Poaching encompases time-honoured, moist-heat cooking methods. Moist heat cooking methods use liquid or steam to transfer heat, thus cooking the product and now we will focus on one particular type of moist heat cooking–poaching. I’ll bet you thought this was about hunting out-of-season, right?
Poaching is certainly less practiced today than the methods covered in previous classes, sautéing and grilling. But poaching is full of creative possibilities and perfectly suited for today’s busy lifestyles. Poaching is fast as well as heart smart, since there is no fat added to the cooking process.
The definition of poaching is “to cook an item by submerging it in a liquid that is just barley simmering.” Poaching is not a rolling boil. Poaching, compared to boiling, is a much gentler technique. The temperature of the poaching liquid should be between 170 and 180 degrees. The surface of the liquid should be just “shivering,” as the French say. This temperature is very important because boiling liquid toughens meat and fish, and can make fragile products like eggs and certain delicate fish disintegrate.
Besides proper poaching temperatures, special consideration should be given to the composition of the poaching liquid. This will flavor or at the very least season whatever is being poached in it. If water alone is used to poach, it should be well salted. If the water is not salted, the item being poached will taste insipid. (Poaching eggs is the one exception to this rule. The water should not be salted, but rather lightly vinegared, which helps the egg proteins to coagulate or “set” quickly.)
One of the most common poaching liquids is called a court bouillon. A court bouillon is best described as an aromatic poaching liquid. It should be packed with flavor which will in turn flavor whatever is being poached in it. There are many different variations of court bouillon. The liquid component can be water or stock. This liquid can then be flavored with a multitude of different ingredients like: celery, carrot, onion, garlic, lemon, wine, herbs, and spices. A court bouillon is prepared by simmering all of the ingredients until the liquid is sufficiently perfumed.
Once you have the poaching liquid, or court bouillon, ready and at the proper poaching temperature, the procedure is simple. Simply drop into the liquid whatever you wish to poach. As the ingredient cooks, maintain the proper poaching temperature. (There are some exceptions to this procedure. Some fish that are poached whole and are intended to be served cold are started in a cold instead of a hot court bouillon. But that is for another day…)
The difficulty in poaching is knowing when the ingredient is properly cooked. Unlike sautéing or grilling, you can not simply touch the product as it cooks to judge its doneness. Every time you want to check the doneness of an item, you must gently remove it from the poaching liquid using a slotted spoon or slotted spatula. At first, it may seem somewhat time consuming, but with practice, you will get a feeling for about how long certain products take to cook.
When an item is done, remove it from the poaching liquid, drain it, and serve with the appropriate sauce or condiment.