March 14, 2021

When To Take Your Top Off

Know when you should cover a pot or leave the lid off.

No, I’m not talking about how to grab a few extra Mardi Gras beads! Take your minds out of the gutter people!

I’m talking about lids. If a pot comes with a lid, should you always use it? When do you leave it on? When do you take it off? When do you throw it out the window like a frisbee (not recommended)?

There are two main principles when considering going topless:

  1. Heat energy: Putting a lid on conserves more energy. Heat energy won’t escape to the outside world when your pot is covered. 🔥
  2. Moisture levels: Removing the lid allows moisture to escape via steam. This reduces the amount of liquid of whatever you’re cooking. 💧

And one last thing. A simple, but a powerful reminder from science class. Water can’t go above 212℉ (100℃). Why? Because once it hits that temperature it turns to steam, goes into the air, and disappears. Just something to keep in mind.

When To Put the Top On

When you want to increase the heat! Boiling water happens faster when you cover your pot. There’s less energy loss. Keeping the lid on raises the temperature of the water, faster!

When you’re steaming. To allow heat from steam to properly transfer to your broccoli or cod, put the lid on. It’s harder to steam when there’s no steam. 💨

When you want to return a pot to boil. Adding things like pasta, veggies, or eggs will drop the temperature of boiling water. Put the lid on to bring the water back to a boil faster.

When you have the perfect consistency. A lid prevents the liquid in your dish from going anywhere anytime soon. This is great for a soup or stew when the consistency is just right but your meat or veggies need a little more time to cook. It prevents evaporation! ❌

When you want your pan to pre-heat faster. Because putting a lid on keeps more heat energy in the pan. It’s great for when you need to sear something last minute and you need a hot pan!

When to Take Your Top Off

When you don’t want something to boil over. Once the water starts to boil, keeping the lid off will prevent boiling over. Why? Because less heat means a less rambunctious boil.

When you want to make a reduction! Whether it’s a pan sauce, stock, gravy, or fruit compote, cook without a top. If you don’t have a lid on, water will escape as steam. And you’re left with a thicker consistency and more concentrated flavor.

When making pasta sauce. Similar idea as above. I never cook a pasta sauce with a lid. I want it to cook off any water to concentrate the flavor. You can always thin it out with pasta water if needed (in fact, I recommend it). 🍝

When you want browning. Moisture is the enemy of browning. You need a dry surface to achieve that golden color and those wonderful flavor molecules.

The folks at Milk Street don’t sear meat when braising or making a stew. Instead, they take the lid off their pot halfway through cooking. This causes any exposed pieces of meat to brown. You’ll also reduce the braising liquid and concentrate the flavor.

When frying food. Otherwise, the steam will stick to the lid and then drip back into the oil causing splattering. 🍟

When making stock. You don’t want the liquid to boil when making stock. It keeps the flavors clean. Removing the lid makes it easier to keep it at a low simmer. Plus it will reduce, concentrating all the flavors in your stock.

When You Can’t Make Up Your Mind

Remember, you can always leave your top partially on! (I don’t know that I would recommend that at the beach though. 🏖️) You’ll keep more heat inside than cooking completely uncovered. But you’ll also have less moisture than having the lid fully on. I like this technique for braises. You’ll concentrate the flavors without losing too much of the braising liquid! This is perfect when you’re wanting to use that liquid as a sauce.  

Where I learned this: This article from Cooks Illustrated, The New Rules cookbook by Milk Street, and while I can’t point to a specific article, lots of things from J. Kenji López-Alt.