Poaching 101


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Not only is poaching is one of the most elegant ways to cook an egg, but it’s also the secret to making, quite simply, the best chicken salad in the world. This understated culinary technique is worth a second look, especially if healthy and nutritious eating is something you’re interested in.

Cooking method guide to poaching.

Poaching is a very gentle way of cooking, a far cry from a flaming hot grill, but the results are just as memorable. It’s a fabulous way to preserve the structure of delicate proteins like fish, chicken, and eggs using very little fat or oil.

You can dress up the liquid any way you see fit, too, adding traditional aromatics, wine, or broth. Other than a little bit of stove-side monitoring, poaching is an easy way to cook as long as you have the right tools and know a few basics about the technique.

What culinary problem is this method solving?

Poaching is a gentle and effective way to cook food, preserving its flavor without adding extra fat. It’s ideal for delicate foods, as this process requires no agitation or stirring.

What is Poaching?

Poaching is a moist heat method of cooking by submerging food in some kind of liquid and heating at a low temperature. This is a technique that is used to cook delicate proteins such as fish, chicken, and eggs, as well as some fruits and vegetables.

Poaching works by allowing the proteins in the food to break down without pulling moisture out of the food. Because poaching uses a temperature that is even lower than simmering, it is important to keep the heat low and to keep the poaching time to a bare minimum, which helps preserve the flavor and structure of the food.

Liquid vs. butter poaching

Liquid poaching uses a broth, wine, or other liquid to cook the food. The liquid and food start off together in a pot cold, then the heat is gradually increased to the correct cooking temperature. And flavorings or aromatics infuse the food with subtle flavor while it poaches.

While liquid poaching is the most common way to poach, butter poaching is a very elegant way to cook fish and shellfish. It’s a very simple method of cooking, using seasoned butter, shallot, and lemon juice. The fish cooks in the seasoned liquid until just flaky and cooked through; all the butter gives the fish an otherworldly taste and texture. Other fats like olive oil can also be used for poaching.

Poaching salmon filet in a pot of water.

Advantages and disadvantages of poaching

  • Moisture/tenderness: A definite advantage of poaching is that the food you cook will turn out succulent and tender, which is certainly a desirable outcome for fish, which can dry out using another method of cooking. Also, the low temperature makes overcooking almost impossible.
  • Delicate process: However, poaching is a delicate process that does require a certain amount of finesse and patience. It isn’t something that can be rushed and produces results that are quite a bit more subtle than perfectly executed grill marks or a crusty sear.
  • No Maillard browning at low temperature: Because poaching is a low-temperature method, it doesn’t take advantage of the Maillard reaction, which gives foods their brown, caramelized and often crispy features. It isn’t the ideal way to cook a steak or a pork chop.

The shallow poaching technique

If you’re cooking boneless, naturally tender smaller servings, or sliced or cubed pieces of meat, poultry or fish, consider shallow poaching. This method involves sometimes coating the inside of the pan with butter and adding aromatics. The food is then placed on top of the aromatics, with the presentation side up.

Cold poaching liquid gets poured into the pan until the food is only partially submerged. The liquid is then heated, but should never be allowed to boil, instead, being kept as close to poaching as possible. The liquid used for shallow poaching is called a cuisson, and it can be reduced and used as a base for a sauce for the food.

The submersion poaching technique

This technique is similar to shallow poaching, but the food is completely submerged in the cooking liquid. I do this when making poached chicken. Whatever pot you use, it should hold the food, liquid, and aromatics comfortably, with enough room to allow the liquid and the food to expand somewhat as it cooks.

There should also be enough space to skim any liquid off of the surface. Also, a tight-fitting lid may be helpful for bringing the liquid up to temperature.

Poaching chicken in a pot of water with herbs.

How much liquid to use?

How much liquid you use depends entirely on how much food you plan on poaching. Make sure that your pot is large enough to accommodate both the liquid and the food without overcrowding or overflowing.

Minimal movement on the surface (how to visually check)

The poaching liquid is usually ready when you see small waves on the surface of the liquid, and small bubbles forming at the bottom of the pot, but none that actually rise to the surface. If you’re not sure, a thermometer can help you keep things accurate.

Using a thermometer to monitor water and food internal temperature

Poaching uses gentle heat at 160 to 180°F (71 to 82ºC) to cook the food, even lower than a simmer at 185 to 205°F (85 to 96ºC). A clip-on thermometer helps monitor the temperature to keep it in that sweet spot.

Covering food with parchment paper lid when poaching

Successful poaching relies on the food being submerged in order to cook. A piece of parchment, cut to size to fit the inside dimension of your pot, can be placed over the food to hold it down and keep your food from being exposed to air.

Covering food with parchment paper lid when poaching.

Types of poaching liquid

  • Water: Water will most likely make up the bulk of your poaching liquid, but if you can, add something else for some subtle flavor.
  • Milk: You can use milk or coconut milk to poach chicken or fish.
  • Stocks: Chicken stock, vegetable, or fish stock are all good choices, depending on what you poach, as long as you dilute them somewhat.
  • Broths: Perfect for poaching, broths are the lighter version of stock.
  • Aromatics: Traditional ingredients like bay leaves, herbs, celery, garlic, spices can be added to the poaching liquid to enhance the flavor of what you’re cooking. For a twist, try lemongrass, ginger, or kaffir lime leaves.
  • Wine: Wine or port can be a beautiful way to poach fruit, and who wouldn’t appreciate a white wine poached halibut?
  • Court bouillon: Fish and seafood are traditionally poached in a liquid called court bouillon which consists of an acid (wine, lemon juice) and aromatics (bouquet garni and mirepoix), although any flavorful liquid can be used in poaching.

Court Bouillon Recipe

One of the most widely used of all poaching liquids, the mixture needs to simmer for half an hour or so and then cool before the fish is added for poaching. (Yield: 10 cups)

  • 8 cups of water
  • 4 cups dry white wine, like Pinot Grigio
  • 2 large onions, peeled, chopped
  • 2 carrots, peeled, chopped
  • 3 ribs celery, chopped
  • 6 sprigs fresh parsley or other green herbs
  • 1 tablespoon salt
  • ½ teaspoon black peppercorns

Combine water, wine, onion, carrots, celery, herbs and salt in a saucepan. Simmer, uncovered, about 30 minutes. Add peppercorns; simmer only about 10 minutes, peppercorns can make the broth bitter if overcooked. Strain before use. After poaching you may freeze any leftover liquid for future use.

Foods to poach

  • Chicken: Boneless, skinless chicken breasts are perfect for this cooking method, but you can also use bone-in chicken breasts or even thighs or drumsticks, as long as you remove the skin, which can make the liquid too greasy. The chicken will typically finish cooking in 10 to 14 minutes depending on the thickness of the meat and whether it is has a bone. When poaching chicken, it is very important that the chicken reaches an internal temperature of at least 165°F (74ºC), in order to be eaten safely. This is the best way to make chicken salad or shredded chicken for tacos or enchiladas.
  • Vegetables: Sturdier vegetables such as asparagus, carrots, and potatoes all work well with this method.
  • Seafood: Delicate seafood of all kinds shine when poached. Cod, salmon, shrimp, all are excellent choices. For fish fillets, cook the fish for 10 minutes or until the center of the fish seems opaque and it flakes easily when prodded with a fork. Poaching fish should begin by placing it in the cold cooking liquid before heating it to a simmer.
  • Fruit: Fruits with body, like stone fruit, pears, and apples, are prime choices for wine poaching with honey, peppercorns, and star anise.

Poaching eggs

It’s tricky to get the round, satiny smooth poached eggs that a chef can whip up in a moment, but with a little practice, you can come close. Poaching is the best way to take advantage of the delicate, incredible egg. Use the freshest eggs you can find, and cook one at a time until you get the hang of it.

Poaching an egg in water.

Benefits of poaching

Once considered a boring technique only for the diet-conscious, poaching is gaining popularity for its health benefits. It definitely has its uses in today’s modern diets.

  • Time: While not action-packed, poaching is still a relatively quick technique that doesn’t take the whole day.
  • Taste: Poaching allows the actual flavor of the food to shine, front and center.
  • Texture: Since it’s one of the most gentle cooking methods we explore, the texture of poached food is tender, soft, and supple.
  • Nutrition: Poaching in a liquid is one of the healthiest ways to cook your food, with minimal fat and oil.

Tools for poaching

Infographic with images of tools for poaching.
  1. Stockpot
  2. Parchment Paper
  3. Silicone Cups
  4. Slotted Spoon
  5. Tongs
  6. Instant Read Thermometer
  7. Cheesecloth

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Jessica Gavin

I'm a culinary school graduate, cookbook author, and a mom who loves croissants! My passion is creating recipes and sharing the science behind cooking to help you gain confidence in the kitchen.

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10 Comments Leave a comment or review

  1. Sam S says

    To overcome the lack of browning, couldn’t you sear the fish or chicken for a few seconds on extremely high heat and then poach to cook thoroughly?

  2. Maria says

    I mace a poaching sauce which includes some milk rice flour as a thickening agent, some garlic and my own herbal mixture. This graced by fish (cod fish), chicken fillets. You can cut the fillets in smaller pieces or same size strips. Since I don’t have a lot of sauce, I paste the chicken and fish with the sauce. I will try this sauce with sea scallops but make sure they are about the same size. If you make the sauce ahead of time and freeze in smaller container. It’s wonderful for a delicious meal, 20-25 min for chicken fillets and about 25 min for fish; salmon ight take a little bit longer.

  3. Barbara Mathis-Roelli says

    Hi Jessica, what are all the herbs that make up a bouquet garni?
    How can I make it at home?
    Thank you,

    • Jessica Gavin says

      Great question, Barbara! Classic bouquet garni is parsley stalks, bay leaves, and thyme. I wrap it in cheese cloth and butchers twine so it’s easy to get out of the pot later. You can add other herbs to your likings like rosemary or sage.