As fond as one may be of bacon and butter, sometimes the body just wants something light. What do you make when you want a light meal? I've taken to poaching chicken, using a pretty cool method taught to me by Hank Shaw.
The method reminds me of sous vide, but you don't need any fancy equipment, just plastic wrap and a big pot of hot water. You take a strip of boneless, skinless chicken breast, season it, wrap it tightly in plastic wrap, and then drop it in hot water.
That's it. So easy. The result is tender, moist, perfectly cooked chicken, with no added fat.
How to Poach Chicken
The key to the success of this technique is to never put the rolled-up chicken into boiling water; boiling water is too hot and will overcook the meat. Instead, bring the water to a simmer and then turn off the heat.
Once the water stops bubbling, you can add the meat. As the water temperature slowly drops, the chicken is gently cooked all the way through. Small chicken breasts will be perfectly cooked in 15 minutes, but you can leave them in the water for 30 minutes with no loss of flavor or texture.
Make sure that your slices of chicken or other meat are not more than 3 inches in diameter. If they are wider, you can still use this method, but you might need to turn the burner on "low" to keep the temperature from falling below 140 degrees.
What Makes This "Restaurant-Style?"
Many restaurants use this method to ensure the chicken is moist as well as uniform in size and shape. Wrapping the meat in plastic wrap seals in the juices and helps infuse the meat with the seasonings while it cooks.
Which Plastic Wrap Is Safe for Poaching Chicken?
Good quality plastic wrap is imperative for this recipe. Off-brand plastic wrap is fine for most food storage, but for exposure to heat, you want to go with the good stuff. The easiest way to know plastic wrap is good quality and can withstand heat is to use plastic wrap that's clearly marked "microwave safe".
Which Cuts of Chicken Can Be Poached This Way?
This method is for boneless, skinless chicken breasts that have been cut into uniform slices no more than 3 inches in diameter. Larger pieces of chicken breast, bone-in pieces, or dark meat pieces will not work with this recipe because they need a longer poaching time and the water will cool before they are cooked through.
As long as the meat is cut into 3-inch strips, you can also use this technique with boneless turkey breast, pork tenderloin, or meaty fish like as halibut.
Tips for Ensuring Poached Chicken Is Cooked Through
- Make sure the chicken breast strips are uniform in size and no more than 3 inch in diameter.
- Check the chicken after 15 minutes. Remove one from the water and press on it with your finger (careful, its hot). If it's squishy, the chicken needs more cooking. If it springs back, it's likely ready.
- When in doubt, open the plastic, and slice into the chicken. If there's no pink inside, it's done. If there's still pink inside, rewrap and return to the water for another 3 to 5 minutes, or until the chicken is no longer pink inside.
How to Store Leftover Chicken
Poached chicken will keep in the refrigerator, covered, for 3 to 5 days.
Since this poaching method is so quick and is designed to create tender, moist chicken, we recommend making it fresh versus making it ahead to freeze. It can be frozen if you have leftover that you can't use, but the chicken may be tougher once defrosted. To freeze the poached chicken, wrap it in plastic wrap and then with foil for up to three months. Defrost in the refrigerator.
Recipes That Use Poached Chicken
- Teriyaki Chicken Breasts
- Chicken Salad
- Curried Chicken Salad With Mango
- Chinese Chicken Salad
- Chicken Pot Pie
Restaurant-Style Poached Chicken
This recipe is designed for chicken breasts, but you can also do this with turkey breast, pork tenderloin, or a meaty fish such as halibut.
You can double this recipe, but if you do, use a larger pot and double the amount of poaching water.
1 (8-ounce) boneless, skinless chicken breast
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 to 2 pinches kosher salt
1 to 2 pinches dried herbs of your choice, such as tarragon, oregano, basil, rosemary, or thyme, or some other seasoning such as cumin or paprika
Good-quality plastic wrap (use plastic wrap that says it's microwave safe)
Trim season the chicken pieces:
Trim all the fat from the chicken breast and slice it lengthwise into uniform slices that are no more than 3 inches in diameter. In a small bowl mix the lemon juice, salt, and herbs.
Add the chicken pieces and coat all over with the lemon juice mixture.
Let the chicken pieces sit in the lemon juice while you heat the water in the next step.
Bring the water to a high simmer:
In a 4 quart pot with a lid, bring 2 1/2 quarts of water to a high simmer.
Roll the chicken in plastic:
Roll out a long sheet of plastic wrap at least twice as long as the chicken breast slices. Place 1 chicken strip on the plastic wrap, in the middle. Roll up the chicken in the plastic wrap tightly.
Compress as much air out of the chicken as you can as you roll it. Once the chicken is rolled up, rotate it on your cutting board or counter several times to tighten the cylinder even more. Tie the loose ends of the plastic wrap together in a double knot.
Repeat with remaining chicken strips.
Poach the chicken:
Once the water has reached a high simmer, turn off the heat (keep the pot on the burner though) and drop the rolled-up chicken cylinders in the pot. Cover the pot and let the chicken steep for 15 minutes.
The chicken should be cooked through by then. (If for some reason the chicken is not cooked through, for example if you are using larger than called for breasts, or if you are using frozen chicken that's not quite defrosted, you can always put the chicken back in the poaching liquid for a few more minutes.)
Unwrap, slice, and serve:
Note that there will be some juice inside the plastic wrap with the chicken, which has lots of flavor. So you might want to unwrap the chicken pieces over a bowl or something to catch the juice, which you can then pour over the chicken if you want. Or serve the chicken with a sauce of your choice.