How to Poach Foods
This post is about how to poach foods by looking at common poaching mistakes many home cooks make and how to avoid them.
I'm sure everyone has heard the joke about the person who was such a lousy cook that they couldn't boil water. Of course, the subtext is that boiling water takes absolutely no skill. But the joke is on them.
There is more to boiling than meets the eye, and relatively few foods benefit from being boiled. What’s more, as with most cooking methods, there are some mistakes that many cooks make when it comes to cooking foods in liquid.
Let's look at cooking methods involving submerging foods in liquid: poaching, simmering, and boiling. The main difference among these three methods is the temperature of the liquid used, but another key difference is the kinds of foods best suited to each method.
Master the techniques and learn to avoid the mistakes; you'll never be the butt of the boiling water joke again.
Poaching is a moist cooking method best suited to delicate foods like eggs and fruit. It is also an excellent choice for cooking lean proteins, such as non-fatty fish and chicken breasts.
Moist cooking methods do not brown foods, so to add extra flavor, there is every reason to use a flavorful broth, stock, juice, or even milk as your poaching liquid.
Many wonder, "Why poach if the food is just going to look pale and unattractive since it doesn't brown?"
In the case of lean proteins, such as fish and chicken, the food is served with a sauce that serves to "camouflage" the pale meat.
Poaching is also an excellent way to prepare lean meats for further processing, like chicken or fish salads. In most salads, moist, soft chicken is much more pleasing in texture than seared meats.
The classic temperature range for poaching is between 160F-180F (71C-82C). This is well below the boiling point of water (212F/100C). So rather than use a thermometer to test the poaching liquid, it's best to know what signs to look for.
Small bubbles will be on the bottom of the pan, but they won't rise to the surface.
The liquid will have just started to steam.
Looking closely, you will see that the cooking liquid is "moving." As the liquid is heated at the bottom of the pan, it rises to the surface, where it cools and falls to the bottom, where it heats and then rises. This type of current is called a convective current, and you can see this, especially if you add spices or chopped herbs to your cooking liquid.
You might see bubbles forming around the edges of the pan. This lets you know that you are at the upper end of the poaching range and that you'll want to adjust the heat.
Poaching involves slowly and gently cooking food submersed in a flavorful liquid and removing it when it reaches a target temperature. It sounds pretty straightforward, but let's take the time to consider some pitfalls of the method.
Mistake #1 My Food Is Dry!
It might sound counter-intuitive that food cooked in a liquid could end up dry, but it happens. Here's how to avoid it.
The Fix -- Mind Your Temperature
Make sure that your cooking liquid is at the correct temperature. You do not want to see any bubbling at all.
It's hard to resist the urge to raise the temperature so that the cooking liquid is bubbling because we are programmed to think that the hotter is better. Unfortunately, the lean proteins that most benefits from poaching are the same ones that can quickly dry out.
If your cooking liquid is too high a temperature, the lean proteins will shrink up, squeezing all the moisture out of the meat. Poaching is not a cooking method you can walk away from without checking in.
Adjust the heat as necessary and frequently check the temperature of the food with an instant-read thermometer to ensure you do not overcook your food.
To better guard against drying out, you can poach your liquid at the target temperature. For example, if your fish will be done at 140F, there is no reason why you can't keep your liquid at 140F, too.
Poaching at this lower temperature might take a little longer, but it guarantees your food doesn't overcook and dry out.
Mistake #2 - My Eggs Fell Apart!
I'm sure you've all seen lovely poached eggs at swanky brunches. Not the kind that you "poach" in little round cups, either, but the kind that is poached, free-form, directly in the cooking liquid.
I put quotation marks around poached to emphasize that unless the food is submerged in liquid, it is not technically poached but coddled or steam poached.
I, for one, know that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. I could poach eggs just by dropping them into boiling water. I ended up with hard-cooked egg yolks and ribbons of cooked egg white. Not at all what I had in mind, and certainly not attractive for my Eggs Benedict!
The Fix -- Slow and Steady Wins the Race. ( Plus a little acid!)
- Please remember that poaching liquid should not be bubbling. The agitation caused by boiling, or even simmering, water will shred a raw egg white, leaving you with nothing but yolk. And egg on your face. Here is an almost foolproof way of poaching an egg: Make sure your poaching liquid is at least 2 ½ inches deep.
- Keep the water at around 170F (77C).
- Add a tablespoon or so of vinegar or lemon juice to the water. Adding this little bit of acid lowers the pH of the water and causes the proteins to denature or cook more quickly, thus minimizing the risk of fly-away whites.
- Crack your egg into a small cup or a ramekin.
- Stir the water in the pan to create a whirlpool in the center.
- Immerse the cup holding the egg about halfway into the water, then tip it so that it gently slides out into the center of the pan. Having the water moving around a fixed point will encourage any egg white that tries to stream away from the egg to wrap itself around it. You end up with a very nicely shaped, evenly poached egg.
- Let the egg cook to your preferred doneness--about four to seven minutes.
- Remove the egg(s) from the water with a slotted spoon, and serve immediately.
- Suppose you want to poach many eggs to serve a crowd; undercook each egg for about 1-1 ½ minutes, then remove to a large bowl of ice water to stop the cooking process. Then, reheat all the eggs before serving for 1-1 ½ minutes.
Mistake #3 Wow, That's Bland!
One of the main reasons to poach food is to keep it soft and moist. The last thing you want, or could get at these low temperatures, is a nice sear.
Unfortunately, the Maillard reactions during the browning process produce dozens, if not hundreds, of flavor compounds. So if you poach in water, you are missing out on being able to introduce a lot of flavor into the food you're poaching.
The Fix -- Nix the Water
Here are some flavorful alternative poaching liquids. Consider the food to be poached, and choose a liquid, or a combination of liquids, that will complement the dish.
- vegetable, chicken, beef, or fish stock
- court bouillon, which is a light broth that also contains some white wine
- red or white wine
- fruit juices
And there is no need for you to stop there. Make sure that your liquid is adequately seasoned with salt and pepper, as well as any fresh or dried herbs, spices, and other flavor enhancers, including, but by no means limited to:
- lemon juice or other citrus juice
- citrus zest
- star anise
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