Banish all thoughts of stringy, tough, sad chicken from your mind. For our chicken salad sandwiches and quick weeknight meals, we want nothing but the best. And for that, poached chicken is definitely the way to go. This method is easy, fast, and foolproof. Totally tender chicken breasts that are as good for dinner as they are for lunch the next day? Not a problem.
Poached chicken gets some flack for being "diet food," and while it's true that poaching chicken requires no fat for cooking and chicken breasts are naturally lean, there are plenty of reasons why poached chicken can stand on its own.
Poached chicken is essential for a good chicken salad (which is most definitely not a diet food!). When sliced, this chicken is also a great add-in to any leafy green lunch salad and or sandwich — way better than deli meat. This chicken shreds beautifully, so I like using it to make a quick BBQ pulled chicken or for weeknight tacos. Also, come cooler temperatures and casserole season, poached chicken is a must-have for many of my favorite baked dinners.
Poaching chicken is easy. It involves covering chicken pieces with water and letting them simmer on the stovetop until the chicken is cooked through. The low temperature and moist-heat cooking method cooks the chicken gently and prevents it from overcooking too quickly. The cooked chicken is moist and tender — the very opposite of tough.
I like boneless, skinless chicken breasts for this cooking method, but you can also use bone-in chicken breasts or even thighs or drumsticks. The chicken can be cooked with the skin on, but I prefer to remove it because the skin doesn't really add anything with this cooking method (it's more of a help when roasting or grilling). I also like to strain the poaching liquid and use it for soups and cooking grains, and find that leaving the skin on makes the liquid overly oily for my taste.
To bump up the flavor, I add whatever aromatics I have in the kitchen — a bay leave, a few smashed garlic cloves, any herbs that need using up. If I have some leftover wine or an open bottle of beer, I'll add some of that to the poaching liquid, too. All of these will season the chicken as it poaches, making it more flavorful and fun to eat.
Poached chicken? Fun to eat? Right on! How do you use poached chicken in your cooking?
If using wine, pour this over the chicken first. Pour in enough cool water to cover the chicken by an inch or so.
How to Poach Chicken Breasts
Makes 1 to 4 chicken breasts
What You Need
1 - 4 skinless chicken breasts, on or off the bone as preferred
1/2 - 1 teaspoon salt
Aromatics: smashed garlic, bay leaf, 1 teaspoon peppercorns, sliced ginger, fresh herbs, thinly sliced onions, or any other flavorings
1 cup white wine, optional for more flavor
2- to 4-quart sauce pot with lid, large enough to hold the chicken breasts in a single layer
- Place the chicken and aromatics in a pot: Arrange the chicken in a single layer on the bottom of the pot. It's fine if they overlap a little, but they cook more evenly if they are in a single layer. Scatter the salt and aromatics over top.
- Cover the chicken with water: If using wine, pour this over the chicken first. Pour in enough cool water to cover the chicken by an inch or so.
- Bring the water to a boil: Place the pot of chicken on the stovetop over medium-high heat. Bring the water to a boil. You'll see some white scummy foam collecting on the surface as the water comes to a boil — if you'll be using the poaching liquid for a soup or other recipe, you can skim this off; otherwise, it's fine to leave it.
- Reduce to a simmer, cover, and cook: As soon as the water comes to a boil, reduce the heat to low, cover the pot, and let the chicken simmer. Begin checking the chicken after 8 minutes: it is done when opaque through the middle and an instant-read thermometer in the thickest part of the meat registers 165°F. Chicken will typically finish cooking in 10 to 14 minutes depending on the thickness of the meat and whether it is has a bone.
- Remove from the poaching liquid: Remove the chicken from the poaching liquid and place it on a cutting board.
- Serve or store the chicken: Poached chicken can be served hot, room temperature, or cool. It can also be served whole, or it can be sliced or shredded as per your recipe. If you cooked your chicken with the bones, you can pull or cut away the bones, return them to the pot with the poaching liquid, and simmer until the liquid is reduced. Once strained, this is a quick chicken broth that can be used for soups or rice.
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This post has been updated. Originally published 07/25/07.
(Images: Emma Christensen)