Several Words about Poaching


poaching2_cFor delicious fillets of fish and mouthwatering boneless breasts of chicken, what do you think of? Grilling, right, with those beautiful crosshatched grill marks? Oh, or what about sauteing, so the outside gets a luscious golden brown? I'll bet you dollars to doughnuts, though, that you don't often think about poaching. Why is that?

By James P. DeWan

Why you need to learn this Poaching is great. It's easy. It's nearly foolproof. And, it produces food that is tender, juicy and -- if you're the watch-your-diet type -- low in fat. Plus, poaching is all about the simple, uncomplicated flavor of the food itself.

Poaching is what's called a moist heat method of cooking. Like boiling and simmering, food that is poached is immersed in liquid. What sets the three apart is water temperature.

Boiling occurs at 212 degrees. Technically, you shouldn't boil much of anything (except pasta). Think of what a full boil looks like, the water churning and roiling. For delicate items, that rough and tumble is just too much. (Have you ever noticed how your boiled potatoes sometimes end up bashed into smithereens?)

That's why mostly you should be simmering, in which the water is roughly between 185 and 205 degrees. Unlike the tempestuous waters of the boil, those of the gentle simmer are barely moving, with just a few bubbles floating occasionally up from the center of the pan.

Poaching temperatures are even lower, roughly between 160 and 180 degrees. Poaching liquids have no bubbles rising from the bottom of the pot, though there may be some along the edges of the water. The water is nearly still. (Julia Child described it as "barely shivering.")

This lack of movement keeps even the most fragile foods intact (think of poached eggs). More important, though, is that proteins, when overcooked, become tough and dry, literally squeezing the moisture out of the food. The lower temperatures of poaching, then, are perfect for high-protein items such as fish and chicken.

Poaching can take two forms: submersion poaching and shallow poaching. Submersion poaching is used mostly for large items, such as whole chickens. Shallow poaching is for smaller items such as boneless, skinless chicken breasts or fish fillets, and that's what we'll be doing.

One quick word about the poaching liquid: It's common to use the poaching liquid as the base for a sauce. If you're going to do this, use stock instead of water and include other flavoring ingredients, such as aromatic vegetables (onions, celery, carrots, garlic, etc.), herbs and spices.

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