My only complaint about MFK Fisher’s delightfully bossy How to Cook a Wolf, a hard-times cooking manual first published in 1942, is that it has given me something new to worry about doing wrong: boiling water.
“It can be said,” Fisher admits, “with few people to argue the point, that water boils when it has been heated to two hundred and twelve degrees Fahrenheit.”
Having read a few chapters into the book, at this point you will probably have the sense that she is getting ready to disapprove, and she will not let you down.
Myself, I would say that when it bubbles with large energetic bubbles, and looks ready to hop from the kettle, and makes a rocky rather than a murmuring noise, and sends off a deal of steam, it is boiling. [A friend of mine who grew up alongside a samovar has only one way to describe water proper for tea: “A mad boil.” In the same forceful way she never says rolls or toast must be hot, or very hot. They must be “hot-hot-hot!”…]
At this point, full of sound and fury, it is ready to be used… The quaint old fiction of the kettle simmering all day on the hearth, waiting to be turned into a delicious cup of tea, is actively disturbing to anyone who cares very much whether his tea will be made from lively water instead of a liquid that in spite of its apparent resemblance to Webster’s definition is flat, exhausted, tasteless — in other words, with the hell cooked out of it…
It is safe to say that then the water boils, as it surely will, given enough heat under it, it is ready. Then, at that moment and no other, pour it into the teapot or over and around or into whatever it is meant for, whatever calls for it. If it cannot be used then, turn off the heat and start over again when you yourself are ready; it will harm you less to wait than it will the water to boil too long.
With its mix of useful advice, withering commentary, and obsolete references of historical curiosity, this book would make an excellent gift for anyone who’s spending less and cooking more these days — provided he or she does not suffer, as I do, from a touch of the OCD.
At first I was afraid that Fisher’s instructions would set me off on an endless loop of pointless activity — i.e., is this really the moment that the water rose to a boil? Was the steam intense enough? The bubbling insane enough? Maybe, just in case, I should turn it off, let it cool down, and then start over… Fortunately, my caffeine addiction has (so far) forestalled descent into this kind of madness.
See also: Kate Christensen on Fisher’s Consider the Oyster.