A bain-marie (also known as a water bath) is a French term
for a piece of equipment used in science, industry, and
cooking to heat materials gently and gradually to fixed
temperatures, or to keep materials warm over a period of time.
The bain-marie comes in a wide variety of
shapes, sizes, and types, but traditionally is a wide,
cylindrical, usually metal container made of three or four
basic parts: a handle, an outer (or lower) container that
holds the working liquid, an inner (or upper), smaller
container that fits inside the outer one and which holds the
material to be heated or cooked, and sometimes a base
underneath. Under the outer container of the bain-marie (or
built into its base) is a heat source.
Typically the inner
container is immersed about halfway into the working liquid.
The smaller container, filled with the substance to be heated,
fits inside the outer container, filled with the working
liquid (usually water), and the whole is heated at, or below,
the base, causing the temperature of the materials in both
containers to rise as needed. The insulating action of the
water helps to keep contents of the inner pot from boiling or
When the working liquid is water and the
bain-marie is used at sea level, the maximum temperature of
the material in the lower container will not exceed 100
degrees Celsius (the boiling point of water at sea level).
Using different working liquids (oils, salt solutions, etc.)
in the lower container will result in different maximum
A contemporary alternative to
the traditional, liquid-filled bain-marie is the electric
"dry-heat" bain-marie, heated by element below both pots. The
dry-heat form of electric bains-marie often consumes less
energy, requires little cleaning, and can be heated more
quickly than traditional versions. They can also operate at
higher temperatures, and are often much less expensive than
their traditional counterparts.
Electric bains-marie can
also be wet, using either hot water or vapor, or steam, in the
heating process. The open, bath-type bain-marie heats via a
small, hot-water tub (or "bath"), and the vapor-type
bain-marie heats with scalding-hot steam.
- Chocolate can be melted in a
bain-marie to avoid splitting and caking onto the pot.
Special dessert bain-maries 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 center.
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.
- 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 pates 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.
Bains-marie were originally developed for use in
the practice of alchemy, when alchemists needed a way to heat
materials slowly and gently. In that early form of chemical
science, it was believed by many that the best way to heat
certain materials was to mimic the supposed natural processes,
occurring in the Earth's core, by which precious metals were
believed to be germinated.
The name comes from the
medieval-Latin term balneum (or balineum) Mariae"literally,
Mary's bath" from which the French bain de Marie, or
bain-marie, is derived. There are many theories as to how the
name Marie came to be associated with this equipment:
- According to culinary writer Giuliano Bugialli, the
term comes from the Italian bagno maria, named after Maria
de'Cleofa, who developed the technique in Florence in the
- Alternatively, the device's invention has been
popularly attributed to Mary the Jewess, an ancient
alchemist traditionally supposed to have been Miriam, a
sister of Moses. However, according to The Jewish
Alchemists, Maria the Jewess was an ancient alchemist who
lived in Alexandria, which would seem to contradict the
tradition that she was Moses' sister: Alexandria was
founded by Alexander the Great in 334 BC, while Moses is
thought to have lived around 1450-1200 BC.
- Finally, some consider the name a reference to the
Virgin Mary, whose proverbial gentleness can be likened to
the gentleness of this cooking technique.
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