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From the time I was very young and just beginning to cook, I always heard about blanching but never heard of parboiling. I learned how to blanch vegetables to prepare for freezing, removing skins from tomatoes and nuts, etc., all pretty standard.

However, in later years I hear the term parboiling quite frequently. Wondering if it was the same thing, I started searching for information. Believe me when I say that there is no shortage of it!

My problem is that there doesn't seem to be any consistent answers. I found answers saying they were the same, that one used the ice bath and the other didn't (but one site will say to use the ice bath when blanching and another will say when parboiling), and even lengthy descriptions of either. What I can't seem to find is anything consistent.

Is it just a case of semantics with the terms being interchangeable? If they are different methods, can anyone give me the true answer of what each is from a credible culinary source?

16

Both involve boiling water, but there are a number of differences:

  • blanching has two meanings -- it's mainly used when talking about setting (or enhancing) the color of vegetables, with minimal cooking (only the outermost layer is cooked). As such, it's typically only a few seconds to a minute dip in already boiling water, followed by a shock (dip in ice water) to halt any further cooking. It's often used for vegetables that are going to be eaten raw.

  • parboiling means that you cook something in boiling water to give it a head start. (Parcooking in boiling water) Typically, the purpose is to cook an item to speed up the cooking time for some following cooking method. (eg, partially cook some items in a casserole so that all items will be done at the same time after baking).

  • And then we have the overlap case -- when you cook something in water to change the characteristics (other than color) of an item before some other cooking step. For example, we might be trying to extract bitter compounds, or soften a food such that some other processing step can be performed (eg, soften cabbage leaves so they can be used as a wrapper). In this case, you're typically cooking the item more than just superficially, and the pre-cooking results in a different result than you'd simply get by increasing the time of the final cooking (eg, the oil blanch for pommes frites, softening the skin to peel a tomato)

So, to help make a decision on which term to use:

  • if the goal of the step is color change of the ingredient : blanch
  • if you cook it for only a few seconds, or up to a minute and shock in cold water : blanch
  • if there's no additional cooking done after this step : blanch
  • if you could skip this step with no change in other cooking times : blanch
  • if you could skip this step by increasing the cooking time at some later step : par-boil

... for other cases, where the step can't be omitted without causing problems in the recipe (eg, cabage breaks because it wasn't softened), or final result (too bitter) ... you can often use either term. You might consider how far 'cooked' the item is after the step if you want to prefer one or the other. (under about 25% cooked, go with 'blanch', if over 50%, go with par-boil)

5

My copy of The New Food Lover's Companion (which I have found to be an indispensable reference for a huge number of culinary terms) reads as follows:

Pages 488-89:

parboil To partially cook food by boiling it briefly in water.

Page 68:

blanch To plunge food (usually vegetables and fruits) into boiling water briefly, then into cold water to stop the cooking process.

I find this to be a very trustworthy dictionary for culinary terms (a number of professional chefs I know own copies that they also reference on occasion) and it seems to make the distinction very clear and simple.

Both involve briefly cooking food in boiling water; however, blanching involves plunging into an ice bath immediately afterwards to halt the cooking process, while parboiling does not.

  • 1
    That said, if you boil potatoes for 5 minutes then you might call that "parboiling" on the basis that 5 minutes is brief for potatoes (of particular size, blah blah). If you boil potatoes for 5 minutes and them dump them in cold water I'm not certain that would be considered merely "blanching", for all that both are brief. Possibly the word "brief" here doesn't fully characterise the ranges of times covered by the terms, to me "plunge into X briefly and then Y" implies that the thing barely comes to rest in X. Possibly I'm wrong and you're correct that the difference is solely the cold water. – Steve Jessop Aug 26 '14 at 23:32

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