What’s a Double Boiler and What’s the Best One to Buy (or DIY)?

updated Jul 8, 2020
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A double boiler is one of those pieces of equipment that seems to pop up in many holiday recipes, usually with very little by way of explanation. “Melt chocolate in double boiler and dip cookies,” a recipe will tell you. Thanks, recipe. But if you’re wondering what, exactly, that means (and what the heck a double boiler actually is!), we’ve got you covered. The good news: This essential kitchen tool is actually quite easy to use — and it’s no problem to DIY one with stuff you already own, if you don’t feel like investing in another kitchen pot. Let’s take a look.

What’s a Double Boiler?

Simply put, a double boiler is just two pots: a large one that looks a lot like a regular saucepan and a smaller, more shallow pan that nestles inside. To use one, you fill the bottom pan with an inch or two of water and set the shallow pan on top. Over heat, the water in the bottom pan begins to simmer and transfers a gentle, steady heat to whatever you’re cooking in the pan above. As you work, check the bottom pan every now and then to make sure the water hasn’t boiled off, and add more water if needed.

When Do You Use a Double Boiler?

It’s used for cooking delicate ingredients that have a tendency to seize or separate over direct heat, as when tempering chocolate, whisking up a egg-based sabayon, or keeping gravy warm. Again, you’ll see a lot of holiday cookie recipes call for a double boiler — particularly when you need to dunk something in or cover it with chocolate.

Credit: Dana Velden

How to Make a DIY Double Boiler

Owning an actual double boiler is handy if you do a lot of cooking that requires it. If you only need one occasionally, you can accomplish the same effect by setting a tempered glass or stainless steel mixing bowl over a saucepan of simmering water. People used to warn against letting the bowl touch the water or even sitting on the surface of the pan, but those concerns have proven unwarranted.

Related: The Best Way to Melt Chocolate: Alice Medrich’s Smart, Easy Method

The Best Double Boilers to Buy

You can find double boilers, or single pans that fit over your regular saucepans, at most kitchen supply stores. We recommend buying one with a fairly shallow top pan, as this makes it much easier to whisk and stir sauces.

Some Double Boilers We Recommend

Do you have any other questions about double boilers? Leave them in the comments below!