A double boiler and a water bath are both terms used in recipes to gently warm or cook your ingredient. But what is the difference?

What is a double boiler?

double boiler used to melt chocolate

A double boiler, also called a bain-marie, is used to gently melt or warm your ingredient using steam. It is composed of two parts. The first being a pot of water. The water is filled to about 1-2 inches and is either boiling or simmering on the stovetop. On top of the pot, is either another smaller pot or a heat-proof bowl that holds your ingredient. The top pot is not touching the surface of the water but it is using the steam from the water to heat it’s contents.

A double boiler provides such gentle heat that is a good way to warm fickle ingredients like chocolate and egg whites which are easily prone to burning.

Do I need a double boiler?

You can find double boilers online or at most home stores. However, I personally don’t use a double boiler often enough to own one so I go the DIY route.

The best substitute for when you want indirect heat is to put a heat-proof bowl over a pot of simmering water. For example, a glass or metal mixing bowl will work great. Be careful to not touch the sides of the bowl without a towel or oven mitt.

Recipes using a double boiler

What is a water bath?

A mason jar of cheesecake filling sitting in a water bath ready for the oven

A water bath is simply a pan of hot water in the oven. It helps delicate items to bake more gently and helps provide a moist environment. The most common circumstance where you will need to use a water bath is to bake a cheesecake or another type of custard.

After you’ve poured your custard into a springform pan or individual ramekins, you then put the pans into a larger pan with tall sides. This can be a metal casserole dish or roasting pan. You gently put this into your oven. Before closing the door, pour a couple of inches of water directly into the larger pan.

Can I bake a cheesecake without a water bath?

If you were to bake a cheesecake without a water bath, you run the risk of cracking the top of your cheesecake becoming dry.

However, since water baths can tend to be a little tricky, I have developed a recipe for a New York-style Cheesecake without a water bath! This method starts in a very hot oven for a short period of time and then finished at a low temperature. It helps to form a skin on the top of the cheesecake, setting the top in place which keeps the filling dense and prevents cracking on top.

Recipes using a water bath