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The Art of Poaching Fish
"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.
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
- Dover Sole
- Mahi Mahi
- Striped Bass
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.
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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
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.