How to Poach Chicken and All the Reasons Why You Should
Let’s be honest. If someone says “I’m going to poach some chicken,” your first thought is likely to be of a 1950s housewife in a ruffled apron arranging the slices of bird around a canned peach half perched atop a scoop of cottage cheese to serve to her canasta partners. In 2019, punchy flavors are expected even from home cooks, so poaching anything except an egg to put on top of, well, everything, seems seriously old-fashioned.
And yet, sous vide is all the rage, which is essentially poaching, just inside a bag.
Poaching chicken is a skill worth having. One, it is ridiculously easy, a child could do it. Two, in a day and age where we are all trying to fill our diets with lean protein at the same time as boneless, skinless chicken breasts are the red-headed stepchild of meats, this is a technique that actually makes them worth eating.
Get the recipe: Poached Chicken Noodle Bowl
Here’s why. Boneless, skinless chicken breasts (and thighs for that matter) do not have the internal fat marbling to prevent them from becoming dry, stringy, leathery planks with most cooking methods. If you look up boneless skinless chicken breasts on the internet you will see a million tips on how to try and mitigate this reality. Brining, both wet and dry versions, coatings, usually with added fat, even wrapping in bacon, with increase of delicious and decrease of health properties. Roasting, pan frying, grilling—they all can turn your chicken into something just this side of jerky, and it is part of why they get such a bad rap. Because for many, they are the sad necessity of a “diet” and reek of punishment and deprivation.
But it doesn’t have to be that way!
Because a properly poached chicken breast is a luscious, velvety thing without a hint of dryness or stringiness. It can be sliced for sandwiches, cubed for salads, or shredded and sauced for a “pulled chicken.” It is a wonderful vehicle for condiments like pesto, salsa verde, and chimichurri. I love it stuffed into a pita with some tahini sauce and pickled cucumber, and it makes for a great banh mi. But even just sliced up cold with some barbecue sauce or mustard for dipping makes for a healthful and delicious snack when your energy flags mid-afternoon.
Poaching is a technique best used for boneless skinless breasts and thighs.
Bring a large pot of water that has a lid to a boil over high heat. Do not salt the water, as the salt will make the outside of the chicken leathery. This is one time you want to salt to taste after cooking.
Put the chicken pieces into the water and leave the heat on high until the water comes back to the boil, since the cold chicken will have dropped the temperature. When the water starts to boil again, turn off the heat.
Yeah, I said it off. Turn that sucker all the way off, not low, not simmer, OFF.
Stay with me.
If your pot has a tight-fitting lid, pop it on. If the lid is not really tight, place a clean kitchen towel over the pot, then the lid, then drape the towel up over the lid to help create a tighter seal. Leave the chicken in its waterbath on the stove for 40 minutes. Leave it for 30 if your chicken breasts are particularly small or thin, or if you are using all thighs.
Take the internal temperature of the largest piece of chicken in its thickest part. Are you at 165 degrees or more? Remove the chicken from the water bath and either serve hot, or store in the fridge in a ziptop bag or airtight container until you need it.
Seriously, that’s it.
How does it work? Essentially similarly to sous vide. Boiling water is 212 degrees, so even after sitting off heat with the chicken in it on the stovetop for an hour, it will have only reduced to 170, still well in the safe zone. Since 165 is the target temp for cooked chicken breast (and 175 for thighs), the chicken in that time will have gently and slowly come up to close to the temp of the surrounding water, cooking it much more gently than even a lazy simmer could do. And since the thighs are smaller, they will hit their target temp at the same time as the larger thicker more delicate breast meat if you are cooking them together.
You’ll find that chicken cooked in this method is tender and moist, and not at all stringy or tough. It is primed and ready to join a Cobb salad, or get tossed with your favorite chicken salad, or sliced up for a sandwich. Heck, you can even serve it with cottage cheese and a peach half.