Culinary word of the week: Parboil

Par-what? You may have heard this term on the Food Network from a chef sprinkling it in sentences the same way he does salt on food, or read it in a recipe that instructed you to do it but offered little else. In the past, you may have nodded your head in affirmation of the merits of par-boiling, despite not knowing where to parse the “par” and the “boil,” while all the time wondering what golfing and hot water have to do with each other in the first place.

After reading this, you’ll be the one using the word, leaving others wondering in your vernacular wake.

Let’s start with the definition: Parboil, as defined by Merriam-Webster, means “to boil briefly as a preliminary or incomplete cooking procedure.”

In deeper culinary terms, parboiling is actually a form of blanching, in which you immerse a food in hot liquid, barely or partially cooking it (Get it? Partially — or par.)

Application: Definitions are one thing, real-world use is another. So why would you want to partially cook anything? I mean, isn’t that unhealthy? Not necessarily. For our application, think of parboiling as an opportunity to give things a head-start in the kitchen, a culinary shortcut, in a way. It’s a method of starting the cooking process one way before it is finished using another.

Example: Potatoes are a great candidate for parboiling because they tend to take a while to cook. So, say you like to cook potatoes in a skillet but often end up with blackened chunks instead of nicely-browned, crispy spuds due to them being on the heat for so long.

Parboiling can help. In this case, you would cut the potatoes into chunks, drop them (gently) into boiling water, and cook until they were tender. You could then fry them in a skillet to get perfectly browned potatoes that are crisp on the outside and soft within. For those who like to plan ahead, you could parboil the potatoes, cool them off with running water, refrigerate, and then they’d be ready for the skillet the next day, saving time and effort.

So there you go. Parboiling in a nutshell. Er, potato skin.

Are  you a fan of the par-boil? Write about your experience with this cooking method, ask questions or share advice in the comments area below.

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  1. Sherri Benoun said,

    April 5, 2010 @ 4:32 pm

    The problem with parboiling is that plan ahead thing. It’s usually, “Oh no, I need to fix dinner NOW!”
    Do you only cool down parboiled items if you plan to use them later? I know with blanching, it’s to both stop the cooking and set the color.

  2. Matt Degen said,

    April 5, 2010 @ 5:36 pm

    Right you are, Sherri. If not continuing to cook immediately via another method, it’s important to cool down the food and refrigerate promptly to avoid food-borne illness.

    Bad things happen when food sits too long in the temperature “danger zone” of about 40 to 140 degrees Fahrenheit. (Click to see more on temperatures and food safety from the USDA.)

    As for that fixing dinner NOW part, i hear ya. Hopefully I can take my own advice and become better friends with the parboil!


  3. krissi said,

    April 5, 2010 @ 5:46 pm

    I loved your example of using potatoes for parboiling. I often feel like my ‘pots’ are either overcooked on the outside and still cold on the inside, or just plain dry from being the oven too long.

    Is parboiling an application you could use with meat or sea food? I know one wants to be careful with both of those, since nasty diseases call it party-time at certain temperatures in meat. But if this could be applied to say, fish, would it make the fish that much more moist, instead of drying it out, as can so often happen if you aren’t paying very close attn. to your cooking time?


  4. Matt Degen said,

    April 5, 2010 @ 6:51 pm

    Hi, Krissi — That’s a great question about meats and fish. In theory, you could parboil, say, chicken and then finish it in an oven or on the grill the next day to cut your cooking time, but I would be hesitant to recommend doing that regularly. The reason is, the more you heat and cool a piece of meat, poultry or fish, the higher your chances of those nasty pathogens indeed calling it “party time.”

    The same goes for meat. And besides, we really don’t want to subject a nice filet mignon to boiling water, where its good flavors could seep into the water and turn the exterior gray as well. As for tougher cuts of meat, they are going to require several hours to cook anyway, so the benefit of parboiling doesn’t do it many favors.

    Then there’s fish. You know what I love about fish and shellfish? It cooks so quickly. It’s one of nature’s original fast foods. When you consider that you can poach a fish in say, 10-15 minutes, there isn’t really a need for parboiling it.

    For beginning cooks, I recommend mastering parboiling of vegetables first — such as our potato example — before trying other food items in which foodborne illness poses a higher risk.

    Thanks for your question!


  5. krissi said,

    April 5, 2010 @ 7:52 pm

    Hi again, Matt;

    Thanks so much for the reply!
    I definitely say ‘ewww’ to the gray meat you were describing, and your point about fish and shellfish cooking so quickly in the first place (thus not needing parboiling), had me nodding my head.
    I think I’ll just stick to parboiling veges for now, and look forward to possible up-coming, quick-dinner-fixin’s, (maybe a crock-pot dinner) in your blog!

    Thanks again.


  6. I Want To Cook » Culinary word of the week: Slurry said,

    December 25, 2010 @ 9:42 pm

    [...] Culinary word of the week: Parboil [...]

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    February 21, 2012 @ 12:12 pm

    [...] if they’re brined and relatively soft, a good par-boiling isn’t a bad idea, as grape leaves are fairly substantial things with some chew and, because [...]

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