Before boiling meat of any kind whatever, we should always ask ourselves one question, and that is "Do I want to keep the goodness in this meat, or do I want to get the goodness out of it?" It is on the answer we give, that our course must depend.
If the meat is to be eaten, we want to keep the goodness in it. We shall not be able to manage this entirely, for, with all our care, some of it will escape into the water, but we may preserve a great deal of it. And the best means we can adopt for this purpose is to surround the meat as quickly as possible with a kind of shield, through which the juices cannot escape.
We all know that an egg when broken in a cup is liquid. If this same egg be turned into a saucepan containing boiling water it will in three minutes be quite different, for the white part will e solid. Now, there is in meat a great deal of the same substance that white of egg is composed of - that is, albumen, the peculiar property of which is that heat makes it solid. When, therefore, we plunge meat into boiling water, the albumen in it becomes solid, just as the white of an egg does. Of course, the part that is nearest to the hot water, that is, the outside, gets hard first, and this makes our shield. after the meat has boiled for five minutes, or a little less, it is quite surrounded with a covering that will keep in the goodness that we so much want to preserve.
If any one doubts the truth of this, let her take a little piece of raw beef, divide it into halves, and put one half into cold water and the other into boiling water. In one minute the cold water will be tinged with red - the goodness will have begun to escape from the meat. The boiling water will be very nearly the colour it was before. If the beef is allowed to be in the cold water for about half an hour, the water will be quite red and the meat will be white; its juices will have passed into the water, and it will be valueless for nourishing purposes. It is on this account that, when we want to make beef-tea, we put the beef to soak for awhile in cold water to draw out the goodness, before we put it into a jar to e placed in a saucepan of water to simmer till it is done.
We must not suppose, however, that, when we have got our shield round the meat, we are to let it keep on boiling till it is sufficiently cooked. If we did this, the meat would be shield all the way through, and that would make unnecessarily hard work for both our teeth and our digestions. What we want is not only to keep in the goodness, but to make the meat tender. This can be done only by gentle stewing. We must therefore proceed in this way. First we plunge our meat into the fast boiling water; it instantly stops boiling, for the cold meat cools the liquid, so we bring it to the boiling point again as quickly as we can, let it boil for five minutes, then draw it back to a cooler place, put a wine-glassful of cold water into it to lower the temperature, and keep it simmering gently till it is done.
If we had a thermometer at hand to put into the water, we should find that when it was boiling, the quicksilver rose to 212 degrees. When the saucepan was drawn back and the cold water put in, the quicksilver would fall to 180 degrees, and it is at this point it should be kept all the time.
I know of nothing more difficult than to persuade inexperienced cooks of the fact that meat is made tender by gentle simmering and not by quick boiling.
Somehow it seems as if, when the water in the saucepan is galloping away, progress is being made, and the meat will be done sometime; whilst, when it simmers only, things seem almost at a standstill. I have again and again explained this to pupils, as I thought, in the clearest manner, and then, if I turned away for a little time, I should be sure to find the water boiling hard on my return. At last I have come to look upon those who can calmly allow meat to simmer, instead of boil, with a great deal of respect, as being far on the way to make good cooks.
The rule applies to all fresh meat - beef, mutton, pork, poultry and fish. When once we understand the general rule, we do not need to look in a cookery book to see how different joints are cooked. The rule is for all; a neck of mutton, a leg of mutton, a chicken, or a salmon, we must treat them all alike - first surround the meat with a coat of mail to keep in the goodness, and then simmer it til gently done.
I know very well that it is very uncommon to observe this rule, so far as fish is concerned. But I know of no reason why this should be. It is true, fish does not contain so much albumen as meat; but it contains a little, and this, when hardened, will help keep in the goodness. The only exception should be with mackerel, which may be put into warm water, because the skin is so delicate that boiling water will cause it to break.
One would think, to hear people talk, that boiling was one of the commonest processes in cookery. The fact is that, when cookery is understood, real boiling is very uncommon, excepting for a few minutes at a time. If we used words that really expressed what we mean, we should say "simmered" rabbit and "simmered beef", instead of "boiled" rabbit and "boiled" beef. Boiling, as applied to meats, is useful chiefly for hardening the outside to keep in the goodness and for reducing the liquid to make sauces.
As soon as the water boils, after the meat is put in, it should be well skimmed. The impurities that are in the meat are dissolved by the hot water, and they rise to the surface in the form of scum. If this is not taken off at once, it will sink again and make the meat a bad colour, so it will be well to watch for the scum and take it off as quickly as it appears; a little salt thrown into the liquid will help it to rise. The earliest scum should be thrown away, but in a little while the fat of the meat will melt and rise, and this should be taken off and carefully preserved, for there is no fat that we can get that is so useful for frying as the skimmings of saucepans. Of that I shall have to speak when we are talking of frying meat.
The time that meat should simmer must, as in roasting, vary with the thickness of the joint. The safe general rule for beef and mutton is a quarter of an hour to the pound and a quarter of an hour over. When meat is very thick and solid, half an hour over may be allowed. When meat is to be pressed under a weight, and eaten cold, half an hour per pound will not be too long for it to simmer. Pork and salt meat should have twenty minutes per pound, and fish ten minutes per pound, and ten minutes over if it is thick. The time should always be counted from the moment the meat is drawn back, after it has been surrounded by its shield. This, therefore, must be considered, and allowance made for the time the water will take to boil again after the meat has cooled it.
This general rule of putting meat into boiling water holds good for fresh meat only. A difference must be made with salted meat. Salt gets into the pores of the meat and needs to be drawn out a little before the shield surrounds the joint, or the meat would be hard. Therefore salted meat put into lukewarm instead of billing water, or, if it has been very strongly salted, it may even be put into cold water. The liquid may then be brought to the boiling point, be skimmed, and be left to boil for five minutes, and boiled twenty minutes per pound and twenty minutes over.
I must not forget to mention one thing. When I was speaking of roasting meat I said that beef and mutton should hang as long as possible, before being put down to the fire. It is not so with meat that is to be boiled. If meat on the point of turning were boiled, it would neither taste well nor look well, and, more than that, the liquor in which it was cooked would be good for nothing.
I hope no one would even think of throwing away the liquor in which fresh meat has been boiled. As I said a little while ago, do what we will, some of the goodness of the meat will have gone into it, and this must not be wasted. We English have the character of being the most wasteful cooks in the world, and the greatest benefit that would follow the spread of the knowledge of cookery would be that there would not be so much waste. The meat liquor must be poured at once into a clean earthenware pan and kept in a cool place till wanted. Excellent soup may afterwards be made of it, or it may be used instead of water for gravy and sauces. The only precaution that is necessary in order to keep it good is to boil it every day in warm weather, and every three or four days in cold weather. The worst of salt meat is that the liquor can seldom be used again in this way, and especially when saltpetre has been plentifully used to redden salt meat. The best thing that we can do after salt meat has been boiled is to taste the liquor, and if it is very salt, to throw it away at once. If saltpetre has been sparingly used, the liquor may serve for pea or lentil soup, but for no other kind.
So much for boiling meat. And now for vegetables. The majority of these should be thrown into plenty of fast boiling salted water, and boiled with the lid off the pan. If this can be done, and the vegetables are of moderate age, they will be sure to be of a good colour. Sometimes, when they have to be cooked on an open range, the fire is smoke, and, therefore, the lid must be put on. They will not then be of such a good colour. Closed ranges are, however, becoming every day more usual amongst us, and with them there need be no dif in preserving the colour of vegetables. An exception to the general rule of putting vegetables into boiling water is made in the case of old potatoes, which should be put into cold water and gently stewed. New potatoes may, however, be put into boiling water like the rest.