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Move over, rotisserie chicken—once you learn how to poach chicken, you can make the most amazing chicken salad, scrumptious chicken tacos, and tender, velvety chicken for a week’s worth of healthy lunches.
Honest question: when was the last time you had honest-to-goodness poached chicken? Maybe never? Well then, are you in for a treat! Done right, this incredibly easy technique yields tender, soft meat that can be turned into a million genius chicken recipes. It’s a meal prep staple you’re going to love.
Unfortunately, poached chicken has been sort of pushed aside with the recent rotisserie chicken boom. Because yes, sometimes it’s just so easy to just grab a $4 bird at the store! But the truth is, it’s far from the dry, stringy stuff in a plastic box, and so much healthier.
Whether you poach chicken in a skillet or in a pot, all you have to do is gently simmer the chicken in water and your choice of delicious aromatic herbs and vegetables. The chicken picks up what flavors you lay down—resulting in a delicately flavored protein that complements salads, grain bowls, sandwiches, and more.
You‘ll be so glad you have it, too. Feed some poached chicken breast to a hungry little one when they need a snack. Toss bite-sized pieces into greens with your favorite salad dressing, or shred a whole poached chicken up for BBQ or spicy Chicken Tinga tacos.
And of course, make the best chicken salad you’ve ever had. Just one of the tasty ways to use poached chicken.
What is poaching?
Poaching is a moist-heat cooking method that requires no added oil or fat. Food (in this case, chicken) gently simmers in liquid and a combination of aromatic vegetables until cooked through. It’s a softer process than boiling, which vigorously cooks food in hot water.
Years ago, poaching was very popular for dieters because the cooking method didn’t add any unwanted calories to the dish. It’s making a comeback because of its fresh, clean flavor and its simplicity. No splatters of oil, no oven to turn on, just a pot and some water.
Also, poaching isn’t limited to just chicken. It’s a great way to cook fish (looking at you, salmon), eggs, and any other delicate protein that doesn’t have a lot of tough connective tissue to break down. In other words, you wouldn’t want to poach a steak, but you would want to poach a fillet of fresh cod.
How to Poach Chicken
Here are some tips to make poaching chicken as delicious as possible.
- Use cold water to start. Add raw chicken to cold water and heat everything up together. Plunging the meat into boiling water leads to unevenly cooked food.
- Find a big enough pot. Choose a pot or skillet that will fit all of the chicken you plan to cook in a single layer.
- Add seasoning. Just because it’s fat-free, doesn’t mean you have to skimp on the flavor! Season the poaching liquid with salt, pepper, and any other flavors that you feel might compliment your recipe: bay leaf, ginger, onion, garlic, lemon…you name it! Some good ideas down below, no matter what you’re making.
- Heat just to the boiling point, and then turn it down. As soon as the liquid boils, turn the heat down to a slow simmer so the chicken can cook gently without getting tough. It’s the secret to buttery, tender chicken.
- Remove from the liquid. Transfer the poached chicken to a clean work surface and allow to cool before slicing or storing. If you cooked chicken with bones, remove or pull away the bones and skin and return them to the pot to make chicken broth for soup.
- Serve it up. Poached chicken tastes fabulous hot, cold, or anywhere in between. Sliced, shredded, or cut up into bites, the chicken is ready to be used for almost anything at all.
Most of the time, all you need to make delicious poached chicken is cool water. But you can add a cup of dry white wine to the liquid, if you like, or use bouillon or broth instead of water. This is especially effective for poaching chicken breasts, which tend to have less flavor and could use the boost.
Winning Aromatic Combinations for Poaching Chicken
Here are some interesting flavor combos to add to the cooking liquid of poached chicken. Feel free to add more (or less) but whatever you do, get inspired!
- Star anise, peppercorns, and sliced ginger for poached chicken, Chinese-style
- Bay leaf, oregano, chilies, onions, and garlic for Chicken Tinga or any Mexican chicken recipe
- Kaffir lime leaf, lemongrass, garlic for Vietnamese chicken for salads or spring rolls
- Bay leaf, cumin, chilies for shredded BBQ chicken
Can you poach frozen chicken?
If you’ve got a package of chicken thighs or a whole bird in the freezer you’re planning to poach, make sure it’s thawed completely before poaching. Poached chicken from frozen only works when the chicken is thawed completely before cooking.
Fun ways to eat Poached Chicken
Sandwiches: Sliced thin, your own homemade poached chicken beats out any store-bought lunchmeat.
Or turn a pasta salad into the main event by adding chicken…maybe Greek Pasta Salad?
Poached chicken for soup: shredded chicken adds some delicious protein to gentle broth-based soups or chili, like Mexican Chicken Soup.
Plain: poached chicken can be dipped in sauce and eaten as-is, or added to a composed salad or roasted vegetable plate and drizzled with vinaigrette. A Thai Peanut Dressing might be just the thing for dipping!
How to Poach Chicken
For Chicken Breasts:
How to skillet-poach chicken breasts:
- Dry the chicken with paper towels and sprinkle both sides with salt and pepper (I like ¼ teaspoon each). Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat until shimmering.
- Add the chicken in a single layer and cook until golden-brown on one side, 4 to 5 minutes. Flip the chicken over, add the water and aromatics (if using), and cover.
- Reduce heat to medium and continue to cook until the chicken registers 165 degrees when pierced at the thickest part, about 10 to 15 minutes longer depending on the thickness of the chicken.
- Remove to a cutting board and cool slightly. Slice, chop, or shred as desired.
How to poach a whole chicken:
- Add chicken to a large Dutch oven or stockpot. Add aromatics and salt. Fill pot with cold water, until water covers the chicken by about an inch.
- Bring water to barely a boil over medium-high heat. Skim off any white foam and discard.
- Reduce water to low, cover, and continue to simmer for 20 minutes. Chicken is done when opaque through the middle and a thermometer in the thickest part of the chicken registers 165 degrees.
- Remove chicken from pot. Shred chicken, discarding skin and bones (you should have about 4 cups chicken). See notes for how to save the remaining chicken broth.
- To reserve chicken broth (and you SHOULD), pour through a fine-mesh sieve. Transfer to the refrigerator and cool overnight. The next day, scrape the layer of accumulated fat off the top and discard. Divide broth into freezer-safe containers and freeze.
Meggan Hill is a classically-trained chef and professional writer. Her meticulously-tested recipes and detailed tutorials bring confidence and success to home cooks everywhere. Meggan has been featured on NPR, HuffPost, FoxNews, LA Times, and more.