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The Art of Poaching Fish

Updated on October 21, 2013

"Poach" is a quirky term with two meanings; to cook in a simmering liquid OR to catch wild animals illegally. Telling people you like poaching fish could bring about different reactions. They might invite themselves to your place to have a taste of your poached fish, or they might call the police to throw your sorry bottom in jail. So be careful and don't get misunderstood. In this article, I will focus on the lawful way to poach fish. I don't want to get any of my readers in trouble.

"You won't find me calling poaching a cutting-edge technique. It's old school."

- Chef Rick Moonen of RM Seafood, Las Vegas

Chef Moonen is precisely correct. Poaching is an over-the-hill culinary technique, perfected by the French back in those times when men wore lustrous wigs and women squeezed themselves into tight corsets every day. In America, poached fish used to be considered a popular "businessman's lunch" in the 70s and 80s. But since then, it has fallen out of favor in most restaurants. The reason it has been so under-appreciated by the "Y and Z" generations still remains an enigma. That's a shame, really. Poaching is such a healthy way to bring the best out of the fish. Professional chefs should enjoy it, and beginner cooks should practice it with gratitude. I would love to see fish poaching be cherished as a retro cooking trend the same way platform shoes have made a grand return to the fashion industry.

Serve poached fish with your choice of sauce and seasoning. Your fish, your call!
Serve poached fish with your choice of sauce and seasoning. Your fish, your call!

Why Poaching Fish?

  • To deliver the ultimate flavor - Poaching is like cooking and marinating at the same time. Unlike steaming, poaching allows us to immerse the fish in a spiced, aromatic liquid. Both the flavor and aroma of the poaching liquid will ooze into the fish and turn it into a delicate treat. On the other hand, if you want the sauce to be the showcase of the dish, you may just poach your fish in water in order to prevent the flavor in the fish and the sauce from clashing.
  • To preserve the nutrition in the fish - Poaching is one of a few methods that don't let the fish lose too much of its nutrition during the cooking process. When we fry fish, we often see little whitish beads forming on it. Those are beads of protein that are released and lost because of high heat. By poaching, you can save much more protein and other nutrients in your precious meal.
  • To avoid cooking blunders - It's much easier to overcook fish on a dry grill or in a sizzling skillet than in a warm liquid. Although careful attention is still needed, there is a bit more leeway in poaching than with other cooking methods. Poaching envelopes the fish in low moist heat, so the natural moisture in the fish will remain intact. Even if you cook it a few minutes too long, your fish is unlikely to get dried out too badly.
  • To fight the fishiness - Sometimes when your fish is a bit past its prime, it can become quite "fishy". If you fry or broil it over high heat, the fish will only release even more odor. Poaching involves more gentle heat and thus can help you avoid that culinary faux pas. Plus, certain types of poaching liquid contain aromatic ingredients (bay leaf, onions, rosemary, vinegar, wine, ginger, etc) that might be strong enough to overpower the stink. You won't have to worry that your kitchen might smell like Fisherman's Wharf, or that a dinner guest with an acute nasal sense might make a frank remark, "I think there's something dead in here!"


Good Fish to Poach

I don't mean to be prejudiced against some innocent fish, but I have to admit when it comes to poaching, the following types of fish tend to yield a more favorable result than others.

  • Arctic Char
  • Barramundi
  • Dover Sole
  • Halibut
  • Mahi Mahi
  • Salmon
  • Striped Bass
  • Sturgeon
  • Tuna
  • Turbot

Whole fishes and fish steaks are easier to poach than fillets, as they don't tend to fall apart too quickly. If the poaching liquid gets too hot, the vigorous bubbling can turn a delicate fish fillet into little fritters before you know it. I do like poaching fish fillets, though, especially salmon. They take only a few minutes to cook and don't require a great amount of poaching medium. We just have to be extra attentive with them. That's all.

Sometimes, even a whole fish may break up after poaching if it has an extremely soft texture. To avoid that, wrap the fish snugly in a couple layers of cheesecloth and tie off the ends with kitchen strings, leaving about 4 - 6 inches of overhang at each end. This will help the fish keep its shape and give you perfect "handles" to remove it from the poaching liquid.

Nifty Fish Tips - How to select, thaw, skin and fillet fish

Poaching Fish - The Basics

Think of poaching as old-school waltz and boiling as urban hip hop. The former is much more mellow in nature. In French, they call this method of cooking "frisson" or "friçon", which means "shiver." To poach a fish is not to boil it aggressively, but to cook it at the gentlest of simmers, barely hot enough to make the liquid shiver on the surface. The poaching liquid is not usually served with the fish, though often times, it is used as a sauce base after the poaching.

You can poach fish in a stock pot, roasting pan or deep skillet. If you like poaching a big whole fish and plan to do it regularly, however, a standard fish poacher may be able to take some stress out of the process. It's basically a large oblong kettle with a lid and a strainer, which can accommodate fish of many sizes and allow you to conveniently lift the fish from the poaching liquid without risking it falling apart.

After the poaching is finished, go ahead and enjoy the liberty of saucing. Shower your fish with dill butter sauce if you crave a luxurious flavor, or zing it up with wasabi for a more exciting taste. In case you want to keep it simple, sprinkling the fish with dried herbs and lemon juice is just perfect. Or if you are ambitious enough to transform your simple poached fish into a French delicacy, try crowning it with a creamy scallop mousse. Just take advantage of your savory fish whichever way you want!

Choices of Poaching Liquid

  • Court Bouillon - This classic poaching liquid is concocted with vinegar, water, vegetables, herbs and salt. (Watch the first video below to learn how you can prepare it.)
  • Red Wine Court Bouillon- A more sophisticated version of regular court bouillon. Unlike most types of poaching liquid, red wine court bouillon is supposed to be served with the fish after poaching. So what does that tell you? Use a decent wine!
  • Butter - Although this poaching medium is more popular for poaching lobsters and scallops, you may use it with fish as well. Like red wine court bouillon, the poaching butter is often served as part of the finished dish.
  • Oil - This is the best poaching liquid for keeping the fish extremely moist and velvety. Basic olive oil is all you need; it doesn't have to be extra virgin.
  • Milk - Milk is good for poaching flatfish, such as dover sole, turbot and halibut. Like a quality enamel, it makes the texture of the fish more resilient and adds an extra "shine" to chalky white fish.
  • Other types of poaching liquid- Not everyone has time and all the ingredients to prepare court bouillon. And some people may not want to use a large quantity of oil to poach a fish. Luckily, poaching is a very flexible method of cooking. You can simply poach your fish with water and herbs, stock and white wine, or regular fish fumet. Be creative. Select a poaching medium that best suits your budget, convenience and taste.

Deep Poaching Fish

Deep poaching is done on a stove-top, either with or without a cover. The fish must be completely immersed in a warm poaching liquid of about 160 - 180º F. James Beard, a renowned American chef, called this stage of heating water "feeble ebullition." If you don't have an instant-read thermometer, it's not a problem. Just try to observe it. You should see a flimsy steam rising from the liquid, the surface slightly shivering, and perhaps occasional bubble rising. Try to keep the heat at that gentle simmer throughout the poaching process.

Shallow Poaching Fish

Shallow poaching is when you cover only about two-thirds of the fish with the poaching liquid, then close the pan with a lid, aluminum foil or grease-proof paper. You can do this instead of deep poaching if you want the flavor in the liquid to be more concentrated. The liquid from shallow poaching is usually added to the sauce and served with the fish. In addition, this method of poaching normally begins on a stove-top and finishes in an oven. Heat the poaching liquid on a stove-top to about 125º F. You should be able to feel the heat as you dip your finger in it, without getting burned. Add the fish to the liquid, then cover and transfer it to a warm oven (about 180 - 200º F). You may poach your fish in a hot oven as well (300 - 350º F); the fish will be done much faster. I personally prefer using lower heat just to give the poaching liquid a longer time to suffuse its flavor into the fish.

How Long Does It Take to Poach Fish?

Poaching time varies, depending on the size and type of fish you poach. The following are some estimate guidelines for both deep poaching on a stove-top and shallow poaching in a warm oven:

  • Thin Fillets: 3 - 7 minutes
  • Thick Fillets: 5 - 12 minutes
  • Steaks: 10 - 20 minutes
  • Large Whole Fish: 15 - 30 minutes

Fish "Doneness"

When my grandmother first taught me how to cook fish, I always had to ask her, "Is it done, Grandma?" I really couldn't tell whether my lovely fish was still undercooked or about to be overcooked. I wasn't able to poach a fish to save my life. It took me quite a while to grasp the basics of fish cookery. If you are a beginner in this arena, the best way to make sure you don't overcook fish is to keep your eye on it. Fish changes color as it cooks. Most types of fish turn from translucent to opaque, or from bright to pastel.

Also, don't be afraid to touch the fish. Especially when you poach fish, you need not fear getting burned. Gently put the flat part of the first joint of your forefinger on the fish. Don't use your fingertip; it might not be sensitive enough. Cooked fish should be firmer and more resilient, not too soft or overly flaky. Having said that, flaking actually doesn't always indicate that the fish is completely cooked. If a dense fish like salmon or mahi mahi starts to flake, it means the fish is well-done. But for a more squishy fish like cod, it might begin flaking when it's only medium-rare. So always keep checking along the way and track the changes. During a poaching process, I usually check my fish two or three times. Cooking fish is not like making soup - you can't just follow a recipe. It takes a lot of learning and observing until you get the right feel and timing.

What is your favorite method of cooking fish?

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Don't try to force jumbo fish into a small pot. Get a fish Poacher!

Comments

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  • anglnwu profile image

    anglnwu 7 years ago

    Om, either we are both great minds or fools. I choose the former. I'm just in the process of discussing the different ways to make fish--of course, poaching is one of them, when I got tired and turned to hubpages. And there you're---a whole hub on poaching. Interesting, full of details with your own pix to show. Now, where does that leave me? Haha--should i abandon my sorry hub?

    Anyway, so in awe of your great hub. Great job and rating it up.

  • Sally's Trove profile image

    Sherri 7 years ago from Southeastern Pennsylvania

    Wonderful Hub on the poaching technique. I don't think anyone can go wrong following your instructions and advice. Nice list of recipes, too. I checked out the Poached Salmon with Lemon-Caper Sauce, and that looks like a real winner. Now I want some fish!

  • Om Paramapoonya profile image
    Author

    Om Paramapoonya 7 years ago

    @anglnwu - Hehehe what a coincidence! I think you should go ahead and finish that hub. It'll be about different methods of cooking fish, right? So it's not like our hubs are on the exact same topic. Even if you were also gonna write about poaching fish, I wouldn't mind it at all. So glad you stopped by! =D

  • Om Paramapoonya profile image
    Author

    Om Paramapoonya 7 years ago

    @Sally's Trove - Hi Sally! Yes, I agree that salmon recipe sounds delish. But right now I'm very tempted to try the Red Snapper with Scallop Mousse. I want some fish, too! =D

  • katiem2 profile image

    katiem2 7 years ago from I'm outta here

    Great poaching fish tips and advice, your salmon looks fantastic. Thanks :)

  • Om Paramapoonya profile image
    Author

    Om Paramapoonya 7 years ago

    Thanks, Katie. I think salmon almost always looks yummy no matter how we cook it. It's my favorite fish. :)

  • anglnwu profile image

    anglnwu 7 years ago

    I had to come to congratulate you on your nomination! So, your fish hub beat up my fish hub but I knew that already, when I first read this hub. Well-deserved and good luck!

  • Om Paramapoonya profile image
    Author

    Om Paramapoonya 7 years ago

    Thanks a lot, anglnwu. Yeah, good luck to me! But I don't know. Luck hasn't been on my side lately. We'll see. Very grateful to be nominated, though. :)

  • DixieMockingbird profile image

    DixieMockingbird 7 years ago from East Tennessee

    Love this! I adore poaching - and you've nailed the technique. Great job!

  • prettydarkhorse profile image

    prettydarkhorse 7 years ago from US

    Good luck my dear I love fish and this hub is just great! Maita

  • profile image

    Bora Bora 7 years ago

    i HEART fish! Yum Yum...VOTE UP!!!

  • Om Paramapoonya profile image
    Author

    Om Paramapoonya 7 years ago

    Thanks a lot, everyone. I wish we all could have a fish feast together! :)

  • Money Glitch profile image

    Money Glitch 7 years ago from Texas

    In the past I have not been a fan of poached fish; however, your salmon dish up at the top of the page looks great. Although, I'm a contender as well; I wanted to stop by and say congrats, my friend, on being selected as one of the nominees in the Hubalicious contest this week. :) Great job!

  • Om Paramapoonya profile image
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    Om Paramapoonya 7 years ago

    Thanks, MG. Hopefully, both of us will win (the best hub and peeps' choice)...kekekeke (my mischievous giggle)

  • profile image

    Twenty One Days 7 years ago

    Paramapoonya, very excellent congrats on your win by the judges. I didn't see this hub until now. Great info. -James

  • akirchner profile image

    Audrey Kirchner 7 years ago from Central Oregon

    Great hub! Congrats on winning, too!

  • habee profile image

    Holle Abee 7 years ago from Georgia

    congrats! Awesome hub!

  • Money Glitch profile image

    Money Glitch 7 years ago from Texas

    Wonderful and much deserved. I love the way this hub is composed with the little fish dividers. Congratulations OM, Great Job! :)

  • howtoguru profile image

    Tyler Norwood 7 years ago from Texas

    Congratulations! This hub really deserved to win, you did an excellent job and I loved reading it, although I hate fish! Keep up the good work. Voted up and awesome!

  • stephhicks68 profile image

    Stephanie Hicks 7 years ago from Bend, Oregon

    I learned a lot about poaching - I usually grill or bake fish myself, but am game to try poaching now. Congratulations!

  • Om Paramapoonya profile image
    Author

    Om Paramapoonya 7 years ago

    @James - Thanks! Isn't it fun to type "paramapoonya"?

    @akircher and habee - Thanks you so much.

    @MG - The fish is a lucky symbol. Maybe that's why I got so lucky in this contest. :P

    @howtoguru - Hey, don't hate fish! They're yummy. Hehehe thanks a lot for dropping by.

    @Steph - Thanks! I like grilling fish, too. Hmmmm grilled salmon with lime butter sauce....YUM

  • Loren's Gem profile image

    Loren's Gem 7 years ago from Istanbul, Turkey

    Great hub! Very informative and well-written. Congrats on your win. You deserve it! :-)

  • Om Paramapoonya profile image
    Author

    Om Paramapoonya 7 years ago

    Thanks, Loren :)

  • Purple Perl profile image

    Purple Perl 7 years ago from Bangalore,India

    Thanks for the excellent hub! Will poach my fish from now on.

    And Congrats on the win! Well deserved.

  • Les Trois Chenes profile image

    Les Trois Chenes 7 years ago from Videix, Limousin, South West France

    I didn't know there was so much to learn about poaching fish - and your hub really made me laugh as well. Thanks and congratulations!

  • anglnwu profile image

    anglnwu 7 years ago

    Congrats again! You thoroughly outdid yourself!

  • liswilliams profile image

    liswilliams 7 years ago from South Africa

    That is one awesome hub, Om, you put a lot of effort into it. Great content. Well Done, you really deserved it

  • Om Paramapoonya profile image
    Author

    Om Paramapoonya 7 years ago

    Hey, thanks for all the congratulations and encouragement! You guys are so sweet. :)

  • rebekahELLE profile image

    rebekahELLE 7 years ago from Tampa Bay

    stopping in to read the best hubs from the contest! wow~~~

    this is wonderful and so informative. your lay-out is fantastic and love the little fishies in between sections.

    I love fish, but have never used the poaching technique.

    I'll have to give it a try! congrats and well deserved. :]

  • Om Paramapoonya profile image
    Author

    Om Paramapoonya 7 years ago

    Thanks a lot, rebekahelle! :)

  • oceansnsunsets profile image

    Paula 7 years ago from The Midwest, USA

    Hello Om, great hub on poaching fish, and congratulations on your win!

  • Peggy W profile image

    Peggy Woods 7 years ago from Houston, Texas

    Cngratulations on your winning best hub of the week. We love fish and your tips on poaching are good ones. We generally bake or pan sauté...but should do more poaching. Thanks!

  • Om Paramapoonya profile image
    Author

    Om Paramapoonya 7 years ago

    Thanks, ocean and Peggy for your kind comment. :)

  • loves2cook profile image

    loves2cook 6 years ago from Portland, OR

    I've actually never poached a fish... I'm shaking my head in disbelief that I've never tried this method on seafood before. I poach chicken all the time and love how easy it is & keeps the chicken moist. Thanks for the hub; I'm definitely going to try this!

  • Om Paramapoonya profile image
    Author

    Om Paramapoonya 6 years ago

    You're the opposite of me. I have poached lots of fish but never did it with chicken! :)

  • Ben Zoltak profile image

    Ben Zoltak 6 years ago from Lake Mills, Jefferson County, Wisconsin USA

    I'm a fish griller/baker, my wife strictly a fish fryer. I enjoy the finesse you bring to poaching Om, I will immediately go procure some fish in this illegal fashion. Haha, just kidding. But I do like the way you have framed poaching, both as an antique cooking method, and as a subtle technique, the shimmering heat, love it. Well done.

    Ben

  • Om Paramapoonya profile image
    Author

    Om Paramapoonya 6 years ago

    LOL Thanks so much for your kind comment and little jest, Ben. :)

  • doodlebugs profile image

    doodlebugs 6 years ago from Southwest

    Great article. At first I thought it was going to be about illegal fishing tactics.

  • Om Paramapoonya profile image
    Author

    Om Paramapoonya 6 years ago

    hehe I don't even know how to do that type of poaching! :)

  • Joshua Kell profile image

    Levi Joshua Kell 6 years ago from Arizona

    I loved it. I was a bit disappointed that you didn't list any good poaching methods for catching fish...I'm already pretty good at it anyway. Thanks.

  • Om Paramapoonya profile image
    Author

    Om Paramapoonya 6 years ago

    You're already good at the other kind of poaching? Shhhhhh....Maybe you shouldn't tell anyone. ;)

  • KoffeeKlatch Gals profile image

    Susan Haze 6 years ago from Sunny Florida

    Om, great poaching instructions. There's nothing like poaching to bring out that extra special flavor of a good fish. Rated up.

  • Om Paramapoonya profile image
    Author

    Om Paramapoonya 6 years ago

    Thanks for the read, KoffeKlatch!

  • RichardCMckeown profile image

    RichardCMckeown 5 years ago

    Very useful hub. Thanks.

  • Om Paramapoonya profile image
    Author

    Om Paramapoonya 5 years ago

    You're welcome. Glad you like this! :)

  • SylviaSky profile image

    SylviaSky 5 years ago from USA

    Wow, that is the definitive hub on poaching fish! Poaching can also be done in the microwave to good effect. Try grapefruit juice as poaching liquid.

  • Om Paramapoonya profile image
    Author

    Om Paramapoonya 5 years ago

    Grapefruit juice? That's interesting. I'll give it a try sometime. Thanks for the read and interesting suggestion!

  • profile image

    ruffridyer 5 years ago from Dayton, ohio

    When you said poaching I wondered which meaning you meant. Honestly I didn't know one could poach anything except eggs.

  • Om Paramapoonya profile image
    Author

    Om Paramapoonya 5 years ago

    Oh you thought I talked about the other type of poaching?!! LOL That's funny. :)

  • vespawoolf profile image

    vespawoolf 4 years ago from Peru, South America

    I usually sear fish so this hub has given me a lot to think about! I'd never considered poaching a flavorful cooking method, but after reading your hub I'd like to try it. Poaching in flavorful liquid sounds like it would add a lot of flavor to the fish. Thank you for sharing!

  • Om Paramapoonya profile image
    Author

    Om Paramapoonya 4 years ago

    @vespawoolf - Glad to hear you're gonna give this fish cooking technique a try. Thanks so much for stopping by and commenting :)

  • moonlake profile image

    moonlake 4 years ago from America

    I have never poached a fish but after your hub I may try. I'm not real sure my husband would like it. He catches his own fish and of course they have to be fried. Poaching I'm sure has a lot less calories. Voted up and shared.

  • Om Paramapoonya profile image
    Author

    Om Paramapoonya 4 years ago

    @moonlake - He catches his own fish, huh? Nice! Well, hopefully you can convert him into a poched fish fan. :)

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