When the working-liquid is water and the bain-marie is used at sea level, the maximum temperature of the material in the lower container will not exceed 100 degrees Celsius (the boiling point of water at sea level). Using different working-liquids (oils, salt solutions, etc.) in the lower container will result in different maximum temperatures.
A contemporary alternative to the traditional, liquid-filled bain-marie is the electric "dry-heat" bain-marie, heated by element below both pots. The dry-heat form of electric bains-marie often consumes less energy, requires little cleaning, and can be heated more quickly than traditional versions. They can also operate at higher temperatures, and are often much less expensive than their traditional counterparts.
Electric bains-marie can also be wet, using either hot water or vapor, or steam, in the heating process. The open, bath-type bain-marie heats via a small, hot-water tub (or "bath"), and the vapour-type bain-marie heats with scalding-hot steam.
Unless you own a very thick bottom pan, and have a hob on which temperature can be put on very low, Chocolate needs to be melted in a bain-marie to avoid splitting and caking onto the pot.
Cheesecake is often baked in a bain-marie to prevent the top from cracking in the center.
Custard may be cooked in a bain-marie to keep a crust from forming on the outside of the custard before the interior is fully cooked.
Classic warm sauces, such as Hollandaise and beurre blanc, requiring heat to emulsify the mixture but not enough to curdle or "split" the sauce, are often cooked using a bain-marie.
Some charcuterie such as terrines and pâtés are cooked in an "oven-type" bain-marie.
Thickening of condensed milk, such as in confection-making, is done easily in a bain-marie.
Controlled-temperature bains-marie can be used to heat frozen breast milk before feedings.
Bains-marie can be used in place of chafing dishes for keeping foods warm for long periods of time, where stovetops or hot plates are inconvenient or too powerful.
Bains-marie were originally developed for use in the practice of alchemy, when alchemists needed a way to heat materials slowly and gently.In that early form of chemical science, it was believed by many that the best way to heat certain materials was to mimic the supposed natural processes, occurring in the Earth's core, by which precious metals were germinated.
According to culinary writer Giuliano Bugialli, the term comes from the Italian bagno maria, named after Maria de'Cleofa, who developed the technique in Florence in the sixteenth century.
Alternatively, the device's invention has been popularly attributed to Mary the Jewess, an ancient alchemist traditionally supposed to have been Miriam, a sister of Moses.The name comes from the medieval-Latin term balneum (or balineum) Mariae—literally, Mary's bath—from which the French bain de Marie, or bain-marie, is derived.
According to The Jewish Alchemists, Maria the Jewess was an ancient alchemist who lived in Alexandria—although this would seem to contradict the tradition that she was Moses' sister: Alexandria was founded by Alexander the Great in 334 BC, while Moses is thought to have lived around 1200-1450 BC.