Poaching is an almost effortless cooking technique, as well suited to a casual breakfast as to a formal dinner, for a main course or a dessert. When foods are poached—gently cooked in a liquid whose surface barely ripples—they become tender, moist and flavorful, with their shape intact. It's a simple cooking method that gives foods a particularly delicate flavor. And as a bonus, the poaching liquid takes on the food's flavor and can be used to prepare an accompanying sauce.
There's no need to be intimidated by this classic technique. There's no better start for a Cobb salad than juicy poached chicken breasts, or for Mexican dishes than poached beef or pork shredded into meltingly tender strips and tossed with lively spices. With a little experience, it's easy to make eggs Benedict, fruit-stuffed pork tenderloins or the elegant French meringue-custard dessert known as Floating Islands.
The terms poaching and simmering are often used interchangeably, but technically poaching means cooking food at a slightly lower temperature (160° to 180°F) than a simmer (185°F). The liquid should barely shimmer, although a few small bubbles may break the surface. Use the heat setting suggested in your recipe—usually low to medium-low—and make adjustments as needed to maintain a not-quite simmer.
The Proper Pan
Using a pan of the correct shape and volume for the food you're poaching is essential. Select a covered pan proportioned to completely immerse the food in liquid. Any pan with medium to high sides—from a deep fry pan to a sauté pan to a stockpot—will do for general poaching.
With its narrow shape straddling two burners, the fish poacher is specifically designed for cooking a whole fish—and equally useful for fillets, shellfish and chicken breasts. Most are equipped with a perforated removable rack that allows the cooking liquid to circulate and ensures that foods can be lifted out intact. With an egg poacher—a small sauté pan with removable perforated cups—eggs cook gently and maintain their round shape.
The poaching liquid can be as simple as tap water, or it can be a seasoned, savory or sweet mixture that infuses food with flavor. Because the liquid absorbs flavor from the food, many recipes call for reserving the broth as the basis for a sauce that complements the food cooked in it. A common poaching liquid for savory foods is court bouillon, a light stock that is quickly prepared. Poaching chicken in chicken stock or fish in fish stock is also common. Pears and other fruits may be poached in wine or a flavored simple syrup. Eggs and vegetables are usually poached in salted water.
Tips for Success
- Use a pan not much larger than the food to be poached. One that is too large requires more liquid than is ideal and will dilute the flavor.
- Cover the pan to prevent excess evaporation.
- If you are not using a rack to poach a whole fish, first wrap the fish in cheesecloth that extends beyond its ends. Use the excess cloth to lift and lower the fish to ensure that it remains intact.
- For eggs poached in a regular saucepan, add a small amount of vinegar to the poaching liquid to help maintain their shape.
- Add quick-cooking foods like eggs or smaller cuts of meat to the poaching liquid only after it has reached the almost-simmering stage.
- Add larger foods, such as a whole chicken, to cold water that is brought just to a boil and then reduced to poaching temperature. This prevents overcooking and allows larger foods to heat gently and remain tender.
- Clock cooking time from the moment the liquid reaches the poaching stage.
- To avoid overcooking smaller pieces, remove them from the pan as soon as they are ready. Larger pieces may be left to cool in the liquid, if desired.
- Follow the cooking time and guide to doneness specified in your recipe. As a rule, eggs poach in 2 to 4 minutes; meringues, in 2 to 3 minutes per side; salmon steaks, in 4 to 6 minutes; pears, in about 25 minutes; and chicken breasts, in 30 minutes.