NHK WORLD > JAPANESE FOOD > Special Features > The ABCs of Japanese Cooking #5 Otoshibuta drop lid

The ABCs of Japanese Cooking
#5 Otoshibuta drop lid

March 27, 2017

Hi, everyone! Welcome back! How's the cooking coming along?

Today I'd like to introduce you to an indispensable utensil for nimono (that's “simmered foods” in English), an important category of Japanese cuisine. Today we'll learn how to use an otoshibuta, which will make a world of difference in the flavor and appearance of whatever it is you're cooking. Let's get started!

Dropped pig?

You’ve heard the one about pigs flying, right? In Japanese, otoshibuta sounds like the opposite: “dropped pigs.” But it actually refers to a round lid, or futa, that’s slightly smaller than the diameter of the pot you’re using to simmer your meal, so that it floats on the surface of the simmering liquid. It’s literally dropped into the pot, hence the name otoshibuta, or drop lid. That said, if you were to drop some pork into the pot first, things would get confusing fast...

What does the otoshibuta do?

Compared to using a regular old lid, foods simmered with a drop lid taste and look much better. And that’s not just my opinion: there’s a scientific reason (three, in fact!) for this.

1. Prevents ingredients from breaking apart
The drop lid holds the ingredients in place and prevents them from jumping around in the liquid, so they won't break, crumble or fall apart.

2. Allows ingredients to cook evenly and quickly
The otoshibuta forces the liquid to circulate while preventing heat loss, allowing the ingredients to cook evenly and quickly as they absorb the flavor.

3. Prevents evaporation
Simmering allows ingredients to soak up the flavor of the liquid. But the downside is that the umami of the ingredients themselves can seep out and evaporate along with the liquid. Using a drop lid prevents evaporation, so you only need to use a minimum of liquid. Plus, all the umami that seeps out of the ingredients is absorbed back inside!

What does the otoshibuta do?

【Wood】
Traditional drop lids are round and made of wood. They're about a centimeter thick and have a handle, so you can take a peek inside the pot without using oven gloves. Handy! Wood is a natural thermal insulator and helps to maintain an even temperature. But before using a wooden otoshibuta, make sure to soak it in water first. Otherwise, it'll soak up the cooking liquid and you'll have a hard time getting the smell out. Yuck. After using, remember to wash and dry thoroughly.

【Stainless steel】
Some stainless steel otoshibuta are adjustable to fit pots of various sizes. One size fits all! The only drawback is that it's a bit tricky to wash the overlapping parts.

【Silicone】
Silicone is flexible and easy to handle. The designs are really nice too!

From Madam Akiko's Book of Trivia

Here's a photo of one of my favorites. I have several wooden ones, but this one is just for simmering fish. To set it apart, I've branded it with a little fish. Don't you think it's cute?

Substitutes for otoshibuta

A lot of households no longer use otoshibuta. That's because they can make do with alternatives. If you're looking for an otoshibuta substitute, I recommend paper towels or aluminum foil, and plates work too. In fact, the weight is perfect for placing on top of the simmering ingredients.

【Paper towels】
In addition to filling in for an otoshibuta, the paper also absorbs impurities and excess fat. It's probably best to use two sheets of paper so that they're heavy enough to keep the ingredients from moving around.

【Aluminum foil】
Cut a circle that's slightly smaller than the pot you're using. Make a hole in the center and crumple it up slightly so that it can trap any impurities that arise during simmering. Because it's lightweight, you'll have to press it down every now and then to keep the foods covered.

【Plates】
Find a plate slightly smaller than the pot you're using and turn it upside down. Instant otoshibuta! The weight is perfect, but be careful not to burn yourself when removing it, okay?

Different uses for different ingredients

【Leaf vegetables】
Drop lids are great for boiling leaf vegetables. You know how when you boil leafy vegetables in a pot full of boiling water, the vegetables keep floating to the top, so you have to keep on pressing them down? It takes time and the boiling is uneven, right? Using a drop lid will keep the vegetables submerged and will allow you to boil them quickly and evenly.

【Nimono: simmered foods】
When making nimono, the consistency of the remaining liquid determines the flavor. Use just enough liquid to cover the surface of the ingredients and place a drop lid on top. Reduce the liquid and allow the ingredients to absorb the flavor. If the liquid tastes good and the ingredients are evenly cooked, then it's bound to taste great!

【Simmered fish】
When cooking fish, bring the liquid to a gentle boil before placing the fish in the pot. Cover with a drop lid to simmer the fish at an even temperature and remove that distinctive fish smell. The drop lid also keeps the fish from jumping around and falling apart, as fish are wont to do.

From Madam Akiko's Book of Trivia
I often use a wooden drop lid in place of plastic wrap to cover hot onigiri rice balls. The wood absorbs the excess moisture and gives the onigiri a nice texture. Give it a try!

Mini Quiz

After a good meal, there's nothing like a good nap. But not until you answer my quiz!

Quiz

An otoshibuta refers to a lid that fits the pot you're using.
True or false?

The answer is: False!
An otoshibuta is slightly smaller than the pot you're using, remember? In Japan, we have a saying that translates roughly as “better too big than too small.” I generally agree with this. After all, while it's possible to tuck in the seams of a large dress to make it fit, it's impossible to squeeze into something that's too tight! But when it comes to an otoshibuta, the reverse is true: better too small than too big!

See also
#1 Soy sauce, a must-have seasoning for cooking Japanese
#2 Mirin, sake and miso: essential seasonings for cooking Japanese
#3 Utensils 1: knives and cutting boards
#4 Utensils 2: Basic cutting techniques
#6 Chopsticks
#7 Chopsticks Part Two
#8 Dashi
#9 How to cook rice without a rice cooker

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