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.
Henri-Paul Pellaprat, co-founder of Le Cordon Bleu cooking school in Paris, writes:
“The best definition of poaching is slow boiling at simmering point; the liquid must not be allowed to boil up and should remain at a constant temperature of 200 F (93 C). The effects of poaching on food are almost identical with those of boiling. Poaching is used for large fish, large birds, ham, and so on, and also for a small fish and fillets of fish and small pieces of meat and poultry. Large fish such as a salmon, and turbot are placed in a fish kettle of appropriate size in cold water or seasoned stock, brought slowly to the boil and then poached till cooked. Small fish, fillets of fish, chicken breasts, etc., are placed in a shallow, buttered dish and seasoned. A little liquid (wine or stock) is added; they are covered with buttered paper and cooked in the oven until done.” Pellaprat, H.P. Modern French Culinary Art. London: Virtue & Company Ltd. 1969. Page 85.
Poaching is gentle heat
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.
What foods is poaching good for?
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 unobtrusive, so that sauces could be showcased.
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.
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.
Food 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 greaseproof paper, the term for which is “cartouche.”
Food 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.
When 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.
Chicken 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.
See entry on Poached Eggs.
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.
|↑1||Pellaprat, H.P. Modern French Culinary Art. London: Virtue & Company Ltd. 1969. Page 85.|