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How to poach chicken breasts for moist, flavorful meat

By Olga Massov Washington Post

A few months ago, I fell down a rabbit hole while trying to learn about poaching.

I was editing a recipe with questionable instructions for poaching chicken breasts. While the recipe’s method and suggested internal temperature made me cry fowl, it prompted me to realize that I knew virtually nothing about the science behind poaching. I couldn’t even define it with certainty. I’ve always just kind of … winged it.

Poultry puns aside, knowing how to poach can set you up for success in cooking delicate proteins. While you can poach many things, including eggs, fruit and fish, you’ll get the most mileage out of the technique with boneless, skinless chicken breasts.

For hot summer days when you want to cook without heating up the kitchen, poaching is hands-off, unfussy and anything but intimidating. Use it to make chicken salad or to add to grain bowls or greens for a lunch or supper that comes together in minutes. Having quick, easy access to cooked, nutrient-rich protein can be the deciding factor between a nourishing meal and less healthy takeout.

What is poaching?

When I chatted with a few friends and colleagues, there was no consensus on the technique. Some partially submerged the chicken, then simmered it on the lowest heat. Others brought the liquid to a simmer, turned off the burner, and then poached in the residual heat.

Poaching is a vague term dating back to medieval times, Harold McGee, author of “On Food and Cooking,” told me in an interview. Broadly speaking, it refers to when food is cooked in water at an unspecified temperature below boiling (212 degrees Fahrenheit).

My previous go-to poaching method was inspired by the late, great writer Laurie Colwin, who wrote in “Home Cooking,” her charming collection of essays, that “the chicken breasts must be poached very slowly and tenderly. The water must not boil but smile.” I would submerge chicken breasts in enough cold water to cover by an inch (roughly a quart per 6- to 8-ounce breast), add a few aromatics and seasonings, and bring the liquid to a bare simmer. I’d then remove the pot from the heat, cover and let the chicken poach in the liquid for 20 to 25 minutes, until its center registered around 165 degrees.

While most of the cookbooks I consulted didn’t even bother defining poaching, after lots of research, here’s what I landed on: Poaching is the gentle cooking of a delicate protein using liquid that is just below a simmer.

Picking the right meat for poaching

While you can poach any cut of chicken, it shines the most with white meat, particularly skinless and boneless. Given how quickly white meat cooks, neither skin, which protects the meat from drying out, nor bones, which significantly increase the cooking time, will improve the end result.

Chef and cookbook author Jacques Pépin explained to me that poaching is especially effective with a delicate protein that could easily dry out in the direct heat of roasting or grilling, which chicken breasts are prone to doing.

Visual cues for poaching

Now that we have our working definition and choice of meat, how can you tell when you’re actually poaching? Author Samin Nosrat in “Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat” says water nearing a simmer for poaching should resemble “a glass of champagne you poured last night but (somehow!) forgot to drink.” (A forgotten glass of champagne? Not in my house!)

The “Joy of Cooking” focuses on the appearance of the water as well, noting that the “heat source is a calm liquid just under the simmering point, with nary a bubble breaking the surface.”

If you want to use water temperature as another cue, pull out your instant-read thermometer and aim to get the liquid just below a simmer, which is about 185 degrees, Shirley Corriher writes in her book “CookWise.” For me, the sweet spot was between 175 and 180 degrees.

While some might prefer taking the water temperature every couple of minutes, I like to look for these visual cues – the barely agitated water, with one or two small bubbles breaking through – for knowing when to remove the pot from the heat.

How to season poaching liquid

While you can use just water to poach, your end result will be a lot more flavorful if you generously season the liquid, be it water or broth. You have many options depending on your preference and what you have on hand: salt, soy sauce or tamari, bouillon cubes, herbs, peppercorns, fresh ginger, alliums, vegetables and whole spices – or a combination of them. The liquid needs to taste deeply savory, like very well-seasoned broth. It might seem excessive, but keep in mind that this is the liquid that will infuse the relatively bland white meat with flavor. America’s Test Kitchen recommends a 30-minute countertop brine before cooking, but in testing, I didn’t find that it affected the end result enough to warrant it.

A go-to method for poaching

After many rounds of testing and lots of reading, I finally settled on my new favorite way to poach, which left me with tender, juicy and flavorful white meat with a velvety texture. Here’s the rundown:

  • Generously season the ample poaching liquid, which takes almost no time to throw together and helps make the chicken breasts significantly more flavorful.
  • Set the chicken directly in the pot (no need for any other equipment, such as the steamer basket recommended by America’s Test Kitchen).
  • Be sure the liquid doesn’t come to even a bare simmer. Look for the water to slightly quiver, with one or two small bubbles rising to the surface.
  • Cover the pot and remove it from the burner, letting the chicken finish cooking in the residual heat.
  • The chicken is done when it has rested in the liquid for about 20 minutes, or until the center of the meat registers 165 degrees.

The process is straightforward and mostly hands-off, and in the time it takes for the chicken to cook, you can throw together a salad or a side dish to round out your meal.

The next time you want to gently cook chicken breasts without heating up your kitchen, make this poaching technique your go-to method, too.

If you want moist and tender poached chicken breasts every time, this customizable method will give you a solid foundation. You can swap out the water for a flavorful broth, and use whatever aromatics you have on hand or like. The important thing is to use well-seasoned poaching liquid and not expose the delicate meat to too-high temperatures.

Customizable poached chicken

From assistant recipes editor Olga Massov, with the poaching liquid adapted from America’s Test Kitchen.

2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts (1 pound total; see Substitutions)

8 cups water

1/4 cup low-sodium soy sauce

1 tablespoon sugar (any kind)

1 teaspoon fine salt

1 teaspoon whole black peppercorns

2 garlic cloves, peeled and smashed


If the chicken breasts are thicker than ¾ inch, pound them with a meat mallet, rolling pin or cast-iron skillet to an even ¾-inch thickness between two pieces of plastic wrap (see Notes).

In a medium (4-quart) pot over medium heat, combine the water, soy sauce, sugar, salt, peppercorns and garlic. Add the chicken breasts, and heat, stirring occasionally to minimize hot spots, until you see slight turbulence on the surface of the water, with an occasional bubble breaking the surface (the water should register between 175 and 180 degrees on an instant-read thermometer). Cover with a lid, remove from the heat and let sit for about 20 minutes, or until the center of the meat registers 165 degrees on an instant-read thermometer and the interior appears opaque and cooked through.

Remove the chicken from the poaching liquid. (Reserve the liquid for another use, if desired; see Notes.) Transfer to a bowl, cover with a plate and let sit for 5 minutes before slicing and serving. You can also refrigerate the chicken until ready to serve.

Yield: 4 servings

Active time: 20 minutes. Total time: 45 minutes

Storage: Refrigerate for up to 4 days.

Substitutions: Boneless, skinless chicken breasts >> bone-in, skin-on or skinless chicken breasts, with an adjustment to the cooking time. Water >> chicken or vegetable broth. Gluten-free? >> Use tamari in place of soy sauce.

Notes: Save the poaching liquid for making soup later in the week, or freeze it for another meal or the next time you poach. If you have an empty plastic bag from a cereal box, it’s especially effective at containing juices while you pound the chicken breasts; the thick plastic is less likely to tear during the process than regular plastic wrap.

Nutritional information per serving: 131 calories, 2 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 0 g carbohydrates, 155 mg sodium, 65 g cholesterol, 25 g protein, 0 g fiber, 0 g sugar.