Poaching, as a method of cooking, has been around for centuries, if not millennia. Our prehistoric ancestors were probably tossing freshly caught fish or reptiles into the local hot springs for a tasty snack. Even today, though, poaching remains somewhat of a mystery to home cooks, seen as an art only suitable for celebrity chefs. The occasional poached egg may make it into our repertoire, but anything higher up the food chain is left untested.
How to Poach Meat
In reality, poaching is one of the easiest forms of cooking and is reasonably foolproof if you follow these simple steps:
First, decide on what meat you want to use. Poaching works excellent with chicken, especially chicken breasts, but also a whole chicken. The chicken absorbs the flavor of the poaching liquid well and turns mediocre poultry into something delicious. Fish is also a classic poaching product. Whitefish works exceptionally well, but some redfish, like salmon, are equally suitable. Even beef can be poached! Although sacrilege to some hardcore meat-eaters, poached beef is a mainstay in Europe and can be a delightful change on the menu. For poaching, use the same cuts of beef you would use for roasting like sirloin strips or rump roast.
Next, choose a container for the stovetop to poach your chosen protein. The pot should be a bit larger than the meat with enough room to easily cover the meat with about an inch of water or stock. Add your poaching liquid to the pot and bring to a boil. What’s a poaching liquid? Don’t worry. This is the best part.
Start with a liquid to match what you are poaching. Stock or broth adds instant flavor to the meal. Chicken stock for chicken, beef stock for beef, vegetable stock for fish (store bought is perfectly fine). And, of course, water will always work. Next, you need an acid. Vinegar, wine, or lemon juice are all excellent choices. Add about 1/4 cup of acid to each quart of your stock or water. You should be able to taste the acid in the liquid. Finally, add your flavorings. Add herbs, spices, and vegetables to the poaching liquid. These flavors will be absorbed by the meat and are what poaching is all about. Good things to add include: basil, chives, coriander, dill, oregano, parsley, rosemary, star anise, tarragon, thyme, bay leaf, peppercorns, onions, carrots. Use fresh herbs when possible and don’t worry about chopping things up. Just stick it in the pot.
Bring the poaching liquid to a boil, and then add the meat. The poaching liquid should completely cover the meat by about one inch. This will ensure that the meat cooks evenly and will have the proper color and texture when finished. After the meat is added, reduce the heat to the adequate poaching temperature. If you happen to have an instant-read thermometer, this is a handy place to use it. If poaching fish, the temperature of the liquid should be maintained between 175 F and 185 F. The poaching liquid for chicken or beef should be between 160 F and 175 F. If you don’t have a thermometer, don’t worry. Just keep the temperature below that of a simmer. The liquid should not be bubbling (one or two bubbles is ok) and the surface will appear to be rippling.
Cooking time varies depending on the size of the meat you are cooking. Typically, an eight-ounce portion of fish will take about 10 minutes and an equal size portion of chicken about 15 to 20 minutes. If unsure if it’s done, you can always cut into the meat before serving to make sure it has been cooked through.
Add a Sauce
For a quick and low-fat sauce, add a vegetable coulis to the dish. Puree some steamed vegetables in a blender with a little bit of water and some salt and pepper. Classic accompaniments to poached meats include rice or pasta and steamed vegetables. Enjoy!