Poaching is a Moist Heat Cooking Method
Have you ever poached an egg to make Eggs Benedict? Poached pears in wine for dessert? Or delicately cooked a fish covered with water, stock or wine (poaching liquids) in a covered pan to preserve the moistness of the meat? These are examples of poaching you are probably familiar with.
It is the method accomplished with the least amount of heat, and, therefore is a gradual, gentle cooking process. Poaching is best for very delicate foods, such as eggs, fish, white meat chicken and fruit. It is a very healthy cooking method, because liquid—not fat—carries the heat into the food.
Poaching is ideally done at temperatures between 160°F and 180°F, or well below a simmer. The best way to tell if a poaching liquid is at the correct temperature is with an instant read thermometer. Short of that, look at the liquid in the pan. There should be a slight convective current in the liquid, as the warmer liquid rises to the surface. The liquid should be gently moving, but it should not be bubbling at all.
Poaching is Patience
Poaching takes patience. Poaching allows the proteins in foods to uncoil, or denature, slowly, without squeezing out moisture. If you were to drop a delicate chicken breast into boiling water, the proteins would seize up so quickly that all the moisture would be squeezed out, and you would end up with a small piece of dry rubber!
You can poach in water, milk or a flavorful broth. The broth used in poaching is called a court bouillon. It consists of the poaching liquid itself (often broth or stock) an acid (wine, lemon juice, or vinegar), a bouquet garni (a small bundle of aromatics tied up in cheesecloth, or just tied together with kitchen string (bay leaf, parsley, peppercorns, garlic, thyme, etc) and mirepoix (onion, celery and carrot. Traditional proportions for a white mirepoix is two parts onion to one part each celery and carrot).
For dessert preparations, fruit is often poached in sweet wine and water with some spices (star anise, clove, cinnamon, etc). Eggs are generally poached in water with a bit of vinegar. The acid in the poaching liquid helps to speed up the protein coagulation on the outside of the food. This helps hold delicate foods together during the poaching process (think eggs).
So, how do you poach? What equipment do you need? Read on.
To poach a chicken breast, bring 2 inches of poaching liquid to just below a simmer. You’ll know when you get there when there are lots of little bubbles all over the bottom of the pan, but no bubbles have started to rise to the top.
Place the chicken breast into the liquid. Keep an eye on the heat. If it starts bubbling, turn it down. If you don’t see any convective currents, turn the heat up a little. Don’t worry if the chicken breast isn’t completely submerged. You can use some tongs to turn it over.
Continue poaching until the internal temperature of the chicken breast has reached 160 degrees, F. There are many books that talk to you about pushing on the chicken or even cutting into it to see if it’s done. The most accurate method, though, is using an accurate instant read thermometer.
Take the piece of chicken out of the poaching liquid. It will be very pale in color. In a moist heat environment and at such low temperatures, there is no browning. You will also lose the deep flavor that some browning imparts. What you lose in flavor though is made up for in moisture.
Poaching is a wonderful way to keep delicate foods moist and plump. It is a great way to cook foods that will be cooked again, or will be further processed. For instance, you can shred up your poached chicken and make chicken enchiladas that will then be baked. You can dice up the chicken for a moist chicken salad.
As you can see from the above procedure, no special equipment is needed for poaching. I often use my sauté pan or even just a sauce pan. As long as your pan can hold two or three inches of liquid, you are good to go. They do sell a special pan for poaching whole fish and I'm sure you can poach just about anything in it that fits.
I have one in my cupboard but it rarely gets used. I guess I'm not poaching enough seafood but when I do, the whole house smells of fish!
How to Poach an Egg
Many a home cook, including me, has been frustrated by the seemingly simple and straightforward task of poaching an egg. Hopefully, you have already seen your mistake. Most egg poaching disasters can be averted by keeping the water below a simmer.
- Bring 3 inches of water and a splash of vinegar to about 170 degrees, F. Look carefully at the bottom of the pan. There should be small bubbles all over it, but they should not be rising to the top and breaking.
- Crack an egg into a small cup.
- Lower the egg—cup and all—into the water in the center of the pan. Tip the cup to let the egg slide out gently.
- If any errant strings of white try to swirl away from the egg, gently push them back with a heat-resistant spatula or a spoon.
- Let the egg gently poach for about 4-5 minutes, depending on how done you like your eggs. “Jiggle” the egg with your spoon. The white should be fairly firm, but the yolk should still shimmy. Remove the egg with a slotted spoon, and let it drain on some paper towels.
- Serve on buttered toast, or get fancy and make Eggs Benedict. A lovely way to serve a poached egg at dinner is to make a salad with a fairly acidic dressing. Perch the warm poached egg atop the salad and break the yolk. The rich yolk will blend with and become part of the dressing. Wonderful!
Poaching Larger Pieces of Meat
You can poach large pieces of meat, such as whole fish or chickens, although I think there are other cooking methods that are better for larger cuts. And, since there is no browning, a whole poached chicken would not have much eye appeal.
I learned this trick from Good Eats: one of the best ways to poach larger food is in a thermostatically controlled electric skillet. You can bring the poaching liquid up to a specified temperature and ensure that it stays there until the food is cooked. This way, there is no chance for over-cooking—the food will never get hotter than the temperature set on the thermostat.
A Note on Egg Poachers
There are some appliances and contraptions out on the market that say that they are egg poachers. They are not. To poach, the food must be submerged in a liquid. These gadgets all have you place an egg in a cup, so the egg is not directly in the liquid. Rather, it is cooked in a water bath, like a custard. While these gadgets do cook the eggs, they do not poach them.