Poached fish is definitely a gift from the kitchen. The delicate flavors and textures, and scintillating aromas….few other cooking methods can match the sensory excellence of poaching. It is the classic technique for salmon steaks, New England Fishermen’s Platters, and more. If you have never had poached fish, you have been missing out on some great meals.
In this article, I’ll take you through what poaching is, and isn’t, its history, proper techniques, and some suggestions for finding the perfect fish poacher for you.
What? You’ve never heard of a fish poacher? Well, we’re not talking about people who catch fish without the proper licenses (which is a definite No-No.…). A fish poacher is a piece of specialty cookware designed to poach fish properly, and easily. Do you need one? It depends on how much fish you poach. It is absolutely possible to poach fish in a skillet, pot, or even the microwave oven (although that is really steaming, but we’ll get into that shortly…). But a fish poacher makes it easier to do it right, and consistently, and besides, it’s a gadget. Is there any dedicated cook that can’t use just one more kitchen gadget? Is there really as such thing as too many kitchen gadgets?
For the purpose of this article, I am assuming that the reader will have a fundamental knowledge of culinary terms and techniques, such as reducing, mirepoix, bouquet garni, etc… If you do not understand a term, there are excellent resources online at places like cooks.com, epicurious.com, and especially YouTube.
This article will help you choose the best fish poacher for your needs.
What is Poaching?
The term “poaching” refers to the technique of cooking food in hot, not boiling water-based liquid. Fats are not used. Using water to cook with is also called ‘moist cooking’. It keeps food from dying out during cooking, and preserves the texture, flavor, and appearance of delicate foods.
It is unclear when people first started poaching food, but it is a good guess that it started soon after primitive people learned how to make cooking pots capable of boiling water. We know for a certainty that the earliest cookbooks we have found describe poaching, so it certainly predates any form of writing. Like most of the cool things about cooking, it was probably discovered by accident. There is archeological evidence that eggs were one of the first foods regularly poached. The Egyptians and ancient Asians were particularly fond of poached eggs, according to hieroglyphics and such. There is also Sanskrit evidence that Chaldeans, Babylonians, and Hebrews poached eggs, fish, fruit, and other foods.
Poaching is done at relatively low temperatures (160ᵒF – 180ᵒF), compared to simmering, steaming, and boiling. If the liquid has small bubbles, that is simmering. It there are large bubbles, that is boiling. Water boils at 212ºF, so unless it is under pressure, as in a pressure cooker, you cannot cook any hotter than this using moist cooking methods. In poaching, you want the liquid surface to just be shimmering, with no bubbles. The French term for poaching is, “frissonne”, meaning, “shiver”. If there are bubbles of any kind, the liquid is too hot for poaching. Another characteristic of poaching is that the food must be immersed totally, or at least mostly, in to cooking liquid. If the food is suspended above boiling water, that is steaming.
Poaching works by denaturing the proteins in the food, while removing as little moisture from the cells as possible. This results in food that retains it’s color, texture and flavors more than with other cooking methods. Some say it does leach out flavor, and they are partially correct. A little leaching is unavoidable with any moist cooking method. But poaching keeps this to a minimum. Some regard poached food as bland, and doctors often recommend poached food for people with stomach and digestive disorders, because it causes less irritation, and digests easier than other cooking methods. Since no fat is added during cooking, and some fat is leached out from the food during cooking, poached food is considered healthier, and often recommended for people trying to lose weight. On the up-side, there are times when you may want your food to be more delicately flavored, in order to showcase a particular sauce, or other side-dishes.
While almost any food that doesn’t melt can be poached, it works best on delicate, thinner items, such as eggs, fish, chicken breast fillets, fruit and vegetable slices, etc… Thicker items, such as roasts, whole fruits and vegetables, etc…, take a long time to poach, and are better reserved for other cooking methods. The longer something has to poach, the more flavor will leach out. For the suitable types of food, poaching is an excellent preparation method, especially for those trying to cut down on fats.
What Is A Fish Poacher?
A fish poacher is a simple appliance that makes it easier to poach your food without tearing it up. Poached foods can be very delicate and tender.
There are 3 types:
They are all essentially the same, with three main parts: a lid with handle, a cooking platform that allows you to lift the food from the poaching liquid without it falling apart, and a cooking liquid reservoir that holds the hot poaching liquid. The only difference between the three types is the heat source. The stovetop types sets on a burner on the stove, the electric type has an electric heating element built in to the bottom, and simply requires you to plug it in, and the microwave type goes into the microwave oven. They all work exactly the same.
The poaching liquid goes into the bottom reservoir. The food goes on the cooking platform, and the lid goes on top. The cooking platform holds the food in the poaching liquid. When the food is done, you simply lift out the cooking platform and gently slide or maneuver the food onto whatever you are serving it on. It works the same for all three types.
How To Use A Poacher
The first step is to prepare your food for poaching, in this case, fish. You can poach your fish whole (cleaned and scaled, of course…), as steaks, or fillets, with the skin on, or off. It’s your choice. As a rule, the skin is removed when poaching fillets or steaks. It will feel slimy and taste fishy when poached. The skin is normally left on only when grilling, baking and broiling because it crisps up, and helps hold the fish together. This does not happen during poaching. Once your fish is properly prepped, keep it cool. Do not leave it on the counter for any time at all. It should go direct from the cooler to the poacher when it is ready.
The next step is to prepare the poaching liquid, which is almost never just plain water. Water will work, but will result in painfully bland fish. Poaching liquid has three parts to it; the Base liquid, which can be plain water, broth, fruit juice (non-citrus), wine, beer, or cider, an acidic component, which can be vinegar, citrus juice, wine, etc…., and the flavorings, which can be spices, herbs, fruit, etc…. The base liquid provides the cooking medium. The acid component helps the proteins hold together during poaching, and also enhances flavor. The flavor component, as the name suggests, adds flavor to the food. Some ingredients, such as wine, can be used both as a base, and an acid. The most common poaching liquid is a Court Bullion, of which there are hundreds of recipes available online. Court Bullion literally means, “quick stock”. It is not cooked as long, and will never reach the flavor intensity of a full stock, nor does it contain any added fat, such as butter, oils, etc.… When poaching, you do not want to cover up the flavor of the fish, but merely enhance it. Also, as a rule, the poaching liquid is reduced down after poaching to create a mild sauce to put over the fish, so intense flavors are not needed.
There are two ways to poach; shallow, where the food is only covered about 3/4 of the way with liquid, and deep, where the fish is completely covered. Shallow poaching is only suitable for serving-sized, boneless portions, but can be done in a skillet, or other shallow-depth cooking vessel. Personally, I have never noticed any advantage to shallow poaching, and I have used both methods extensively. My preference is for deep poaching, because it is more forgiving and less trouble to get the fish perfect every time. But that is just my opinion. Your mileage may vary….
Once everything is prepped, you bring the liquid up to the proper cooking temperature, which is just below simmering (160ºF to 180ᴼF). The exception would be whole fish, which can be added to the cool liquid while bringing it up to cooking temperature. This allows a little more time for the thicker fish to cook evenly, all the way through. Once the liquid is ready, place your fish on the cooking platform and lower it into the poacher. Place the lid on top and cook for about 5 minutes for fillets and steaks, and up to 8 minutes for a whole fish. The fish is done when it begins to flake easily. Do not over-cook when poaching. It will turn your fish into cat food.
When the fish is done, turn off the heat source. Remove the lid, but be careful because a wave of heated air will rise and could cause injury. Remove the cooking platform, and gently slide or maneuver the fish onto your serving plates. Many times, the heat is then turned back on to simmer and the poaching liquid is then reduced to make a sauce for the fish. The poaching liquid can also be used as a base for other sauces.
That’s really all there is to it, but of course it does take a little practice to get it exactly right every time.
Do I Really Need a Fish Poacher?
Only you can decide whether or not you need a fish poacher. If you like fish and want to poach it regularly, or if you are trying to cut down on fats, then a fish poacher might be just the thing for you. Remember, a fish poacher also works on chicken breast fillets, vegetables, steak, and many other things as well. If you only eat poached fish occasionally, you are probably better off just ordering it in a restaurant. Fish poachers are not made to just gather dust on a shelf.
If you decide you want a fish poacher, the next thing to decide is if you want a stove-top model, or an electric one. Microwave fish poachers work, but they do not actually poach the fish. They simmer it. I have both an electric, and several stove-top poachers, and use them all about equally. Electric units are great for convenience. It’s a lot more involved to heat up the stove just for one or two pieces of fish, not to mention a lot of electricity. Also, my mountain cabin is small, and the stove really heats up the front of the house. My electric poacher is easy. All I have to do is plug it in, add liquid, fish, and voila!…Beautiful poached fish, every time. It does not heat up the kitchen as much, and uses a lot less electricity. On the down-side, it can only do about 4 fillets at a time, but the kids are grown, and it’s just me and the Mrs. these days. Four is plenty. For more industrial-sized meals for company, you may want to opt for a couple of stove-top models. Stove-top models are cheaper, as a rule, and there are really no mechanisms to break or fail, except maybe the handles. Other than the heat source, you use them exactly the same as an electric unit. Just heat the liquid, add fish and the lid, and in 5 minutes or so, you’re eating. I will say that stove top models are easier to clean up afterwards.
Whichever type you use, just be sure to keep it clean and use good kitchen practices. With a little TLC, your poacher can last several lifetimes. And use it a lot. Remember, practice makes perfect……
The Best Fish Poacher: Norpro Stainless Steel Fish Poacher
- Dimensions: 19.8 x 6 x 5.5 inches
- Cooking Surface: 18” x 4.5” x 5”
- Material: 304 Food-Grade Stainless Steel
- Weight: 3/7 lbs.
- Made in China. Includes cooking rack and lid. Hand-wash only.
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Norpro is a well-respected name in cookware, so I had high expectations. This is a stove-top model. The unit was perfect. I was happy to see that it was made from high-quality 18/10 304 Stainless, rather than the cheaper 18/0 200 Stainless used on a lot of budget-priced cookware. The stainless steel was almost mirror polished with hardly any scratches or machine marks on it (of course, this will not last long if you use it much…). The handles were tack-welded, but this shouldn’t be a problem under normal use. I have several appliances with the same type welds and none of them have ever failed…unless I tried to use it as a pry-bar, or other abuse (another story…). If you want a French-Made hand-hammered copper poacher, you will need to spend about $300.00+ dollars. For the money, this unit is great. Both the lid and the cooking grate fit perfectly. I seasoned1 the poacher, and poached some salmon with it, and it performed flawlessly. It is what is in the picture at the beginning of this article, so you can judge for yourself. The salmon was perfect. I also poached some chicken breasts, and plantains with it, and they couldn’t have turned out better. The unit cleaned up great with minimal hand-washing. Note- I always spray all of my cooking pots with non-stick cooking spray before each use, even if they are supposed to be non-stick. If you don’t do this, I cannot say whether or not food will stick, and/or the unit will corrode and pit. I also wipe all of my metal appliances down with a light coat of Food-Grade Mineral Oil before putting them up. That’s why I am still cooking with some skillets and pots that my grandmothers used over 100 years ago. You can’t blame the appliance if you do not take proper care of it. I used this unit heavily for two weeks before writing this review, and there is no sign of corrosion, or pitting. In fact, it looks as good as the day I received it. I even used it outside over wood coals (with great care…) and it did a great job, meaning you can take it camping and fishing with you as long as you use proper care and diligence. For the price, I rate this an unqualified 10 out of 10.
You can season stainless steel to make it naturally non-stick. Place the pot or pan on the stove, add enough coconut, cottonseed, or other high-temperature oil to coat the cooking surfaces, and be sure to wipe it all over the entire inside of the cooking areas. Turn the burner on and heat the unit up until the oil starts to smoke. Allow it to smoke for a minute or two, then turn off the burner and remove the pan from the heat source. Allow it to cool completely, and discard the oil. To check if the pan is seasoned properly, look into the pan. If you can see your reflection in the bottom, it is seasoned. Wipe out any excess remaining oil, and use as normal. Avoid using soaps and detergents on it when hand-washing. Re-season about once a year.