A Watched Pot

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I love to cook.  Well, let me rephrase that. I like to cook, but what I really love to do is to feed people the food that I prepare.  It’s a familial trait.  My maternal grandmother will try to feed you within moments of you walking in her door.  If you decline, she will phrase the question in a different way a moment later, testing your willpower.  If you decline again, she simply will start preparing food or getting food out of the refrigerator and placing it in front of you.  It’s a losing battle.  How do you say no to woman who drives a sports car, spanks everyone in the family at poker, bowls on a night league because she “doesn’t want to bowl with all of the old people” who join the day leagues, and, for her 80th birthday, chose to get her first tattoo?  You don’t.  You just don’t, ok?

My paternal grandfather was the same way, only he’d actually go so far as to shove food right in your face, in this adorable and loving manner than no one with a heart could dare refuse.  As a young teenager, I became somewhat of a vegetarian, stubbornly sticking to the claim for more than 5 years (mostly because I didn’t understand nutrition, and thought meat had too many calories in it, but also because it irritated my parents) before my sweet grandpa broke me down with his constant pleas for me to sample whatever amazing meal he was cooking up at the time. This was long before I knew how to (or rather, even cared to) cook anything that didn’t require simply reheating, so he was not misguided in his belief that I was eating rather poorly, and today, 15 years later, I’m a meat lover.  But food, food is love in my family, and someone allowing you to feed them is a wonderful blessing.  I am fiercely protective of my space in the kitchen.  I don’t like help while I prepare food unless I ask for it. My meals are a small gift to my family, and one of my favorite things about hosting out of town guests is that I get to feed them.  So, I guess you can say that feeding people is a passion of mine.

What is not my passion, however, is paying attention to little details.  Like boiling pots of noodles.  You know that old saying “A watched pot never boils”? Well, that’s pretty much my excuse for why I don’t watch a boiling pot.  Even when there is something boiling in said pot, which has in the past, reaped pretty cruddy results. For instance, in my quest to make His Majesty’s baby food, I ignored boiling water that was steaming carrots on no less than three separate occasions, each time resulting in a similar scorched outcome that had to be tossed out, and a pot that needed some serious scrubbing (and don’t even get me started on the smell– yuck!). Likewise, when Christopher was a baby, I once forgot about boiling bottles until the stench of burned plastic sparked my brain to remember that I had something on the stove.  I’m nothing if not consistent in my neglect of boiling pots.  Most of the time though, I at least remain in the room with pot boiling, and I’m learning to set timers.  I’m improving,  but often times, even when I am standing right there, I get busy making another part of the meal and the pot over boils, making a big mess on the stove.  So, when I saw this on Pinterest, I had to try it.

How have I not heard this tip before? There’s so much for me to learn in this life, I’m telling you.  The source, LeAna at A Small Snippet,  says that a wooden spoon will prevent a pot of water from boiling over.  Really, something that simple.  She even included a helpful tip in the comments section that says to place the spoon on the pot before it starts to boil, so I’m glad I read through them before I took this tip for a test drive, but other than that fact, I expected it to be a pretty simple experiment.

You take your wooden spoon     

and you place it over your pot.  Like this:    

Then you boil your water, and you wait.

And wait.

And… wait.

And this is when I realized that while a watched pot does in fact eventually boil, it does not, and in fact, stubbornly WILL NOT, boil over.  I attempted this experiment 3 times, back to back. Once with an pot of just water. Then I boiled water and made noodles.  And then, when that didn’t work, I boiled a pot of water with a few tablespoons of cornstarch in it. On NONE of those occasions, with me standing by, camera in hand ready to test this tip, did the pot even come close to boiling over.  Talk about an anomaly.  And no, that doesn’t mean the experiment proves that a wooden spoon will keep a pot from boiling over.  It just means that yours truly couldn’t get the darn pot to even come close enough to boiling over to test the effectiveness of this method.  You want to talk about frustrating?!

After that 3rd attempt, I gave up with the physical potion of this “study”.  But I certainly didn’t give up thinking about why it should work.  You see, the wooden spoon trick might not be magic, but it definitely can be explained by science.

Yep, that’s right, as with the majority of cooking, it all boils down (haha!) to science.  And pretty basic science, which is another reason that I am shaking my head at myself for not thinking of this basic idea years ago. As water boils, the cooler water goes to the bottom of the pan to be heated up, as the hot water simultaneously rises to the top (think about basements being cooler than attics, since heat rises and cold falls).  As the hot (boiling) water rises to the top of the pot and possibly threatens to boil over, it will first come in contact with the wooden spoon.   Wood is not a good heat conductor, so the spoon stays cooler than the boiling water, even though it is being bathed in the steam as it sits atop the pot.  When the boiling water touches the spoon, there is a small heat transfer that cools the water at the top of the pan just enough to push it back down again, preventing it from boiling over.  It won’t work forever, because eventually all of the water will still reach the same temperature, but it will give you that extra few seconds for your eyes and brain to communicate so that you can turn the heat on your pot down, give it a stir, whatever, hopefully preventing any actual messes.  (Or, just stare at the pot expectedly.  If you’re me, it will boil perfectly, and never come close to boiling over.  What the heck, go figure…)

I figure that I lost nothing by attempting this little experiment, because at the very least, my curiosity and stubborn nature will have me keeping an eye on my boiling pots when I prepare meals in the future, testing both the spoon and my newfound superstition that a watched pot will not boil over.  And if that diligent attention alone works to prevent me from having to use a razor blade to clean my stove in the future, well, I guess the end result is all the same.

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