Poaching... it's way more than an outdated health fad.

As you well know, in cooking—one day you’re in, and the next day, you’re out. JK. I’m not Heidi Klum, and whipping up a delicious meal does not have to be as cutthroat and judgmental as the world of fashion. However, I think we can all agree that poaching chicken is a technique that has a reputation of being somewhat outdated, we’ll say. I’d like to encourage you to rid yourself of any current aversion that you might have to this method of cooking chicken because truthfully, it’s easy and essentially foolproof way of inspiringly succulent poultry. And yes, that glorious poached chicken is going to serve you well as the foundation for some shockingly delicious meals.

For many people, poached chicken is reminiscent of that awkward period of time in the 80s/90s when everyone was drinking nonfat lattes, spreading Fabio-endorsed butter substitutes on their toast, and generally avoiding any source of fat in their food like the plague. Poaching is great for pursuing that nutritional goal because the chicken is cooked in a pot of gently simmering water or broth—no added fats here! That said, just because you’re not cooking the chicken with a common cooking fat (like olive oil or butter) doesn’t mean that your final product has to be devoid of rich flavor. Here’s what you need to keep in mind next time you’re poaching chicken.

Use Boneless, Skinless Chicken Breasts

Okay, this might go without saying, but make sure you’re using boneless, skinless chicken breasts. The point of cooking skin-on chicken is to send it into an oiled cast-iron, letting it sear for 10 minutes of so, and scarfing up that irresistibly crackly chicken skin. Since we’re cooking the chicken in a pool of liquid, there will be no opportunity for that skin to crisp up, thus leaving you with an unappetizing layer of soft fat on your chicken (gross…). Avoid this and make sure that you’ve trimmed your chicken.

Add Aromatics to the Broth

If you’re poaching your chicken in a pot of plain water, this is your first mistake. Even though you can still cook the chicken fully through with water alone, you’re missing out on an entire layer of flavor to add to your dish as a whole. Instead, try using chicken broth or stock and infuse it with fresh herbs, chopped onions, garlic cloves, and/or ginger root. You could even add a splash of white wine or create a little bag of seeds and spices inside a couple layers of cheesecloth to enhance the poaching liquid. The bottom line is that you shouldn’t use plain water—it will work, but you’re missing out on a huge flavor opportunity.

Regulate the Temperature of the Poaching Liquid

While the chicken is cooking, it’s important to keep an eye on the temperature of your liquid. We’re not going for a boil here. Instead, keep the liquid bath between 160°F and 180°F, as this will produce succulent, tender chicken in about 25 to 30 minutes. If you don’t have a thermometer, look for wispy spouts of steam from the surface. Once you start seeing bubbles, that’s when you know it’s too hot.

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Cook Similarly Sized Chicken Breasts

Another way to improve the uniformity and accuracy of the chicken that you’re poaching is to aim to buy chicken breasts that are close in size. This way, they’ll cook together at an even rate, and you won’t have to hover over the chicken, ensuring that one breast isn’t overcooking while the other is still pink in the center. In this same vein, don’t overcrowd the pot of simmering liquid. A good rule of thumb is that for every 3 (6-ounce) breasts you’re cooking, there should be at least 6 cups of stock.

Don’t Dump the Poaching Liquid

Poached Chicken Enchiladas with Red Sauce image
Credit: Kelsey Hansen; Prop Styling: Kashara Johnson; Food Styling: Adam Hickman and Briana Riddock

In the same way that you can reuse pasta water for its starchy goodness, the bath of stock and aromatics that you use to poach your chicken can also be repurposed in your dish to reinforce flavor and keep things from drying out. In these Cheesy Chicken Enchiladas, chicken breasts are poached in a pool of broth, onions, and oregano sprigs. Part of this cooking liquid is reserved and later used in making the flavorful enchilada sauce that is both tossed with your perfectly poached and shredded chicken to create your filling and spooned over the assembled enchiladas. Taking a different route, you could also recycle your aromatic broth situation to cook noodles (you’ll have to bring it to a boil at that point, though), or any grain of your choosing, like we do for this Poached Chicken Noodle Bowl. Additionally, this smart recipe has you use some of that delicious cooking liquid again when you use it to create a delicate coconut broth to pour all over the chicken and noodles mixture for a comforting, brothy finish. Genius! You’ve worked so hard to build such a nuanced, tasty concoction, so why send it down the drain once your chicken is poached?

By Sara Tane and Sara Tane