While poaching food may seem less exciting than the high heat and fast moves of grilling or stir frying, don’t miss this slow-and-steady cooking method for tender and flavorful foods packed with moisture. Let’s learn the basics so you can introduce this technique to your home cooking toolkit.
Ever try a rubbery egg that feels like chewing a hockey puck? Do you enjoy bites of dry chicken breast that get stuck in your throat? These undesirable textures are easily solved by poaching food, which is the gentlest way to cook low-fat, delicate proteins.
While it takes some practice, it’s worth the patience to learn this technique. You never know when the lucky moment will arrive that you get the chance to cook expensive, high-quality fish or shellfish. Besides who doesn’t love a well-executed poached egg. Eggs Benedict anyone?
And it only takes a little knowledge to develop a trusty poaching technique that brings flavor and moisture to your favorite tender foods. Let’s dive in.
What is poaching?
Poaching is a “moist-heat” cooking method. It uses low temperatures to slowly cook fragile food (especially proteins like fish and chicken) in a poaching liquid.
When you apply heat to foods, the protein molecules in the food uncoil. This is called denaturation. The lower the heat the better when cooking delicate fish and chicken breasts. That’s why poaching works: it slowly denatures the proteins. This is critical for keeping the food’s moisture locked in and for preserving the food’s structure and texture.
Shallow vs. deep poaching
There are two main forms of poaching: shallow vs. deep poaching.
Shallow poaching is designed for small servings of fish or poultry. You add enough poaching liquid in a shallow pan to cover the protein half way or two-thirds.
Deep poaching (or submerged poaching) requires a bigger pan or soup pot. The poaching liquid completely covers the food.
Submerged poaching is best for larger pieces or multiple servings, like a whole chicken or poaching multiple eggs.
Which foods work best for this technique
Any delicate, low-fat food that tends to break apart with vigorous stirring or dries out easily is a great candidate for poaching. Here’s are the most common ingredients that benefit from poaching:
- Chicken breasts and thighs
- Duck breasts
- Turkey breasts
- Pheasant (I’ve never tried it, but I hear poaching is a primary way of cooking pheasant)
- Pork tenderloin
- Stone fruits: peaches, nectarines, apricots
- Tofu (e.g. poaching tofu in five-spice and soy sauce to add flavor)
Why learn how to poach
As with every cooking technique, there are pros and cons. Let’s look into the advantages and why it’s worth learning how to poach. Then we’ll explore the disadvantages and when poaching isn’t appropriate.
Advantages of poaching
- Poaching is gentle because of the low temperature and no need for stirring. It keeps fish, poultry, eggs, and fruit juicy, flavorful, and in one piece.
- It doesn’t require much fat or oil.
- It doesn’t require constant attention like stir frying (but it requires monitoring to avoid overcooking).
- It doesn’t require much specialty equipment. You’ve likely got all the tools already in your kitchen you need to successfully poach.
- Without a sauce or marinade, the exterior of the foods can look pale.
Disadvantages of poaching
- You never reach high enough heat for the Maillard reaction or caramelization. High heat offers a crispy texture, burnt flavors (yes, this is desirable), and a beautiful golden crust. Poached foods won’t have these benefits.
- It’s not like baking where you can “set it and forget it” until the timer goes off. It requires monitoring the temperature to ensure you don’t over cook.
- Unless you have an induction cooktop, it might be harder to control the heat to maintain a constant low temperature (practice will reduce this downside).
NOTE: For busy cooks with a lot going on (ahem, most Garlic Delight readers), the biggest disadvantage I can see is that poaching requires patience. For example, this low-heat cooking method takes longer to reach the safe internal temperature of chicken (165º C / 74º C) compared to grilling or pan frying.
Part 1: These are the most common base liquids:
- Water: Simple and accessible, water is perfect when you don’t want the cooking liquid to add flavor to the food, such as when poaching eggs.
- Wine: Red wine and white wine are the most common. Port, brandy, and other kinds of alcohol can also work for shallow poaching (add water when using alcohol as the base liquid for deep poaching).
- Stock or broth: Stock adds flavor to the poaching ingredients. Broth is a lighter version of stock. You can use homemade broth or store-bought stock.
- Court bouillon
- Fats: Butter, olive oil, avocado oil, etc.
Part 2: According to the Exploratorium, acid prompts the proteins to denature, which sets the proteins faster. That’s why acids are helpful when poaching delicate proteins like egg whites, which you want to set quickly so they don’t become foamy or long wispy ribbons.
Common acids for poaching include:
- Vinegar: apple cider vinegar, white vinegar (for poaching eggs), wine vinegar
- Wine: red white (for poaching fruits), wine wine (for fish)
- Citrus & fruit juices: lemon, lime, or orange juice
Part 3: Aromatics add flavor to the poaching liquid, which in turn flavors your food. Your choice of aromatics will determine how your poached food tastes. Experiment with different aromatics to add unique twists to your poached dish.
Ideas on aromatics include:
- Thyme, herbes de Provence, rosemary for chicken
- Fresh dill for salmon
While you’ve probably got most of the necessary equipment for poaching already in your kitchen, here are “nice-to-have” items that make the process easier.
My two favorite tools are the timer and thermometer because overcooking (poaching too hot and/or for too long) is the worst mistake and yet the easiest for beginners to make.
Timer: Use a timer to poach for the minimum time required.
Thermometer: The biggest challenge that home cooks face is getting the temperature right, especially if you’re on a gas or glass-ceramic stove where there’s little visibility in the temperature. Using a clip-on thermometer is best. But a meat thermometer or a hand-held laser one would work too.
TIP: Use the meat thermometer to periodically check the internal temperature of your fish or chicken to ensure you don’t cook any longer than necessary. Remove these delicate proteins as soon as they hit the safe internal temperatures according to the USDA.
Parchment paper: Make a lid out of a circular piece of parchment paper (called at cartouche in French cooking). This paper lid is placed on top of the poaching liquid. It pushes the food into the poaching liquid and keeps it from bobbing up when you’re deep poaching (also called submersion poaching).
Kitchen twine: This is useful for trussing a chicken if you want to poach a whole chicken.
NOTE: Roasting might be a better method for cooking a whole chicken, depending on your final desired dish.
For fish: You can get a special pan with a rack to hold a whole fish for poaching. It allows you to lift the fish from the poaching liquid without breaking apart the fish.
How to poach
This diagram introduces the general process of poaching. From the first steps to the last ingredients, you can get an idea of what it takes to poach any food.
Now the theory is set, let’s look at how we poach specific proteins.
How to poach fish
Salmon is one of the most common types of fish to poach. Salmon is a fatty fish and carries great flavor. It tastes rich and delicious whether grilled, baked, or fried (it doesn’t need poaching to bring out its essence).
TIP: I recommend starting with salmon if you’ve never poached fish. This gives you a wider margin of error because it’s pretty hard to screw up poaching salmon.
Here are 2 videos that can guide you through poaching salmon. This one focuses on deep poaching a whole filet of salmon:
This video teaches you how to shallow poach salmon, which is useful for 1-4 small filets.
Once you’ve mastered the technique to poach salmon, you can apply the same method to sturdier-fleshed fish, such as halibut, tuna, rockfish, turbot, tilapia, and snapper. Finally, once you’ve built up your confidence, try poaching more delicate fish, including cod, sole, and Chilean bass.
NOTE: Ultimately, all fish species are fantastic for poaching so take my comment above as guidance and not a rule. You can poach any fish, and you can try them all.
How to poach chicken
While you can poach a whole chicken, poaching chicken breasts is more common. Chicken breasts are almost entirely made of protein with little fat, which makes higher-heat cooking methods like grilling and roasting likely to dry them out. Poaching is an ideal technique for keeping chicken breasts juicy, tender, and flavorful.
Here’s a great recipe and video from Kitchen Stories that teaches you how to poach chicken breast. I like it because, unlike many other recipes that encourage you to bring the poaching liquid to a boil (gasp!) or even a simmer, this recipe follows the principles of poaching and uses gentle heat.
How to poach eggs
Making a perfect plate of Eggs Benedict is a badge of honor for a brunch lover. There’s no reason you can’t master the egg poaching portion of the dish so you can recreate your favorite brunch order at home.
The trouble with learning to poach eggs is that there’s a lot of confusing and conflicting advice on the Internet. Should you use vinegar? What about a whirlpool? What about if you’re making enough poached eggs to feed a family?
While poaching eggs requires practice and very fresh eggs, I think you’ll enjoy this recipe from Downshiftology on how to poach eggs with an instructional video and detailed results from her poaching experiments. Here’s another informative recipe from the Stone Soup that contains troubleshooting tips for common egg-poaching mistakes.
How to poach fruit
Poaching fruit is a fabulous way to transform fruit that’s ripe but too firm or not sweet enough into mouthwatering candy that you can’t stop eating. I love poaching fruit to dress it up and make it feel fancy.
Here’s my recipe for poached pears:
You can follow the same technique to poach any kind of firm-fleshed, hard fruit, including stone fruits (peaches and apricots are terrific when poached) and apples, even oranges and cantaloupe. I recommend avoiding poaching soft-skinned fruits or fruits that easily turn into mush, like berries, bananas, and durian 🤣.
TIP: When in doubt, I ask myself, “Can I find the canned version of this fruit?” If yes, it’s probably a good candidate for poaching because most fruit canned and stored in syrup has been poached.
Best temperature for poaching
Poaching does best at the temperature range of 140-180º F, which translates to 60-82º C.
How to serve poached food
Serve poached foods warm or at room temperature.
After shallow poaching, you can reduce the poaching liquid to create a sauce. The sauce is called a cuisson in French, and it’s an easy way to dress your poached food.
NOTE: Making a sauce reduction mostly applies to shallow poaching where there is less liquid than deep poaching so it’s more manageable to reduce the poaching liquid into a sauce.
When deep poaching (or when poaching with water), you can make a sauce independently from the poaching liquid. For example, Eggs Benedict uses hollandaise sauce, and poached salmon is often served with a creamy dill sauce.
Common poaching mistakes
#1 Mistake: The most common problem with poaching is overheating the poaching liquid, getting into the simmering or even boiling realm. It’s not as big of a deal with poaching fruits because they’re sturdier. But it could ruin your eggs or fish.
How can you avoid this mistake?
Use a thermometer: If you don’t have one, use your eyes. Look for small bubbles forming at the bottom of the pot but none that rise to the top. The aromatics might look like they’re swirling in the liquid, which should look like it’s beginning to steam.
TIP: According to the Reluctant Gourmet, if you see “bubbles forming around the edges of the pan”, you’re close to the upper temperature limit, and you’ll want to adjust the heat lower.
#2 Mistake: You don’t want raw food either. Check the internal temperature of the fish or poultry so you don’t overcook it. Once it reaches the safety internal temperature, remove it from the heat immediately.
#3 Mistake: Some people complain poached food looks pale (and therefore, they assume bland). Use paprika or a marinade to add color. You can serve a sauce over the poached food. Some chefs use a blow torch or a quick intense sear to brown the surface of chicken (and make the skin crispy and beautifully golden) before serving.
FAQ about poaching
Poaching vs. simmering vs. boiling
Even though all 3 cooking techniques are categorized as “moist-heat” methods because they use hot liquids (or steam) to cook, they differ in the level of heat required and the kinds of foods they are best suited for.
Poaching uses the lowest temperature (140-180º F / 60-82º C), followed by simmering (180-205º F / 82-96º C), and finally boiling (212ºF / 100º C).
Because boiling uses the highest heat, it is the quickest of the 3 methods but it’s likely to cause fish to break apart and dry out chicken breasts.
Poaching vs. sous vide
Poaching and sous vide are similar in that both techniques cook food using lower temperatures for longer periods of time.
In my taxonomy of cooking, I classify sous vide as a form of poaching under more controlled conditions using vacuum sealing. Sous vide requires storing the seasoned food in an airtight bag and cooking it in a temperature-maintained water bath.
Using a flavorful poaching liquid with aromatics is more important when poaching whereas food doesn’t come into direct contact with the liquid when you use the sous vide cooking method. Another difference is that juices from sous vide are not usually reduced down to make a sauce.