain-marie and achieve creamy custard results every time.

  1. Place the filled ramekins, custard dishes, or whole cheesecake dish into a roasting pan or other baking vessel. For ample water circulation, the outside pan should be wide enough to leave a 1 to 2 inch edge around the inside dish(es) and the sides should be high enough to hold about an inch of water.
  2. Pull the centre rack halfway out of your preheated oven and carefully place the roasting pan on it.
  3. Using a kettle or other spouted pitcher, pour very hot tap water carefully into the roasting pan until the water reaches the level called for in the recipe – usually 1 inch high or halfway up the sides of the custard. If you want to make it easier, you can remove one of the custard cups and pour the water into that empty spot, replacing the cup when you’re done.
  4. Gently slide the oven rack back into place, taking extra care not to slosh the water around.
  5. Check the water level a few times during baking and replenish if necessary.
  6. When the custard is cooked, pull the rack halfway out again and carefully remove the dish(es), letting the roasting pan remain in the oven with the door ajar until the water is cool enough to pour off.

Bake using a bain-marie and achieve perfect results every time with any of these egg-based bake-shop worthy treats:

  • Candy Cake Cheesecake
  • Classic Cheesecake
  • Ricotta Cheesecake with Citrus Compote
  • Orange Creme Brulee
  • Creme Brulee

Is there a principle for when to use a bain marie or when to steam?

They’re not really much the same and what they’re used for is generally pretty different. I don’t consider them interchangeable at all.

Use a bain marie for things that are liquid or will become liquid on heating:

  • Chocolate can be melted in a bain-marie to avoid splitting and caking onto the pot. Special dessert bains-marie have a thermally insulated container and are used as a chocolate fondue.
  • Cheesecake is often baked in a bain-marie to prevent the top from cracking in the centre.
  • Custard may be cooked in a bain-marie to keep a crust from forming on the outside of the custard before the interior is fully cooked. In the case of the crème brûlée, placing the ramekins in a roasting pan and filling the pan with hot water until it is 1/2 to 2/3 of the way up the sides of the ramekins transfers the heat to the custard gently, which prevents the custard from curdling. The humidity from the steam that rises as the water heats helps keep the top of the custard from becoming too dry.
  • Classic warm sauces, such as Hollandaise and beurre blanc, requiring heat to emulsify the mixture but not enough to curdle or “split” the sauce, are often cooked using a bain-marie.
  • Some charcuterie such as terrines and pâtés are cooked in an “oven-type” bain-marie.
  • Thickening of condensed milk, such as in confection-making, is done easily in a bain-marie.
  • Controlled-temperature bains-marie can be used to heat frozen breast milk before feedings.
  • Bains-marie can be used in place of chafing dishes for keeping foods warm for long periods of time, where stovetops or hot plates are inconvenient or too powerful.
  • A bain-marie can be used to re-liquefy hardened honey by placing a glass jar on top of any improvised platform sitting at the bottom of a pot of gently boiling water.

Generally, the food needs to be pretty homogeneous with no big open spaces. If you put broccoli in a bain marie, most of it wouldn’t be in contact with the inner bowl so little of the heat would be transferred. Steam, however, will creep in and around all of the branches and cook it evenly.

Steaming is best when you’re trying to heat up oddly-shaped things that will retain their shape like vegetables, meats/fish/poultry, rice, cakes, buns, etc.

You also specifically would not want to use the steaming method for something like chocolate as you usually want to avoid introducing water into the chocolate.

The restaurant industry has a lot of obscure terms that often confuse even experienced chefs. One our favorite mystifying names also has one of the most interesting back-stories: the Bain Marie.

So let’s start with the basics: What is a bain marie? Simply put, it is very similar to the traditional double-boiler. It is also sometimes referred to as a water bath. Water is placed in one container and is heated. Another, smaller container is placed inside the first, heated by the water. In essence, it is a heated bath that can be used both to cook food and to keep food warm over time.

The term itself has become more loosely used to describe the type of pan used. So while its origins are focused on cooking and heating, modern bain maries are also commonly used to hold cold food items as well. In this situation, the hot water bath is replaced by a cooling unit or an ice bed.

Bain maries can come in any number of shapes and sizes. But in common restaurant uses, bain maries have evolved into some common forms. Most often, they are made from stainless steel. This is a good conductor of heat and easy to clean and maintain. They can be made of other materials such as ceramics, but these are not frequently used in a commercial setting.

The standard bain marie is round with a cylindrical shape, designed so that one pan can fit easily into another pan or into a water bath warming unit.

A very typical, stainless steel bain marie for commercial use. (Vollrath 3.5 qt).

Uses for a Bain Marie

Engraving depicting Maria Prophetissima from Michael Maier’s book Symbola Aurea Mensae Duodecim Nationum (1617).

You’ve probably seen a bain marie even if you aren’t in the foodservice industry. They are common in many restaurants and have multiple applications.

When used for cooking, a bain marie is often used for delicate foods such as custards that are prone to crack using dry heat. Melting chocolate is another popular use for a bain marie.

Some chefs use a water bath method for cooking cheesecakes. Cheesecakes are in the custard family and can crack on the top when exposed to dry heat. By using a bain marie, the cheesecake can be cooked at a controlled temperature with moist heat.

However, cheesecakes are often cooked in springform pans. These types of pans are not one solid piece so leaking can occur. This can be minimized by using tinfoil to line the pan. But it is still a delicate process and a waterlogged cheesecake is still a risk.

The most common use for a modern bain marie is for food or ingredient holding. Bain maries are often used to keep foods cool as well as to heat them. This can be seen on salad bars that use bain maries for things like salad dressing. The container is placed in a cooling unit or surrounded by ice to keep foods fresh.

>> Shop for Bain Maries >>

The Notorious History of the Term Bain Marie

An alchemical balneum Mariae, or Maria’s bath, from Coelum philosophorum, Philip Ulstad, 1528, Science History Institute

The words “bain marie” can be translated from the French as “Mary’s bath.” So who is Mary?

As it turns out, there actually was a Mary who lived somewhere between the 1st and 3rd centuries A.D.. Mary was known as “Mary the Jewess” and “Mary the Prophetess” and she was an early alchemist. Unfortunately, none of Mary’s writings survived directly. Almost all of what we know of her comes from the writings of others who mention her work and ideas.

But her name lives on in the form of her invention. The first mention comes in the form of medieval Latin with the term “balneum Mariae” which translates to Mary’s bath. This morphed into the French equivalent of “bain marie.” And it’s still in use today!

As an alchemist, Mary’s original invention looks much more like lab equipment than something you would find in a restaurant (see image at right). But it is the feature of using heated water to surround another container that provides the inspiration for what we now call a modern bain marie.

It’s very rare to be able to trace the origin of something like this all the way back to the 1st century A.D.. And it is even more remarkable that the name survived virtually in tact.

So the next time it’s slow in the kitchen, you will have this little nugget of trivia to entertain and amaze your co-workers. Tell them all about the alchemical origins of the humble bain marie!

Bain-marie vs double boiler

A bain-marie is a cooking container filled with water in which another pan or dish is placed in order to cook food more slowly or with more moisture. The term bain-marie is taken directly from the French, it literally translates as Mary’s bath. Note that when cooking with a bain-marie the pan or dish that contains the food is put directly into the hot water bath. The plural form is bains-marie. Bain-marie is often seen unhyphenated as in bain marie, but the Oxford English Dictionary only lists the hyphenated form.

A double boiler is a pan that is constructed in two parts. The lower half of a double boiler contains the boiling water, the upper half holds the food being cooked and fits above the water. The upper part of the double boiler which holds the food does not touch the water, cooking occurs because of the steam heat generated by the boiling water. The plural form is double boilers.

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Examples

Did you know that bain-marie is a fancy term for a hot water bath used to control the temperature when cooking a custard or cheesecake? (The Orange County Register)

If it starts to solidify during the mixing process, scrape the mixture back into the bowl, and return to the bain marie until it liquefies again. (The Mirror)

There were heavy sauté pans, huge stockpots, fish poachers, bakeware, bains-marie, superior knives in many sizes and an array of cutting, dicing and grating tools. (The New York Times)

Place beeswax, along with shea and cocoa butter, over a double boiler, and gently warm over low heat until they melt. (The Hindustan Times)

When the caramel is set, melt half of the chocolate by using a double boiler or the microwave. (The Cherry Hill Post Courier)

Bain-marie

A warm water bath – also known as a bain-marie – provides a more gentle method for heating food, making it ideal for melting chocolate or mixing several ingredients together, such as eggs and cream, to make a delicate crème dessert. The name is somewhat misleading as, with a warm water bath at least, neither the ingredients nor the bowl come into direct contact with water. Rather, the basin is suspended above the water in a saucepan and its contents are slowly heated by the steam.

The term water bath also describes the process of placing a basin in ice water and constantly stirring the crème or sauce in order to cool it down. Another type of bain-marie can be used for baking cakes and crèmes in the oven; the batter or crème is placed in ramekins, for example, which are then placed in a roasting dish filled with water. This is how soufflés are baked.

Creamy dishes which are high in egg yolk, such as Hollandaise sauce, turn out best when made with a bain-marie. Crème Brûlée will also bake more evenly if the ramekins are placed in a bain-marie in the oven. Bavarian Crème is another prime example; stirring over a cold water bath is what gives it its delicate texture.