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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.

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!"


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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

Best of Fish Cookbooks

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.
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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
poaching-fish

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.

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

poaching-fish

Fish Poachers or Fish Kettles

Comments

Om Paramapoonya (author) on December 22, 2012:

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

moonlake from America on December 20, 2012:

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 (author) on December 11, 2012:

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

Vespa Woolf from Peru, South America on December 11, 2012:

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 (author) on September 27, 2011:

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

ruffridyer from Dayton, ohio on September 27, 2011:

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

Om Paramapoonya (author) on September 27, 2011:

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

Sylvia Sky from USA on September 26, 2011:

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 (author) on September 16, 2011:

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

RichardCMckeown on September 13, 2011:

Very useful hub. Thanks.

Om Paramapoonya (author) on April 23, 2011:

Thanks for the read, KoffeKlatch!

Susan Hazelton from Northern New York on April 20, 2011:

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

Om Paramapoonya (author) on March 10, 2011:

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

Levi Joshua Kell from Arizona on March 08, 2011:

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 (author) on February 07, 2011:

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

Nolen Hart from Southwest on February 07, 2011:

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

Om Paramapoonya (author) on January 27, 2011:

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

Ben Zoltak from Lake Mills, Jefferson County, Wisconsin USA on January 27, 2011:

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 (author) on January 25, 2011:

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

loves2cook from Portland, OR on January 25, 2011:

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 (author) on June 25, 2010:

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

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on June 24, 2010:

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!

Paula from The Midwest, USA on June 24, 2010:

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

Om Paramapoonya (author) on June 22, 2010:

Thanks a lot, rebekahelle! :)

rebekahELLE from Tampa Bay on June 22, 2010:

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 (author) on June 18, 2010:

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

liswilliams from South Africa on June 18, 2010:

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

anglnwu on June 17, 2010:

Congrats again! You thoroughly outdid yourself!

Les Trois Chenes from Videix, Limousin, South West France on June 17, 2010:

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!

Esther Shamsunder from Bangalore,India on June 17, 2010:

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

And Congrats on the win! Well deserved.

Om Paramapoonya (author) on June 17, 2010:

Thanks, Loren :)

Loren's Gem from Istanbul, Turkey on June 17, 2010:

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

Om Paramapoonya (author) on June 17, 2010:

@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

Stephanie Marshall from Bend, Oregon on June 17, 2010:

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

Tyler Norwood from Texas on June 17, 2010:

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!

Money Glitch from Texas on June 17, 2010:

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

Holle Abee from Georgia on June 17, 2010:

congrats! Awesome hub!

Audrey Kirchner from Washington on June 17, 2010:

Great hub! Congrats on winning, too!

Twenty One Days on June 17, 2010:

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

Om Paramapoonya (author) on June 16, 2010:

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

Money Glitch from Texas on June 16, 2010:

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 (author) on June 16, 2010:

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

Bora Bora on June 16, 2010:

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

prettydarkhorse from US on June 16, 2010:

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

Jan Charles from East Tennessee on June 16, 2010:

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

Om Paramapoonya (author) on June 15, 2010:

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. :)

anglnwu on June 15, 2010:

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 (author) on June 13, 2010:

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

Katie McMurray from Ohio on June 13, 2010:

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

Om Paramapoonya (author) on June 12, 2010:

@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

Om Paramapoonya (author) on June 12, 2010:

@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

Sherri from Southeastern Pennsylvania on June 12, 2010:

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!

anglnwu on June 11, 2010:

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.

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