I had a foodie friend home from the UK last week and during the many hours that we drove our taste buds to distraction discussing food, the subject of poaching was raised. We both agreed that poaching has become quite fashionable again and poached pears seem to be popping up on menus across the land.
I tend to associate poaching with eggs and fish only and even then I’m not sure if it would be my chosen method of cooking. There are so many other things you can do with an egg that it fails to register on my method radar. That has now changed and I have a new regard for this old technique. I suppose my interest was really piqued when I was reminded that it was a healthy way to cook. Our conversation had strayed onto my current health regime and while I haven’t gone completely to that lettuce chewing, lycra wearing, green juice swilling side of life just yet, I am making small lifestyle adjustments and enjoying the benefits.
Poaching is a simple and low fat way of cooking that tends to allow foods to retain their inherent flavours very well. From a scientific stand point poached food is easy to digest and so is very easy on the human system. The foods best suited to poaching are naturally tender so eggs, fish, fruit and poultry are ideal candidates. I do remember reading somewhere about poaching beef but I think I need to master the method with an egg first. Given my novice standing I felt a sirloin strip was a tad ambitious. So discovering that I had an experienced poacher in my midst and always willing to learn something new it didn’t take long to get him into the kitchen for a poaching lesson and a half.
Poaching is basically when a food is cooked in a liquid that has been heated to just below boiling point. This is where the liquid is barely moving. Poaching temperature is very important because if you allow the water to boil then, effectively, it’s game over. Boiling will cause certain foods like unshelled eggs to disintegrate while it can toughen fish or meat. You also need to make sure that the food being cooked is fully covered with the liquid but not completely drowned. While we tend to associate poaching with water, stock, syrup and alcohol are also used in order to add taste or texture depending on what is being poached. Liam also pointed out that the food being poached is infusing the liquid so, depending on the menu, he would often use the poaching liquid to cook other parts of the meal also. When poaching eggs or fish it is common to add a little vinegar or lemon juice to the liquid and this helps to keep everything firm.
When choosing a pot to poach in, the pot should be a bit larger than the food with enough room to cover it with the liquid. If all you plan on doing is eggs you should have plenty of choice. It is also a good idea to match your food with the poaching liquid. Chicken stock if you are poaching chicken, a vegetable stock or fish stock for fish or, of course, the catch all; plain water. When poaching meat and fish it is also important to add all the herbs, spices and vegetables to the water before you add the meat. These flavours will be absorbed by the food and that’s what poaching is really all about. Don’t forget the vinegar or lemon juice! I was advised that it is best to use fresh herbs where possible and you needn’t chop everything up, just stick them in the pot!
By all accounts at that point poaching was the holy grail of cooking, but I insisted that there must be a downside. It would appear that the greatest disadvantage is that it isn’t a suitable method to cook many foods. Also there is, without a doubt, a certain amount of skill required as the main difficulty seems to be in knowing when the food is properly cooked. If you are frying or grilling something you can touch it during cooking and test it as it goes along. With poaching, every time you want to check if something is done you must carefully remove it from the liquid. Again this is where repetition is the mother of skill. If you poach enough eggs or pears or chicken pieces eventually you will have a good feel for how long it takes without constantly needing to take it in and out of the liquid.
So here is my simple first lesson on how to poach an egg.
Fill a pot with three inches of cold water, add a pinch of salt and bring it to the boil.
Carefully break the egg into a small cup plate or bowl.
As the water reaches boiling point, reduce the heat and allow the water to simmer.
Add 1 tablespoon of vinegar to the water.
Carefully (and I mean carefully as I failed in this step on my first attempt!) slide the egg from the cup into the water. Keep the cup as close to the water as possible before tipping in the egg and you should be fine.
Once the eggs are in the water don’t be tempted to move the eggs around. Allow them to cook for 3 to 4 minutes. The time difference will depend on the size of the egg and how firm you like your egg yolks.
When done remove the egg with a slotted spoon. You can trim any dangling bits of egg white with a knife.
Serve immediately on warm toast.
While I have to admit that the resulting egg on the buttered toast was delicious I do think that cooking eggs is probably the least you should do with poaching. I’m definitely going to poach again and who knows, I might even get to the stage where I just might attempt that classic, poached pears in red wine. I welcome your feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.
We hope you enjoyed reading this post by Pat Whelan of James Whelan Butchers. Pat is a 5th generation butcher, cook book author and the director of James Whelan Butchers with shops in Clonmel, the Avoca Food Market Monkstown and Avoca Rathcoole. Sign up to our newsletter for more updates from James Whelan Butchers