Poaching is cooking in a gently-heated liquid. The liquid protects what you are cooking from being exposed to high heat. Most people think immediately of Poaching eggs in water, but the process was actually perfected by the French to cook fish or poultry.
The liquid can be water, stock or wine. Some people say that Poaching in a flavourful stock adds flavour to the item; other people would counter that the flavourful stock replaces flavour that is leeched out, and they're both right. Poaching does leach flavour out of what you are cooking, so oftentimes a flavourful liquid is preferred to water is put some flavour back in.
Poaching is not boiling -- boiling is a more aggressive way of cooking. The liquid should be at a very low simmer, just high enough for bubbles to barely break through the surface. The French word for this is "Frissonne", meaning that the liquid should be just hot enough to make the surface of it shiver. Never let it boil, even a low boil, as that can make some food such as fish or fruit fall apart, and can toughen other food such as chicken or beef. The liquid should almost cover the food.
After Poaching, the liquid is often reduced and used as the basis for a sauce. If you aren't planning to use the liquid for a sauce later, then you don't need to go all out making an extremely elaborate stock -- just water with a few veg and bay leaves tossed in will do it. When Poaching fruit, usually a sweetened liquid is used, either a sugar syrup or wine with sugar added.
Poaching is a useful way of cooking delicate items such as fish, seafood or fruit. The food doesn't get tossed about a lot, so there is a greater chance of its staying intact for good presentation. That being said, because Poached food won't have the visual interest of food cooked in other ways, such as frying, it is usually served garnished as well. If you wish, you can brown fish or chicken first, and then Poach it, just as you would a pot roast, in order to make it look more appealing.
Some people say Poaching gives a delicate flavour, others say Poached food is just plain bland, and they're both right. Poached eggs for breakfast are one thing, but poached fish and poached chicken are meant to have sauces to go with them. Without the sauces, they are bland. Poaching was developed as a technique for cooking fish and chicken precisely in order to keep their flavour relatively inobtrusive, so that sauces could be showcased.
Pot roast, if you think about it, should actually be called "Poached Beef", because that's what it is.
Shallow PoachingFood is just two-thirds covered with liquid, then the pot covered. The Poaching is often started on top the stove, then transferred into the oven. As there is less liquid, the flavour in the liquid will be more concentrated, so the liquid is good for making sauces from. Often in addition to the pot being covered, the item being Poached is also covered with a piece of grease proof paper, the term for which is "cartouche."
Deep PoachingFood is totally covered with liquid. Use only enough liquid to cover the item completely, there is no need for nor any benefit from any more than that. The Poaching is done completely on the stove-top in a pot that may or may not be covered. Generally, because there is so much liquid, and the flavour quite diffused in it, the liquid is not usually used for sauces. If you poached fish or chicken, though, you may wish to freeze this poaching water as Stock.
Poaching FishWhen Poaching fish, start with your Poaching liquid cold. Place the fish in, and then heat it all together. Otherwise the outside of the fish will end up overcooked, and the skin will split on you, ruining the appearance. When started in cold water, the fish as a whole has a better chance of staying all together. To further a fish's chances of staying together during Poaching, you can wrap it in cheesecloth or a clean tea towel that you don't mind cooking with. This also gives you something to lift the fish out with, so that it doesn't fall apart on you while doing so. Don't rush out and buy a fish kettle until you know for sure that Poaching whole fish is something you are going to do all the time. You can just use a roasting pan instead.
Poached fish certainly is not as interesting on its own as fried, roasted or grilled fish. The taste is all in the sauce that goes with it. You pretty much have to serve Poached fish with a sauce to give it some interest. Even if you don't use your Poaching liquid there and then for a sauce, it will be a great fish stock for something else in the future: freeze it (label it too, of course.)
Leaner fish are better for Poaching than more oiler fish: oilier fish will fall apart almost no matter what you do.
Poaching ChickenChicken pieces such as breasts are usually skinned before Poaching. To help a whole chicken stay together, you can bind the legs and wings up with string. Skim the liquid during Poaching to remove fat and bits floating about.
Poaching EggsIn Poaching eggs, the debate rages over whether to use a special egg Poaching pan or not. Purists say that a special Poaching pan is not necessary, and that it gives the eggs a cafeteria look and shape. They add that free-style Poached eggs have more character. Small wonder that some people now have just taken to buying their eggs already poached. You just warm them in their vacuum packs (they normally come in packs of 8 for about £4.00 / $8.00 US, 2005 prices), and serve.
If you Poach eggs in a regular pot with only a few inches of water, you will get flat Poached eggs that spread out, kind of like the shape of fried eggs. If you use a deep pot with a lot of water in it, you will get rounder ones, as the egg white has time to coagulate around the yolk on its way down to the bottom of the pot.
Julia Child recommended pre-boiling whole eggs in simmering water for just 15 and 20 seconds, then cracking them and proceeding them as normal. A small bit of the egg white will start to cook and go a tad white, and this helps the eggs to stay together better in the water. If you can get really fresh eggs, as in eggs just rushed in from the backyard, you have very little worries about Poaching free-style: the white will hardly spread out at all, you shouldn't even need the vinegar in the water mentioned below.
Anthony Bourdain in "A Cook's Tour" mentions a method that involves cracking the egg into a piece of plastic wrap, tying it up, and then Poaching the egg like that - you'd want to make sure that you had plastic wrap that was safe to cook in.
To Poach eggs directly in water, have a slotted spoon handy. Place a couple inches of water in your pan and 1 tbsp of white vinegar or 1 tbsp of lemon juice (even bottled will do fine.) The acid of the vinegar or lemon helps the egg white from spreading out. Don't add salt, as that will just work to negate the effect of the acid. Don't do this in an aluminium pot, or your eggs may taste funny.
Bring the water to a low boil over medium-high heat. Getting exactly the right simmer is important -- if the water's not hot enough, the egg will spread out before it sets. If the water is lapping away at a rollicking great boil, it will toughen the egg and send strands of the egg white off to all corners of the pot, making "tentacles."
Crack the egg into a small bowl, such as a fruit nappy. Stir the water to make a whirlpool, then stop stirring, and slide the egg into the centre of the whirlpool. Use your slotted spoon to nudge the egg together.
Cook 2 minutes for a runny yolk, 3 minutes for a medium-firm yolk, 4 minutes for firm. In fact, food safety experts are now saying 5 minutes, but for a lot of people that certainly is going to be very safe, as that egg will be so rubbery that they won't eat it anyway, and you can't get much safer than that.
Remove the egg with a slotted spoon and place on a piece of paper towel to drain the water off. Never put straight onto the plate you are going to eat off of, or the rest of your meal will get water-logged. Serve immediately.
To do more than one at a time, you can slide one egg at a time into the water just after the previous egg has started turning white. It can get tricky, though, keeping track of which egg has been in how long.
The most effective way to cook a lot of Poached eggs for a crowd is how they do it in restaurants. Purists poo-poo this method, but there's just no way around it, dahlinks. Poach all eggs in advance to 1 minute. Remove from hot water, plunge into cold water and let sit there till needed. Then heat all the eggs up at once in hot water for 1 minute.
Many people, however, just don't like these free-style Poached eggs. The problem with Poaching right in water is that the eggs always turn out quite drippy, and create puddles of water on your plate, even after draining. And most people end up with egg drop water soup and wasting perfectly good eggs. So if you're a purist, just stop and think before you judge someone for using an insert: not everyone can be good at all things, and some people may just never get the knack of making the right whirlpool. Being told that to "use the free-style method or don't bother" is what keeps people from Poaching eggs entirely, which is too bad. Isn't it better that they should use an Egg Poacher pan, rather than not have Poached eggs at all, or waste good food in trying to do it your way?
An egg Poaching pan is a double-boiler. The water goes in the bottom, then a top level goes on which holds rounded bottom cups into which you break the eggs. You can buy special sets that are electric or stovetop. Many cooking pot sets come with a free Poaching insert that fits on one of the pots. You can also buy the inserts that will fit onto most pots and frying pans. The eggs never actually touch the water. Because of this, it's a bit of a misnomer to call them Poached, they're actually steamed, but never mind.
You may still want to put a bit of vinegar in the water -- not because it helps the eggs in the insert above one bit, but because a teaspoon of vinegar in the water in any sort of double-boiler can help prevent the water discolouring the pot.
Cook for the same times as you would for Poached eggs put in water: 2 minutes for a runny yolk, 3 minutes for a medium-firm yolk, 4 minutes for firm.
Using an Egg Poacher is a far easier way to make Poached eggs for a gang than trying to make them free-style, especially if you're also juggling cooking the bacon and making toast at the same time, and people are asking you if there's any more coffee.
Microwave Egg Poaching
Fill small glass or plastic microwave proof fruit nappies, custard dishes or smallish coffee mugs half full with water. Zap until the water in them boils. Remove from microwave, crack an egg into each bowl. Return to microwave, zap for 1 minute. Take 1 out, test, and return to zap at 15 or 30 second intervals (depending on your microwave) until done.
However you are Poaching and whatever you are Poaching, use a pot just big enough to hold the item being Poached, so that you aren't heating unnecessary liquid, and so that you don't have more liquid than you need, diluting the flavour, especially if you are going to make a sauce from it.
If you are doing your Poaching in an electric skillet, and Poaching something such as fish or chicken, set the temperature to be the exact temperature that you need for the item to be to be fully cooked (at a minimum, the safe temperature for what you are cooking). Even though excess heat above the boiling point would of course be passed off through evaporation, you're not going to be Poaching anything that high, anyway. For instance, given that the minimum safe temperature for fish is generally given around 155 F (68 C), you're going to want to set the temperature at that at a minimum.
Recipes usually call for pears to be Poached in red wine, but white wine can often be better, as red wine can be a tad too gutsy for pears.
Sauces aside, Poaching is a low fat way of cooking.
Wealthy Romans would often serve eggs poached in red wine as a starter course.
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Oeufs Pochés (French); Escalfar (Spanish); Escaldar (Portuguese)