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. They're actually quite easy to use - and it's no problem to jerry-rig one if you don't feel like investing in another kitchen pot.
A double boiler is two pots: a large one that looks a lot like a regular saucepan and a smaller, more shallow pan that nestles inside. 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.
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. Check the bottom pan every now and then to make sure the water hasn't boiled off, and add more water if needed.
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 metal mixing bowl over a saucepan of simmering water. Just make sure the bottom of the mixing bowl doesn't touch the surface of the water.
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.
Here are a few places to find them online:
• Basic Stainless Steel Double Boiler, $49.95 from Sur la Table
• Welco 3-Piece 2-Quart Double Boiler, $22.95 from Target
• All-Clad Stainless Steel 3-Quart Double Boiler Insert, $49.95 from Williams-Sonoma
Do you often use a double boiler?
Related: Hot or Not: Double Wall Pot
(Image: Sur la Table)