A FRESH APPROACH REINVIGORATES AN OLD-FASHIONED METHOD
Hardly anyone poaches chicken anymore. Most renditions are a real snooze, one step up from bland institutional fare. But poaching does have one potential advantage over other ways to prepare boneless, skinless chicken breasts: It should, in theory, be foolproof.
Grilling, broiling, and sautéing are high-wire acts, each with a substantial risk of producing a very dry, very stringy end result. Because these cooking methods require so much dry heat (and because chicken breasts have so little fat), there’s not much room for error—the chicken goes from perfectly cooked to overcooked in seconds.
Gentle poaching is more forgiving. The poaching liquid never gets all that hot so the chicken is exposed to very little heat. If only poached chicken wasn’t so boring.
Our first decision was to throw out the poaching liquid once the chicken was cooked. Most classic recipes use a small amount of poaching liquid, with the idea that the liquid can be reduced to a sauce. Unfortunately, it’s a lot of work to eke out flavor from the poaching liquid and the sauce often isn’t very tasty. It’s easier to make a separate vinaigrette, salsa, or creamy yogurt sauce while the chicken poaches.
Since the poaching liquid is no longer destined to become a sauce, you can season the liquid very aggressively, with a lot of salt and soy sauce (to enhance the meaty, savory notes in the chicken). Coupled with a unique poaching method designed to prevent overcooking, the chicken emerges moist and perfectly seasoned. When paired with a bold sauce, this poached chicken is no longer a relic—it’s a revelation.
WHY THIS RECIPE WORKS
Prop Up the Chicken
When food rests on the bottom of a pot of water, the side touching the metal will cook more quickly because of its proximity to the burner. Elevating the chicken breasts in a steamer basket ensures that they will be surrounded by water and all sides will cook at the same rate.
Add Flavor Boosters
Most flavorings in a cooking liquid can’t migrate very far into meat. We add a few that can—soy sauce, salt, sugar, and garlic. (The flavor compounds in most herbs and spices are oil-soluble but those in garlic are soluble in water, which is why garlic works in this recipe but herbs and spices don’t.) Don’t use less salt or soy sauce than the recipe directs—most of it goes down the drain with the water.
Brine, Then Poach
Use the well-seasoned poaching liquid to brine the chicken before turning on the heat. Thirty minutes is sufficient for the salt and soy sauce to penetrate deep into the chicken, ensuring that it will be well seasoned and tender. (The salt changes the structure of the muscle fibers and prevents moisture loss during cooking.) Finally, because the chicken loses its chill during the 30-minute brining time, it needs less exposure to the heat to come up to the desired final serving temperature so there’s less risk of overcooking it.
Bringing the cooking liquid to 175 degrees, turning off the heat, covering the pot, and cooking the chicken via residual heat is foolproof and hands-off. It’s impossible to cook the chicken beyond the desired internal temperature of 160 degrees because the pot is moved off the heat and the temperature of the water is dropping as the temperature of the chicken slowly climbs. Make sure to use the full 4 quarts of water to ensure plenty of reserve heat.
Poach the chicken breasts in a steamer basket and then sauce them with a fresh tomato vinaigrette.
Perfect Poached Chicken Breasts
- 5 minutes to prep chicken and brine
- 30 minutes to brine chicken (completely hands-off)
- 35 minutes to poach chicken (make sauce while chicken cooks)
- 7 minutes to rest and slice chicken
- Meat pounder (You can use a heavy small skillet in a pinch.)
- Dutch oven (or other large pot)
- Steamer basket
- Instant-read thermometer
Substitutions & Variations
- The cooking times in this recipe are designed to work with standard size chicken breasts that weigh 6 to 8 ounces. Don’t use this method with thin cutlets (they usually weigh just 3 or 4 ounces) or breasts that weigh more than 8 ounces (they might not cook through in the allotted time).
- You can use this method to cook chicken for any salad, dressing the chicken as the salad recipe directs.
- If you like, serve the chicken with another potent sauce. Good choices include pureed sauces (like pesto), warm vinaigrettes, juicy salsas (with fruit or tomatoes), or creamy yogurt-based sauces.
- To cook just two chicken breasts, use 2 quarts of water and cut brine ingredients in half. Use medium-low heat (not medium) and reduce off-heat cooking time to 12 to 17 minutes.
Serve with a vinaigrette or sauce (recipes follow).
- 4 (6- to 8-ounce) boneless, skinless chicken breasts, trimmed
- ½ cup soy sauce
- ¼ cup salt
- 2 tablespoons sugar
- 6 garlic cloves, smashed and peeled
- Cover chicken breasts with plastic wrap and pound thick ends gently with meat pounder until ¾ inch thick. Whisk 4 quarts water, soy sauce, salt, sugar, and garlic in Dutch oven until salt and sugar are dissolved. Arrange breasts, skinned side up, in steamer basket, making sure not to overlap them. Submerge steamer basket in brine and let sit at room temperature for 30 minutes.
- Heat pot over medium heat, stirring liquid occasionally to even out hot spots, until water registers 175 degrees, 15 to 20 minutes. Turn off heat, cover pot, remove from burner, and let stand until meat registers 160 degrees, 17 to 22 minutes.
- Transfer breasts to cutting board, cover tightly with aluminum foil, and let rest for 5 minutes. Slice each breast on bias into ¼-inch-thick slices, transfer to serving platter or individual plates, and serve.
WARM TOMATO-GINGER VINAIGRETTE MAKES ABOUT 2 CUPS
Parsley may be substituted for the cilantro.
- ¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 shallot, minced
- 1½ teaspoons grated fresh ginger
- ⅛ teaspoon ground cumin
- ⅛ teaspoon ground fennel
- 12 ounces cherry tomatoes, halved
- Salt and pepper
- 1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
- 1 teaspoon packed light brown sugar
- 2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro
Heat 2 tablespoons oil in 10-inch nonstick skillet over medium heat until shimmering. Add shallot, ginger, cumin, and fennel and cook until fragrant, about 15 seconds. Stir in tomatoes and ¼ teaspoon salt and cook, stirring frequently, until tomatoes have softened, 3 to 5 minutes. Off heat, stir in vinegar and sugar and season with salt and pepper to taste; cover to keep warm. Stir in cilantro and remaining 2 tablespoons oil just before serving.
PARSLEY SAUCE WITH CORNICHONS AND CAPERS MAKES ABOUT 1¼ CUPS
- 6 tablespoons minced cornichons plus 1 teaspoon brine
- ¾ cup minced fresh parsley
- ½ cup extra-virgin olive oil
- 2 scallions, minced
- ¼ cup capers, rinsed and chopped coarse
- ¼ teaspoon pepper
- Pinch salt
Mix all ingredients together in bowl.
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