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Poaching Chicken - any tips?

Last night I was craving something comforting and bland (in a good way), so I decided to poach a chicken breast to use as one of the components of my meal. I brought some chicken stock (which had previously been slightly salted) to the boil, added an onion, peppercorns, bay leaf, a cinnamon stick, reduced to a simmer, then added my chicken breast (whole), covered the pot and left it for 15 - 20 mins. When it was done I removed it and sliced it (width-wise, which I'm not sure was the best choice) and because I thought it looked a touch dry I covered it with a little of the poaching liquid while preparing the rest of the dish. In the end it was tasty and quite tender, but I thought it could have been better - more tender, more juicy, just somehow softer. Taste was fine - but texturally there was room for improvement.

After that long-winded intro, here's my question: does anyone out there know how I can try to achieve perfection, or near-perfection, when it comes to poaching a chicken breast? It seems kind of trivial in the grand scheme of things, but when you're eating something with subtle flavours and few ingredients, every component has to be as good as it can possibly be, no?

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  1. You probably overcooked it, and cooked it too high. Make sure you're cooking at a simmer where the surface of the broth is steaming, but there are no bubbles. And you want to cook it until it is just done, and no longer. A meat thermometer could help here, or just remove and slice into it after 10 min to see if it's done, and fool around with the times until you get it just right.

    1. Poach for up to 15 minutes. You want the point where the breast is just cooked but not over done (and dry). You don't need anything but water - the breasts don't pick up much from what you put in the water. Finally, shredding by hand somehow tastes softer and moister than sliced.

      2 Replies
      1. re: Sam Fujisaka

        It does pick up aromatic notes, so onion/garlic/shallots and fennel can impart a bit of flavor, and sweet spices like star anise, cloves and cinnamon do a bit more.

        1. re: tmso

          And I've found that it picks up a slight lemony flavor if you add lemon juice to the water.

      2. I've used a technique for years that works great for me. Put chicken breasts in a pot, cover generously with water, bring to a boil, cover pot and remove from heat. After ten minutes it is almost always done when I cut into it. If not, I put it back in the hot water, cover and leave for a few more minutes. I see no reason you could use stock and the seasonings you mention. The chicken is so moist and tender that way and not overcooked.

        4 Replies
        1. re: c oliver

          I use your same technique, though I use chicken broth flavored with a goodly amount of soy sauce as the poaching liquid. I find large breasts take about 12 minutes of standing time. Perfection.

          1. re: c oliver

            This is my method too; never fails.

            1. re: c oliver

              This method works like a charm every time.

              1. re: C. Hamster

                I don't really know why anyone would want to do more than this, do you? So moist and cooked perfectly. I use it for salads, sandwiches, anything.

            2. Peppercorns were nice, a bay leaf, some fresh herbs whatever is in my garden, thyme, oregano and basil usually and onion is great, I use a mix of wine and broth, I know it doesn't always soak up, but I think it does help. I use just a small pan so not to waste too much chicken, but you can do 3-4 in a larger pot and keep. Makes great chicken salad or a stir fry or quesadillas, or even just a burger types of sandwich. Why make 1 make a couple. Cut the other way I think too, but not that critical. Definitely what I do, I put the liquid on the burner and add the chicken and let set 15-30 minutes before turning the heat on, then turn on medium and high and bring the heat up, then immediately reduce and cook 10 minutes on a low simmer. Don't over cook, that is all that it sounds like you did. The broth by the way is fine. I was just giving you my 2 cents. Also the heat. Just simmer, not high heat. That is why I bring it up to a boil in the pan, the inside cooks at the same time rather than the outside first.

              I make a soup, by all means not traditional, I have made it accordingly to recipe, but this is sort of my quick recipe. Broth, some shitaki mushrooms, scallions, I like some thin sliced red pepper, seasoning I know not traditional and some chicken. I pour this over some soba noodles. It is far from traditional but It is really good, simple (bland) as you said but flavorful. Sometimes I get online and get a few spices I should add, but it usually is a very late night, leftovers and anything that takes 15 minutes to make. It still is comforting and uses poaches chicken perfectly.

              1. I have had great results by gently simmering the chicken in a covered pot for 10-15 minutes and then removing the pot from the heat and letting the chicken sit covered for an additional 45 minutes. Always tender and buttery.

                1 Reply
                1. re: chanterelle

                  that would be similar, just as good I would think.

                2. One of the lessons I took away from the old "Frugal Gourmet" programs was his easy method for poaching a whole chicken, which was to cover it with water by about an inch, bring it to almost a boil, then cover and turn off the heat. Wait an hour and it's done; the liquid is then a good start on stock.

                  On another thread, one poster said her grandmother used to boil a chicken for 30-60 minutes before roasting it. That seems unlikely - she later posted that she remembered the grandmother adding chicken parts as well, and taking the whole bird out after 30 minutes. This sounds more promising - perhaps the half-hour renders fat and semi-cooks the whole chicken, which could then be briefly roasted at high heat to finish cooking and brown the skin. Meanwhile, the parts continue to cook in the stockpot.

                  I have chicken thighs in the freezer and will experiment with this - I'm thinking cover in cold water, simmer 10 min, then roast at 475 keeping an eye on the skin. Anyone have a suggestion on this?

                  6 Replies
                  1. re: greygarious

                    Hmm, interesting technique, I've never come across this. Please report back with your findings!

                    1. re: dxs

                      Reporting back on the poach/roast thing. I defrosted two bone in, skin-on thighs and had them on the counter for 2 hours so they were cool when they went skin-side down into a 1-qt pot with a pint of cold water and a tsp of salt. I covered it, brought to just below a simmer on an electric stove, and then turned the heat off and left it covered for 10 minutes. I then dried the thighs, put them in a baking dish skin side up and into a 500 oven for 15 min. The skin is bubbling up and brown in some spots, but mostly still way too pale although nevertheless with a crisp surface. The meat is cooked through so I cannot roast it long enough to get the desired level of browning.

                      I was testing the method, so I did no other seasoning and no basting. There's a teeny bit of caramelization in the baking dish so I will be able to make some sort of pan sauce to give dinner some taste. The poaching water is of course weak, but fatty on the surface, and will be used for the next stockmaking session. The skin was tightened a bit by the poaching - this is promising. But to get a good skin will require a lower temp. Not sure there is ultimately any benefit to partial poaching before roasting. The recent CI method for pan-roasted chicken is probably better.

                      1. re: greygarious

                        This doesn't have a poaching component but I've fixed this several times and it's been great:

                        http://www.chow.com/stories/10899

                        1. re: greygarious

                          Thanks for the report greygarious... sounds like it was an enlightening experiment if nothing else.

                          1. re: greygarious

                            How would you do bone out skin on thighs? I bought some recently and they are in the freezer. The only thing I have poached before is an egg and salmon! Any suggestions please!

                        2. re: greygarious

                          I use a modified FG (see above) with just breasts. Ten minutes and they're usually done. The best I've ever had and NO chance of overcooking.

                        3. i know i will hear from some CHers out there, but i have the best results poaching chicken ( i usually use bone in thighs) is in the microwave. a few thighs, water maybe halfway up the sides, a little salt. in my microwave, after 7 or 8 minutes they are cooked through, and yet stay very moist and tender. i assume breasts would go a lot faster.....

                          1. Wow, lots of good advice! Some very different approaches... this gives me much to consider before my next attempt, thank you all.

                            As a postscript, the reason I poached in stock was mostly down to laziness - I needed the stock/broth to be nice and hot for use when making another part of the dish! I agree that the chicken itself won't have imparted much flavour... I was just saving myself some pot washing :)

                            2 Replies
                            1. re: dxs

                              no worries for me. As long as you like it and it was worth it. Enjoy!! Try different techniques and find what is best for you.

                              1. re: dxs

                                I do "poached" chicken for large gatherings by putting carrots, bay leaves, a little white wine and some pepper corns into a roaster or lasagne pan big enough to hold all my chicken breasts (12 is common for me), add water to cover, cover tightly with alum foil and cook in the oven at about 250 until done - because it is not brought to a boil first it never actually boils in the 25 minutes tops it takes to cook the whole pan. And the "stock" that is leftover is TO DIE FOR. My other fav poached chicken is an asian preparation where you put a whole chicken in a pot of water, bring to a boil (covered), simmer for ten miutes and then let it sit for 45 minutes. I never thought it would be cooked but it was great!

                              2. How about steaming?

                                I get flavorful and juicy chicken breasts every time by steaming.

                                5 Replies
                                1. re: ipsedixit

                                  I steam chicken like this all the time and quick. I wrap a chicken breast in saran or plastic wrap, yes saran wrap. I put a 1/2 teaspoon on each breast, a thin slice on onion and some herbs a little white wine and fresh ground pepper. I just use a steam pan a collander over a pan filler with water. I simmer them at a low boil for over 10-15 minutes. It tastes great simple quick and great 1, 2 or 3 at at time. This method works great for fish, too, add some lemon and dill and presto I love more traditional methods but I do this now and then and it equally as good. Add whatever seasonings you want and herbs as well. I've even added spinach on the bottom with the chicken on top which is also good flavor. Give it a try.

                                  1. re: kchurchill5

                                    You put a half teaspoon of WHAT on the breast?

                                      1. re: kchurchill5

                                        Fresh slices of WHAT? You said above "I put a 1/2 teaspoon on each breast,...."

                                        1. re: LindaWhit

                                          Sorry, just a little olive oil. Missed that. You can really add anything, lemon, herbs, butter, wine, feta olives, tomatoes, It leads to endless combinations for a steamed version with no clean up.

                                          Sorry about the miss.

                                2. When you say you used a whole breast do you mean that it was on the bone? Because that will make a big difference on the juiciness of the meat.

                                  9 Replies
                                  1. re: KTinNYC

                                    Good point. It was off the bone - and now that I think about it, I've poached chicken on the bone before and it has been juicier for sure. It would be nice to be able to get a similar result with boned chicken though for when that's all that is available. The steaming in saran wrap idea is intriguing!

                                    1. re: KTinNYC

                                      On the bone is always better, but I use what I have. I have done both and whole chickens. I use the plastic wrap recipe above for smaller amounts but love doing a whole chicken even just breasts. I do this for my soups and chicken and dumplings. Use the broth and the majority of the chicken for the dumplings and use the reamaining meat (usually dark for sandwiches, stirfrays, etc tacos are great, simple and quick with great flavor. I make a great sour cream with 1 small onion roasted and a couple of different peppers, cubenella and jalapeno all roasted. All some garlic sour cream, lime and lime zest and the peppers and onions and add to a taco with some fresh tomato and some shredded cabbage. Great and simple, some sliced avacado and the sour cream sauce. Steaming does work good, similar result and a bit easier to me but each his own. Just another method.

                                      1. re: kchurchill5

                                        "On the bone is always better, but I use what I have"

                                        Aren't you the one buying the chicken? Wouldn't you then be in control of what you have? You're talking like the the chicken just magically appears in your refrigerator but you have no choice on whether or not the chicken came with or without bones.

                                        1. re: KTinNYC

                                          I don't have the luxory of going to the store every day, or every other day or two. Sometimes I work late like 9 or 10 and when I come home I want some healthy and fast. Don't have time for great long cooking meals. Yes I buy chicken and buy mostly on bone, but if the boneless on sale absolutely I buy them. I'm on a strict budget too. I have 3 people coming over for people tomorrow night. I'm still working offshore on a boat right now, be home at 8 and will get home around midnight. Then tomorrow the boat again from 5 am till 6, dinner after, the only thing I have in my fridge is boneless skinless. I making a flavorful steamed chicken over some stir fry veggies, I have enough and enough seasoning to make it work, some jasmine rice and a nice sauce. I have some arugula with a sesame dressing. Dinner is 15 if that. Now no offense, I would love to have chicken on the bone. But with freezer space and work sometimes I buy what is on sale. I make do. I have some great vegetables and a killer sesame sauce so I'm sure the bones will not be missed.

                                          Yes, I buy what I like and can afford and when I can get to the store.

                                        2. re: kchurchill5

                                          ok wait now that sounds good. I don't know I can get cubanella what is that? Is that a fresh pepper and what's it look like.So you mix the peppers into the sour cream, with lime and zest onions then fill taco shells with shredded cabbage -ok yum, and tomato, avocado and shredded chicken??? this sounds really good.

                                          1. re: chef chicklet

                                            The taco you can add just some salsa to the chicken or you can add a little simple taco seasoning (pkg is ok or you can make your own) I like to add the flavored chicken to the taco first maybe with a little cheese if you want. Then some cabbage, I just get a bagged (use the rest for a great slaw with BBQ pork) just an idea. Also some sliced avacado is great in the taco. For the sauce roast some peppers, yes cubanella, a semi mild larger pepper (most grocery stores). I roast them and maybe a jalapeno to give a different flavor. Roast, cool peel and remove seeds and ribs and chop, add to the sour cream with some lime juice, zest, garlic and diced onion and add to the taco as a sauce. Chipoltes also work but are much hotter and use a lot less. But equally as good. Again cheese, tomatoes are all optional, mango is also great and fresh slices of red onion good too. It is all good. It is great.

                                            Quesadillas are also great for this I put the sour cream sauce on the side. I fill with some salsa or taco type seasoning mix the chicken, cheese, onions and avacado, then grill, I top with the sour cream mix and tomatoes. Always good.

                                            Great mild pepper at the grocery store. Most have it these days. You can roast which I love but you can also dice fresh. I love to mix with some sour cream, some diced onion or shallots (i love shallots) doesn't matter, and some lime zest and lime juice. You can also sub chipoltes in adobo, much spicer and use just a little but a great dip as well.

                                            1. re: kchurchill5

                                              look how late it is here. Officially 10 pm or is it 11pm? I want to go downstairs and make a taco or salad/ Your suggestions which are crazy good, have made me so darn hungry!!!

                                              Is that a light yellow green pepper? the cubanella?

                                              1. re: chef chicklet

                                                Cubanella I get red and green here. Mild not too hot, you really can use any of your favorites. I love spice, jalapenos for me. I also tell anyone to use the level they like. I truly like more spice than most, but anything works for me. Half of the fun of cooking right? Recipes, I have none that I follow. I like to experiment but roasting peppers are soo good. And I love Mexican

                                                Serranos are hot as jalapenos, chipoltes in adobo hot too they are just jalapenos; cubanellos are my go too. Not too hot but a bit mild. I found most are not too put off by their heat. I still am careful with guest. Not everyone likes heat like me.

                                        3. I'd do a chicken breast the same way I poach a whole chicken.
                                          Start with cold water, barely cover the chicken(skin on), add onion, celery, garlic, pepper corns or ginger root if I want to make Asian broth. Bring it to a boil and turn it off. come back an hour later, its done perfect. Not boiled to death, still moist and full of flavor. I'd pull the breast off the bone. Chill it and make a nice cold chicken salad with avocado cream sauce and lettuce. I don't buy boneless and skinless chicken around here it's never a good buy. Bought two whole chickens today 69 cents per pound, Foster Farms. Not organic, but oh well...

                                          2 Replies
                                          1. re: chef chicklet

                                            What's an avocado cream sauce? Sounds great and I have some avocadoes that are starting to get a little long in the tooth.

                                            1. re: c oliver

                                              I make a avacado cream sauce with sour cream fresh avacado a little garlic, a dash of red pepper and salt and pepper and some mild scallions diced. all nice creamed. Sometimes if over salad I add some heavy cream to thin out a bit.

                                          2. Not a last-minute preparation, but I find I come closest to perfection with a poached chicken breast by allowing it to sit overnight, refrigerated, in its poaching liquid.

                                            About the only time I poach breasts is for a curried chicken salad that I'm now required to bring to an annual summer picnic. I bring the bone-in breasts to a bare simmer in water to cover with the addition of nothing more than bay leaves. The minute the water starts to simmer, I turn the heat from medium to low and cook for about 30 minutes. During that time a bubble might pop to the surface every once in a while, but you really wouldn't call it simmering. Once the chicken is cooked and cooled somewhat, the whole pot goes into the fridge overnight. The overnight cooling in liquid makes for the most tender, juicy chicken breasts I've ever had.

                                            17 Replies
                                            1. re: JoanN

                                              I agree with the overnight cooling in the poaching liquid (although not helpful for a quick dinner.) Somewhere I have a great recipe for a chinese-style chicken salad with scallions, raisins, slivered almonds, and chow mein noodles with a dressing made of lemon juice, soy sauce and sesame oil. (I think???) Anyway, the bone-in breasts are poached and allowed to sit over night in the liquid, and the meat is tender and very moist.

                                              1. re: JoanN

                                                Thanks. I have to give this a try. Is there anything you can do with the poaching liquid after you're done? It seems a shame not to use it.

                                                1. re: chowser

                                                  This is an instance where you're *not* trying to extract the flavor from the chicken, so the poaching liquid, especially since there are no aromatics other than the bay leaves, is pretty flavorless. I just toss it. No regrets.

                                                  1. re: JoanN

                                                    Since I'm the child of a depression-era mother, I would not be able to sleep at night if I threw out the stock. So I would turn it into some kind of soup, e.g. use it as the base for a tasty potato/broccoli/cheddar cheese thing, or a curried squash -- something like that where I would not be relying on the flavor of the broth to make the soup good. But can't throw it out -- no sir!

                                                    1. re: rememberme

                                                      I wouldn't be able to throw it out either if it were stock. But the method I'm using to poach the chicken breasts (no aromatics, no simmering, and a cooking time of only 30 minutes) results in something more akin to pasta water. It's usable, but it's not "stock."

                                                      1. re: JoanN

                                                        I totally agree with you. Recently my dogs were both sick and were on a diet of boneless, skinless chicken breasts and white rice. In that case, I fixed the chicken first and used the "water" (cause that's really all it is) to cook their rice. Otherwise, down the drain. I don't save water that I've cooked broccoli etc in either. Hasn't cooked long enough to do any good, imo.

                                                        1. re: JoanN

                                                          Looking at the leftover liquid, like rememberme, I had problems throwing it out so I deboned the chicken, add it back to the liquids, added carrots, onions, celery, spices and am making stock. It smells great.

                                                          And, the poached chicken was good, despite being overcooked. I'll do it again and watch it more closely next time. Thanks!

                                                          1. re: chowser

                                                            Good idea to use the bones to make a stock. It would probably also be a good opportunity to use up the bits and pieces of backs and wingtips that always threaten to overwhelm my freezer.

                                                        2. re: rememberme

                                                          rememberme, i have a name for this condition which affects us children of depression-era parents:
                                                          "depression-child-by-proxy" syndrome.
                                                          can't. waste. anything.

                                                        3. re: JoanN

                                                          Thanks--I'm doing it right now. The problem I'm having is getting the right stove temperature so it doesn't simmer but doesn't just sit there, too. Electric stoves are a pain. I'll experiment. I'm doing it uncovered--is that right?

                                                          1. re: chowser

                                                            Yes, uncovered. That's the way I've always done it.

                                                            I cook on an electric stove when I'm at my mom's and it drives me crazy. But at least hers has some kind of an automatic "simmer" button on one of the burners that actually seems to work, although I've never tried what in this instance might be called a non-simmer simmer.

                                                            1. re: JoanN

                                                              I think this might be a good thing to try on low in the crockpot, pouring boiling water over the chicken.

                                                              1. re: chowser

                                                                I've never owned a crockpot so I'm no help on that at all.

                                                                1. re: JoanN

                                                                  I think I've botched this and the chicken might be overcooked. I'll refrigerate in liquid and hope it helps some. It's frustrating trying to get the right temperature with electric. But, I haven't ditched the technique. I'll keep trying. This is why I never poach.

                                                            2. re: chowser

                                                              I've formed a donut-type ring out of scrunched up aluminum foil and put on top of the burner when I just can't get it low enough without it being too low. Diffuses the heat quite well.

                                                              1. re: c oliver

                                                                Clever idea! My stove goes to low (like a warm setting) but the problem is that was too low. It was the Goldilocks problem that when I turned it up, it simmered too high. I need to find the number that makes it "just right" since the response isn't immediate.

                                                                1. re: c oliver

                                                                  That was in southern living, it works great, thanks for reminding me. I hate that at my first house. My second house had a nice stove. I forgot all about that. It has been around for many years. What a great use. I love it.

                                                        4. I am pretty embarrassed to admit this, but I've never poached chicken -- and just picked up a family-pack of boneless skinless breasts on sale. Would love to poach them for use in lunches and dinners all week. Is it a bad idea to just throw them all in a big pot and let simmer? Or should I simmer them in a single layer, maybe in a large skillet? Thanks in advance.

                                                          3 Replies
                                                          1. re: theannerska

                                                            Well many differences here, I have done it and for what you want them for to me would be ok. The boneless are not as good as bone in, but depending what you wanted them used for a main course.

                                                            I really like a wine or even some juice to flavor, peppercorns, some aeromatics, I even like some celery and onion. I think a pot would work ok but many methods here. I bring the chicken and liquid to a boil and cook just till done cooking on a medium simmer. Remove from heat when done. Some people leave them in the liquid, others don't. Use whatever method you like best.

                                                            To me ... I like using this method for salads, sandwiches, stir fry, rice or spring rolls or quesadillas.

                                                            Black bean good pepperjack cheese, onions and chicken with some avacado make a great quesadillo, some sour cream and salsa and can't get much better.

                                                            Even chop the chicken very fine with some onion, red and green peppers and toss with the chicken some fresh herbs tossed with pasta and some pinto beans with a spicy vinaigrette is great

                                                            Or toss with black olives, artichokes, feta, tomatoes, etc over some orzo or couscous for a warm chicken salad or stuffed in a pocket or wrapped for a wrapped sandwich.

                                                            I think you would be pleased. Sure makes dinner a bit easier

                                                            1. re: theannerska

                                                              Just throw them all in a big pot with ample water.

                                                              1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                                                                I was trying to imitate my mother's method (similar to Bigley9's 'asian preparation'), so today I put all the breasts into a big pot, covered with water, and simmered away. 10 minutes plus an hour off the heat, covered. Too bad I missed NYchowcook's comment below; I think I did a full simmer, since the meat ended up a bit on the dry side.

                                                                I've got another family pack thawing in the fridge and will experiment some more tomorrow, this time on a much lower simmer. And next time, bone-in. Thanks for all the suggestions!

                                                            2. One of my favorite comfort foods from my youth is a poached chicken casserole type dish my mother made. I reconstructed as follows:
                                                              Put chicken pieces in a casserole dish (can brown first for a more appetizing brown look), add stock, rice and carrots. Cover and bake. The rice picks up the chicken flavors and the carrot adds flavor, and it is all so comforting and simple.

                                                              For poaching chicken, I would add aromatics & veggies, simmer 20 mins or so, then add chicken so flavor goes in, and not all out, of the meat. Simmer at lowest point, poaching means occasional bubbles, not a full simmer which can toughen the meat.