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poaching a whole salmon - method suggestions

Hi, gang. Throwing a birthday party for my pop. I am planning on poaching a whole salmon in court bouillon and dressing it up with a classic cucumber scales design. A few zesty sauces, and voila!

I could use some suggestions on the poaching method. I have read a zillion recipes. Some call for wrapping the fish in cheesecloth to protect it from falling apart, which I will do, but my confusion comes in with regard to starting temp of the poaching liquid and whether to let the fish cool in the liquid or to remove promptly when off heat. Some recipes suggest bringing the poaching liquid to simmer and then pouring it over the fish, while others say to bring room temp liquid and fish to a simmer together. So - do i start with room temp or simmering liquid; AND do i remove the fish immediately following the poach, or let it cool in the liquid? My instinct says to use room temp liquid and remove immediately following poaching to avoid overcooking (as it will continue to cook if I let it cool in the liquid).

I have never poached a whole fish and don't want to screw it up! Thanks for your help.

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  1. This is what I do. I don't think there is ONE correct method to poaching a fish, be it fillets or a whole one.

    I bring the bouillon (or poaching liquid) to a boil and then lower the fish (on its rack) into the liquid. If you don't have a rack, then simply pour the bouillon liquid over the fish. Once the fish is completely covered, bring the liquid back to a boil, then immediately reduce to the lowest simmer. Depending on the size, thickness of your fish, it should take no more than 30 minutes tops, usu. around 20 minutes will do it.

    If you've got a thermometer, the thickest part of the fish should be around 135F or so (because the fish will continue to cook as you let it cool). No thermometer? Then touch the fish. If it's firm, it's ready. Also, pull on the dorsal fin. If it feels loose, then you're done.

    Remove immediately from poaching liquid, cool, and serve.

    5 Replies
    1. re: ipsedixit

      I agree with you ipsedixit that's the best way.

      1. re: TDEL

        Thanks so much ipsedixit and tdel!

      2. re: ipsedixit

        Ok. Stupid question. If i' m serving a whole poached salmon, do i bone it or let my guests deal with it? If i take the main skeleton out, it will destroy the "wholeness" of the fish. What do you do?

        1. re: RUNNERFEMME

          Don't debone the fish. After the fish has cooled, remove the skin, the fins and any bones attached to them. Since you are not doing any aspic, don't do your cucumber scales too far in advance because it will dry out quickly in the refrigerator.
          Serving whole salmon on a self-serving buffet, it will be difficult to keep it nice looking once a few people get into it. If you want it to stay nice looking, you might have to serve each guest yourself.

          1. re: RUNNERFEMME

            It's up to you whether you leave it bone-in or debone it.

            Personally, I like to leave it bone-in because it makes for a nicer presentation, esp. if I am serving it amongst family and close friends.

            If you think your guests will be a bit squeamish about seeing a whole fish, go ahead and debone.

        2. I always thought that poaching a whole salmon in the dishwasher was a folkloric item but my neighbor tells me her brother swears by this method. Fish is well-wrapped in foil and laid in top rack; full DW cycle is run (forget the soap).

          1. The method I have used is to fill the cavity with herbs, wrap the fish in cheesecloth and suspend in room temp poaching liquid, bring the liquid slowly to 140 degrees at 1-2 degrees per minute by regulating the heat, cool in liquid. The benefit of this admittedly tine-consuming and fiddly method is that the flesh is solid after cooking and does not flake, making for nice slices. I do not debone, but do remove the fins and fin base bones. The fish is skinned and cleaned of the dark lateral line, then decorated and covered in aspic.

            2 Replies
            1. re: therealdoctorlew

              Therealdoctorlew - thank you for this explanation. Julia C instructs to be cautious of too hot poaching liquid for the same reason: flaking. If you cool in the water, do you reduce the cook time? Most instructions I am reading say 8-10 min per inch measured at thickest part of fish. If i were to chill in liquid as you say, do i reduce the cook time to account for continuing cooking once flame is turned off? Or do you take off heat once fish reaches a certain internal temp? I have an excellent thermometer. So appreciate your feedback, everyone!

              1. re: RUNNERFEMME

                I use the liquid temperature, not the meat temp. I am sure that the cooking is not complete when the external liquid is at temp, but the cooling period allows the interior of the fish to cook. The heating time is known but the cooking time is not measured. By the way, I use a meat thermometer to measure the liquid's temp.

            2. I cover the fish in cold water and aromatics, bring slowly to a simmer, then switch off the heat, clamp on the lid and leave to cool down completely in the liquid (sometimes overnight). It's ridiculously easy, and works perfectly.

              1. My only suggestion--if you use the cheesecloth, make sure you unwrap it fairly soon after you remove it to cool. I made the mistake of leaving it wrapped--when I tried to unwrap the fully cooled fish, the cheesecloth was tearing the flesh. :(
                Otherwise, whole poached salmon is wonderful, great party do-ahead which really saves time when you are entertaining.

                2 Replies
                1. re: mommasue

                  Just wanted to report back on complete success! Thank you all for your help!

                  1. re: RUNNERFEMME

                    That is the cutest little dog in your avatar, RF.