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Most dumpling recipes—including those discussed on this site—claim that the dumplings will be ready when they float to the surface. I have two interrelated questions:

  1. Does this rule ever fail? For example, might there be certain recipes or conditions (e.g., altitude) where one should allow the dumplings to cook further after they have floated? Conversely, are there certain recipes/conditions where one should remove the dumplings before they float?
  2. If this is a relatively universal rule, what is the science behind it?
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I will quote here the bible of cooking science, Harold McGees "On Food and Cooking":

"Dumpling doughs are minimally kneaded to maximize tenderness, and benefit from the inclusion of tiny air pockets, which provide lightness. [...] This tendency to rise with cooking is due to the expansion of the dough's air pockets, which fill with vaporized water as the dumpling interior approaches the boiling point and make the dough less dense than the surrounding water."

Following this, your dumpling must be a proper dumpling - dough that was only minimally kneaded, while altitude does not matter.

Why does this coincidence with being ready?

[...] the starch granules absorb water molecules, and swell and soften as the water molecules intrude and separate the starch molecules from each other. This granule softening [...] takes place in a temperature range that depends on the seed and the starch, but is in the region of 140-160°F/60-70°C. The tightly ordered clusters of amylose molecules require higher temperatures, more water, and more cooking time to be pulled and kept apart than do the looser clusters of amylopectin molecules.

So, altogether, the starch molecules do not absorb much more water as they are done, so the remaining water can vaporize and fill the air pockets, which makes the dumpling float then. Or, in other words, a floating dumpling is actually overcooked and so guaranteed to be ready (if the preconditions are met).

Does this rule ever fail?

Yes. Your dough needs to have sufficient air pockets for floating. Your dough needs to be made out of starch that is willing to absorb water. A dough made out of waxy potatoes has a fair chance to not float in time. This does match with German recipes for potato dumplings using waxy potatoes, that warn about the dumplings falling apart due to overcooking, if there is too much water in the pot (as it takes too much time for the dumpling to rise).

  • That explains why they float, but it doesn't explain why doneness exactly coincides with them floating. Is it because most dumplings are cooked once they reach an internal temperature of 100°C? – ESultanik Oct 6 '15 at 0:41
  • @ESultanik I edited my answer to add more details. – John Hammond Oct 6 '15 at 17:43
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I just want to add an important instance in which dumplings that float may not yet be cooked: frozen dumplings. There are plenty of instances I’ve actually encountered in which the dumpling floats because the shell is cooked but the filling isn’t because they’d come from right out the freezer. Ostensibly if you had even a room temp dumpling but that had a really large volume to surface area ratio, it might be undercooked on the inside by the time the dough is cooked through.

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It's not universal, it is simply a function of how much water is lost during cooking. Even when boiling, meat looses internal water as it cooks.

Not everything is ready when it floats, some things will never float, some will pop to the surface way too early to be considered done.

It is just coincidence your recipe is done when it floats, but for those recipes that reliably do something when it's done is a great visual indicator that it is likely done.

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    I don't think it's an issue with meat water loss ... because it's the standard timer for gnocchi and cheese tortellini. Both of those absorb water, not loose it. Their density change is caused by swelling, not decreased weight. – Joe Oct 5 '15 at 18:29
  • I was just using that as an example of all food in general. In the case of gnocchi yes it's lowering the density along with bubbling pushing the gnocchi up. – Escoce Oct 5 '15 at 18:34
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    I'm not convinced... the "ready when floating" rule also applies to e.g., potato dumplings which simmer at low heat, without any bubbling, especially not enough bubbling that would push an almost tennis ball sized dumpling. – Robert Oct 5 '15 at 19:07

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