Poaching is a great way to cook boneless, skinless chicken breasts. It's a technique that uses no added oil or fat, yet the result is succulent and flavorful. To poach chicken breasts, you simply immerse the chicken pieces in some sort of liquid and let them cook on the stovetop until they're cooked through.
What Is Poaching?
Poaching is a gentle, low-temperature cooking technique, where the cooking liquid peaks at around 175 to 180 F, allowing the chicken to cook gently without getting overcooked.
You can use poached chicken breasts for sandwiches, tacos, soups, salads, burritos, quesadillas, pasta, risottos, and as a filling for chicken pot pies. Or simply slice and serve with a simple sauce. And if that weren't enough, you can also save and use the poaching liquid as a cooking medium for preparing other dishes, like rice, risotto, pasta, and soup.
Poaching vs. Boiling
It's important to note that poached chicken is not boiled chicken. Boiling chicken is a good way to overcook it. The whole point of poaching is to cook it gently so that it stays juicy and tender.
What's the difference? Poaching is defined by the temperature of the cooking liquid, and it corresponds with a water temperature of between 160 and 180 F. In this range, you won't see any bubbles. Rather, the water will sort of shimmer. To see what this looks like, heat a pot of water and use a digital instant-read thermometer to measure the temperature.
Boiling, on the other hand, occurs at 212 F, and is characterized by large, continuous bubbles and lots of steam. Simmering happens somewhere in the middle, from 180 to 200 F. You'll see a bubble now and then, especially at the surface.
But with poaching, you'll see none of that.
The simplest way to poach chicken breasts is in plain water, but at the minimum, you should add salt to the water. Stock or broth are even better choices. Because poaching is done at a low temperature, you can use all kinds of liquids, like wine, vinegar, milk, even melted butter. But for chicken breasts, water, stock, or broth are the best choices.
Brine Your Chicken
One useful technique for poaching chicken breasts is to soak your chicken breasts in a flavorful brine for 30 minutes, and then cook them directly in the brine. This method allows the chicken to absorb the maximum flavor.
To make a simple brine, fill a large Dutch oven with four quarts of water, and add 3/4 cup of Kosher salt (not table salt), along with 1/2 cup of soy sauce, 2 tablespoons of sugar, one bay leaf, and a half dozen peeled and smashed garlic cloves. Stir to dissolve the salt and sugar, immerse your chicken breasts for 30 minutes, then proceed to the cooking steps outlined below.
You can also experiment with other brine ingredients, like chopped onion, leeks, celery, whole peppercorns, fresh herbs like parsley, thyme, and rosemary, as well as lemon slices. But the basic formula above will get you started.
Use Small Breasts
These days, chicken breasts can be fairly gargantuan, often weighing in at 12 ounces or more. This greater mass requires longer cooking in order to cook all the way through to the center. But by the time the center is done, the outer parts are overcooked. Chicken breasts that weigh 6 to 8 ounces will give you the best results with poaching. And for truly uniform cooking, gently pound them so that they're about 3/4 of an inch in thickness.
Yes, you can overcook chicken even when poaching it. It takes a while, but it can happen. Overcooking is a word to describe what happens when cooked chicken releases large amounts of juice, shrinks in size, and becomes rubbery or chewy. This corresponds with a temperature of around 140 to 150 F.
But with proper poaching technique, the water temperature never rises beyond 175 to 180, so it's more difficult (but not impossible) for your chicken breasts to overcook. As long as you don't let it sit longer than 22 minutes, you'll be fine.
And that is the beauty of poaching. It's a gentle cooking technique that produces doneness at 145 to 150 F, thus preserving juiciness and tenderness.
If you're wondering about food safety, FDA guidelines say that when it comes to killing harmful bacteria, holding chicken at 155 F for 50 seconds is the same as holding it at 165 F for 10 seconds. If you want to confirm the temperature of your cooked chicken, use a digital instant-read thermometer. It takes the guesswork out of this type of thing, and will give you peace of mind.
How to Poach Chicken Breasts
For this technique, we use a Dutch oven or a similar heavy pot with a lid, which helps to hold the liquid at the proper temperature. A 6-quart Dutch oven will easily accommodate four chicken breasts.
- Combine the brine ingredients in the pot as described above. Place the chicken breasts on a metal steamer basket and immerse in the liquid. The basket helps keep the chicken off the bottom of the pot to prevent overcooking while the water heats up. Let the chicken marinate for 30 minutes.
- Now begin heating the pot over medium heat, giving the liquid an occasional stir to keep the temperature even. Once the water temperature reaches 175 to 180, turn off the heat, move the pot off the burner, cover and let it sit for 15 to 20 minutes, or until the meat registers 155 F.
- Remove the chicken; enjoy it warm or refrigerate it for later use. Slice or shred your poached chicken depending on what the recipe calls for. And don't forget to strain and save the cooking liquid, as it is now loaded with chicken flavor as well as the flavors of the additional ingredients.