Get to know: The écumoire



For quite some time I thought this was a prehistoric spatula. But it is not a spatula at all. This is an écumoire, what an English-speaker like me would call a skimmer.

The French root of the word is écume, translating to scum or foam, and the purpose of this tool is to remove unwanted fat and debris from the surface of bouillon as it simmers. Slide the écumoire just beneath the surface of the liquid, lift it upward, and the watery bouillon slips through the holes while the surface tension of the oleaginous fat keeps it from draining away.

If you suspect, as I did, that so straightforward a task does not merit its own specialized tool, then you underestimate the importance of this dish in French cuisine. Bouillon — the flavorful stock produced by simmering meat and vegetables in water — is a crucial ingredient in hundreds of classic French dishes and sauces, as well as a nourishing soup all on its own. As such, it is perhaps bouillon more than any other dish that unites the highest tier of French haute cuisine with the humblest peasant household. Antonin Carême, writing in 1833 in L’art de la cuisine française dans la dix-neuvième siècle, made clear his position that bouillon is foundational to the very nation of France. Here he excoriates his fellow foodies who consider it beneath their regard:

The men of the 18th century who wrote of the culinary arts did not deign to consider the modest pot-au-feu; yet it is the main food of the nation’s working class, who well deserve efforts to improve their nutrition. The culinary authors of our modern times have affected the same disdain and have given no thought to the humble soupe grasse; but on the other hand, with no shame they write that nobody knows how to make a good bouillon — and yet provide no solutions to improve it, if such a thing were even possible. O ignorance! what darkness surrounds you! and yet what boastfulness is yours! But your efforts will be in vain; charlatanism ever seeks to impose itself on the public, but there are men among the culinary practitioners courageous enough to expose it, and to avenge science by honorable work for the gastronomy of the 19th century.

He continues with precise step-by-step directions to infuse bouillon with maximum flavor and nutritional value. Eliza Acton, who does not suffer fools, translates and relays Carême’s instructions in their entirety for her own recipe for “Bouillon, the Common Soup of France; cheap and very wholesome” in her Modern Cookery published in 1845. (That Acton would not re-work a recipe from a French contemporary but rather repeat it verbatim for her English audience, with full credit to the author, constitutes quite a resounding endorsement.) I compared Carême’s explanations as translated by Acton with those of Harold McGee in On Food and Cooking, published in 1984.

Antonin Carême, L’art de la cuisine française, 1833
(as translated by Eliza Acton, Modern Cookery, 1845)
Harold McGee, On Food and Cooking, 1984
[The French housewife] first lays the meat into her earthen stock-pot, and pours cold water to it in the proportion of about two quarts to three pounds of the beef; she then places it by the side of the fire, where it slowly becomes hot; and as it does so, the heat enlarges the fibre of the meat, dissolves the gelatinous substances which it contains, and allows the albumen (or the muscular part which produces the scum) to disengage itself, and rise to the surface, and the osmazome (which is the most savory part of the meat) to be diffused through the broth. After blanching or browning, the meat solids are started in an uncovered pot of cold water, which the cook brings slowly to a gentle simmer and keeps there, regularly skimming off the fat and scum that accumulate at the surface.

The cold start and slow heating allow the soluble proteins to escape the solids and coagulate slowly, forming large aggregates that either rise to the surface and are easily skimmed off, or settle onto the sides and bottom.

Ah yes — osmazome. Food science was an emerging field in Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries. The chemist Hilaire-Marin Rouelle (1718-1779) and the physician Pierre Thouvenel (1745-1815) studied the transformation of meat and bones during cooking and described a strong-smelling red-brown substance that they theorized was the source of the flavor and nutrition of broth. The notable French scientist Louis-Jacques Thénard (1777-1857) continued this analysis and in 1806 isolated the substance as a product of muscle tissue. He presented his findings — along with the name “osmazome,” derived from the ancient Greek word ὀσμή, osmḗ, meaning “smell” — to the École de médecine à Paris. Here is a précis of his presentation as printed in the April 1806 edition of La Revue:

Extract from a report by M. THÉNARD on the analysis of bone broth and meat broth.

M. Thouret, director of the School of Medicine and one of the administrators of the hospitals of Paris, had been struck by the difference which one notices in the odor, the flavor, and the color of the broths of bones and meat which M. Cadet-de-Vaux regards as entirely similar. It was with the design of seeking the cause of this difference that M. Thénard submitted these two broths to chemical analysis. His research led him to find in meat broth a material which does not exist in bone broth, a material unknown until now, playing a remarkable role in the broth, giving it its own flavor, its smell, the making it both more palatable and easier to digest. M. Thénard calls this substance osmazôme.

Modern food science tells us that osmazome as observed by Thénard was not so much a nutritious substance in and of itself but instead a concentrate of umami flavor compounds. But in its time, osmazome was considered to be the crucial substance that imbued bouillon with its miraculous nutritive powers. Consider this paean by Jean-Anthèlme Brillat-Savarin in Physiologie du goût  in 1825, as translated by M.F.K. Fisher:

The greatest service chemistry has rendered to alimentary science is the discovery of osmazome, or rather the determination of what it was. Osmazome is the purely sapid portion of flesh soluble in cold water, and separated from the extractive portion which is only soluble in boiling water. Osmazome is the most meritorious ingredient of all good soups… To make use of this substance, though yet unknown, was introduced the maxim that to make good bouillon the kettle should only sourire [smile, or simmer gently].

But I digress. Back to the meat — er, stock — of this post.

An interview with Jules GoufféThe process of removing undesirable elements from the stock is called clarification. While many cookbooks explain how to do this, few explain why it is necessary. One exception, of course, is J. Kenji Lopez-Alt, whose The Food Lab is one of my favorite cooking reference books. According to Kenji,

In a traditional French stock, clarity is valued above all else — it’s fat and dissolved minerals and proteins (which we’ll collectively call by their scientific name, “gunk”) that make broth cloudy. If you keep a stock at a bare simmer, the fat rises to the surface in distinct bubbles that can be carefully skimmed off as it cooks, and the proteins coagulate into relatively large agglomerations that can be strained out. But let your stock simmer vigorously, or–mon dieu, non!–actually come to a boil, and that gunk gets dispersed into millions of tiny droplets that simply can’t be completely removed from the broth.

Kenji does not dispute the value of clarification, but rather the timing of the act:

If you’ve worked at a restaurant, you’ve probably been taught to be hyperaware of what your stock is doing at all times, carefully skimming any scum or fat that rises to the surface at regular intervals to keep the broth as clear as possible.

In my imagination, Carême, Brillat-Savarin, and Escoffier are making various French noises of approval.

But again, that’s a restaurant technique, for restaurant cuisine.

Agitated disapproval from Carême, Brillat-Savarin, and Escoffier.

When I make stock at home, I don’t bother skimming it until it’s finished. I strain the stock through a fine-mesh strainer into a fresh pot and let it rest for about 15 minutes, long enough to allow most of the fat and scum to rise to the surface so it can be easily ladled off.

I offer reassurances to the protectors of the integrity of French cuisine: Kenji is not arguing against clarification. Rather, he is suggesting a process that is likely easier for the solo home cook to follow. The requirement to skim remains integral to the recipe but can be postponed to the very end of cooking.

But one has options when it comes to the skimming utensil. Kenji mentions the use of a ladle; other modern-era cookbook authors suggest a slotted spoon. But I humbly suggest that these are somewhat less perfectly suited to task than the écumoire, whose broad flat surface would sacrifice less stock than the deeper bowl of a ladle or spoon. If you make stock on a regular basis, you might consider investing in a proper écumoire for this purpose.

But perhaps it need not be quite so large as this one. The écumoire measures 45 cm (17.7 inches) from hanging loop to the neck, and the basin adds an additional 15 cm (5.9 inches). That’s a 40cm diameter stockpot below, almost 16 inches tall, and I think it’s about the right scale for an écumoire of this size.

This is an antique era piece, stamped for Jules Gaillard. I believe this stamp corresponds to 1914 or so to the early 1920s. (The green-gray color is verdigris — I don’t believe the handle of this piece was ever tinned. And yes, I will be very careful to clean away the verdigris first if I ever intend to use this piece for cooking!)

Curiously, I cannot find an item in Gaillard’s catalogs for 1914 or 1956, nor in Jacquotot’s catalog of 1925 (which would be roughly contemporaneous with this piece). In those catalogs, the basin of the perforated écumoires are round in shape, not rectangular like this one; the long-handled rectangular spatule is not perforated. Perhaps this was a special-order item, which may explain why it appears to be completely hand-made. Let’s take a look.

I believe the piece is made from a single sheet of metal. The handle shaft has striated lines that look to me to be the marks of folding.

The neck shows marks of the transition between the shallow basin and the folded shaft.

The irregular pattern of holes looks hand-punched to me.

The basin is almost perfectly flat.

The hanging hook at the end of the shaft is a simple curl.

In addition to the Gaillard maker’s mark on the top surface, the handle shaft also has the number 5 stamped on the underside near the hanging hook. I measured the thickness of the handle shaft at 5.4 millimeters, so this must be some other size gauge or reference number.

This is a beautifully made piece. I imagine that it was not a particularly difficult item to shape; the basin end would be flattened out, trimmed, and shaped against a form, while the handle shaft is a straight shape with sharp edges. The only tricky part to me would be the neck — the transition from the basin to the shaft — where the metal needs to flex a bit to set the angle.

In general I am inclined to respect the existence of French cooking tools (especially if they are as beautiful as this one) as the product of necessity in a professional kitchen, but there are examples of hyper-specialization that are no longer relevant today. My question for the stock-makers among this site’s readership: Have you had the opportunity to compare the performance of a flat écumoire like this one against a ladle or spoon? If so, what are your observations? Even if you have not had the opportunity to try one, do you imagine that its shape would be an advantage?

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  1. The historical derivation of this skimmer is fascinating. Thank you. I was aware of the purpose and use of this important accessory, but not the historical sources and detailed scientific basis. However, the opening passage of Harold McGee’s recipe arouses my objection. For a broth, the meat should not be blanched or browned beforehand. By both measures, as far as I know, the desired effect of extracting the flavor and the bitter substances is at least impeded.
    For the preparation of a broth, but also for some other dishes that require skimming of bitter substances, I have been using a modern version made of stainless steel for many years. This, however, is round and has a slight curvature. Diameter of the scoop 11 cm overall, diameter of the hole area only 7 cm, handle length 25 cm. I could well imagine that a flat skimmer has advantages in the intended use, because on the flat surface the foam with its particles could adhere better. The modern version is more of a multi-purpose device that is suitable for skimming a myriad of things, while an Écumoire is a specialist. The post made me curious, so I’ll be on the lookout for an flat Écumoire.

    1. After doing some research and thinking, I wonder if modern variants made of fine mesh in the form of a flat screen would be even better for skimming. On occasion I will try this with one of my sieves.

  2. An Ecumoire has a great use in Jam making too! Whereas most folk will use a chilled saucer to push jam – if it wrinkles it’s done – the French jam makers use an Ecumoire. When your jam has been bubbling away for a period of time, you drag your Ecumoire through the surface of your ‘confiture’, should the jam fall out of the holes when held up, the jam is too thin or runny (if you want it that way then fine!). When the holes remain for the most part full of jam, then the consistency is perfect. I would imagine that certain sauces or ‘sirops’ could be tested this way too. There are quite a few Ecumoire shapes to be had, flat, curved rectangular and round – I will see what I have in my archive! Great article as usual VFC!

  3. Use for jams/jellies and brown sauce. Brown sauce has a peculiar scum that collects and cools on the top of the pot that gets picked off as a sheet.

    When making brown sauce one sits the edge of the pot on the heat source, such that one side is cooler than the other and this scum collects on the top cooler side for skimming; it will rise on the hot side, move up to the surface and collect on the cool side. This skimmer thing should make easy work of picking it off.

    Yes, one test for jams/jellies is lifting this out and watching to see if the jam/jelly pulls together. Being practical it has a long handle to keep hands away from the steam and can easily strain the fruit out of a jam.

    The fruit in a jam is cooked to desired size and then removed and the liquid rapidly cooked to 220⁰F after which the fruit solids are added back and and the jam cooked until boiling is visable and steam volume declines. Jam making, although easy, truly takes experience.

    I just made, plum, strawberry, peach and apricot jams for summer. This would be fantastic for straining out fruits. It’s on my list of things to buy. Not absolutely essential, but a tool that makes the work easier, like a butter pot. As always thank you for the articles.

  4. Hello VFC,
    I am in the process of buying an écumoire myself. I would be grateful if you could tell me the weight of your écumoire so that I can better assess the offers. Thank you very much!
    Greetings, Gerhard

    1. Gerhard, I can offer some additional information on the Jacquotot ecumoire I purchased:

      Handle length: 33 cm
      Basin length: 12 cm
      Basin width: 8.5 cm
      Weight: 400 grams

  5. On my unbranded brass product, the flat shovel is attached to the handle with two rivets.
    Total length 42 cm
    Shovel length 13 cm
    Shovel width 8.5 cm
    Weight 318 g

  6. Hello Martin,
    I got a set of the usual kitchen utensils as an extra with my first purchase of French copper. The items consist, exactly as you describe, of a copper head with a riveted brass handle. I occasionally look for solid copper utensils and recently came across a wonderful ladle by – watch out! – Briffault. The stamp was not mentioned in the text, it was only recognizable by chance in a photo. Unfortunately, it turned out that the seller had already sold the ladle in May and had forgotten to delete the ad. What a pity, it would have fitted in well with VFC’s eagerly awaited part 2 of his story about Monet’s kitchen.
    In any case, this – and not least VFC’s report on the écumoire – gave me the idea that solid copper would also be interesting to collect. Hence my question about the weight.

    1. Wow, Gerhard, what a treasure your eagle eyes had discovered! And what a painful disappointment afterwards after the ladle had already been sold. I also keep checking the photos to see if I can spot a stamp not mentioned in an offer. Even if the chances are as low as panning for gold, a single find can make up for a long time of wasted effort. Your previous finds can certainly give you hope for further luck.

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