Creamy cheesecakes. Silky crème caramel. Crème brulée that melts in your mouth. What do they have in common? They owe their smooth textures to a water bath or bain marie.
A water bath is used to gently cook delicate foods, especially egg-based dishes, to keep them from overcooking, which is what causes cheesecakes to crack. To prepare a water bath, simply place your baking dish (or ramekins or springform pan) inside a larger dish or pan. Carefully pour warm water into the larger dish until it comes about half way up the sides of the smaller baking dish or ramekins, making sure no water splashes or spills into the smaller baking dish holding your custard or batter.
I find it easier to place the pans on the oven rack before filling them with water. This way, you don’t have to try carrying a pan full of batter in a pan half-full of water to the oven without spilling.
This slow, gentle cooking helps food cook evenly and is what gives dishes their creamy texture. It’s important to remove your baked goods from the water bath as soon as they’re done. Extra time in the water can also lead to overcooking.
In restaurants, water baths are often used to keep food or sauces warm without overcooking them.