Poached Fish 101: Your Guide To Nailing The Technique At Home
Image Credit: Poaching fish at home is quite easy. Image courtesy: Facebook/Die Kucheninsel

Ask any health or nutrition expert and you’ll know that fish is one of the healthiest proteins to consume. In fact, the Mediterranean diet, which is considered to be one of the healthiest and holistic diets in the world, focuses on the addition of fish instead of other protein sources like chicken, eggs, dairy proteins and even plant proteins. This is primarily because fish is nutrient-dense, easy to prepare, cheaply available in most parts of the world, and absolutely delicious.  

But did you know, not all fish dishes are healthy? After all, if you were to fry or deep fry fish, that too after covering it in a batter, how would it be healthy? The fact of the health matter is that while a produce might be absolutely healthy, the way we cook and eat it makes a whole world of difference to the nutritional composition of the dish. Sure, fried fish tastes absolutely delicious, whether it is prepared with a tempura-like batter or a Koli-style rawa coating. But the fact remains that the healthiest type of fish you can consume is one that is poached. Not fried, not boiled and not bakes, but poached. 

And trust us when we say that the results are not just healthy, but spectacularly delicious. Poached fish is not only fat-free and healthy, but also light on the palate while being utterly sophisticated. Here’s everything you need to know about poaching fish. 

Understanding Poaching As A Cooking Technique

Poaching is one of the gentlest cooking processes out there. It is believed that Auguste Escoffier, a French chef, writer and culinary master, first created the cooking technique of poaching. Poaching is basically a method that involves submerging a main ingredient in a liquid. By gently and slowly cooking the submerged ingredient at a low temperature, the integrity of the ingredient is maintained while its flavour enhanced. Why is it the healthiest cooking method out there? Well, simply because there is zero fat involved in the cooking process. 

There are basically two ways in which poaching is done. One is shallow poaching, which can be done in any regular pan. The poaching liquid is placed in a shallow pan with the main ingredient, say boneless fish or chicken fillet, partially submerged. As the liquid heats up, the heat is gradually transferred to the fish, which gets cooked slowly over time. The other method is deep poaching, which requires a deep pot and the ingredient is fully submerged in a lot of poaching liquid. This process invariably takes longer than shallow poaching because of the sheer amount of liquid that needs to be heated and maintained at a regular temperature. However, deep poaching allows one to cook ingredients on the bone. 

The poaching liquid used is usually a type of stock, broth or milk-based liquid which complements the main ingredient. Usually, a well-seasoned broth or stock is easier to manage for beginners, but if you are a pro, then butter or milk poaching shouldn’t be too difficult for you. In fact, you can even try your hand at making a wine-based poaching liquid, especially for fish and chicken. 

How To Poach Fish Right 

To be honest, poaching fish is not for the fainthearted. While most chefs and cooks use the shallow poaching method when it comes to poaching fish, managing the temperature of the liquid and cooking the fish just so that it holds its shape and isn’t undercooked—or overcooked for that matter—is a tough one to nail. This is also the reason why many home cooks have taken to buying those BPA-free plastic sealable bags that you can just put the poaching liquid and fish in to get the right results every time. However, you should know that poaching fish without all these accoutrements is also quite easy, especially if you are using the shallow-poaching method. 

Here are some tips you should keep in mind before you start out:

1. Poaching is a slow process, so patience—and lots of it—is the first thing you need. 

2. Poaching is all about maintaining the right temperature, so getting an instant read or cooking thermometer is critical.  

3. If you don’t have a thermometer, use your observation skills and fingers to test the water. A boil here and there is fine, but the poaching liquid should never simmer. Ideally, you should be able to dip your finger into the liquid without any discomfort—that's a sign that the poaching liquid is getting hot, but not so hot that the fish overcooks or your finger burns. Remember, if it’s too hot for your finger, it’s definitely too hot for the fish. 

4. The vessel you use for poaching should be large and deep enough to hold both the fish and the poaching liquid. A lid is not essential since that can help you monitor the liquid and the cook on the fish better. 

5. The poaching liquid for starters should include vegetable stock, a few cloves of garlic, cinnamon, black peppercorns, rosemary or any other herb, and salt. You could also add lemon slices, onions, a dash of balsamic vinegar and more spices once you get the hang of it. However, it’s important to keep the poaching liquid as clear as possible so that you can keep an eye on the cooking of the fish. 

6. Poaching is not the same is boiling or simmering. This means that while the poaching liquid should get hot and stay hot, it should never come to a boil or even simmer. Maintaining that temperature is essential. 

7. Place the poaching liquid, herbs and spices in the vessel and heat it first. Once it comes to a temperature of 140 degrees Fahrenheit, slide the fish in. That’s the temperature you should ideally maintain.  

8. Always be careful when you are removing the poached fish from the pan. Poached fish is flaky, tender and prone to breaking, so use a large spatula and be gentle. 

9. Poaching fish, especially if you are using fillets, should not take more than 10-15 minutes. Since poached fish should not be reheated (that would only cook the fish further), poached fish should be served or eaten immediately. 

10. The fish fillets can have the skin on while they are poaching, but you must remove the skin before serving the finished dish. This is because poached fish skins can be leathery and chewy, and a stark contrast to the flaky fish meat.  

11. Poached fish should ideally be served with a mild sauce like Hollandaise or Vinaigrette, but you can also make do with a generous sprinkling of lemon or lime juice. 

12. Sides that work well with poached fish are mashed veggies, simple salads or healthy grains like quinoa or barley.