Amanda & Merrill

Poaching in Olive Oil

by:
February 26, 2010

- Amanda

A few years ago, before sous vide infiltrated restaurant kitchens, every other menu featured a "slow-cooked" fish or shellfish. Slow cooking may sound like a daunting technique, but it's really just what it advertises -- fish or shellfish cooked gently and patiently over low heat, usually in a warm bath of olive oil or butter.

Slow poaching is now the technique I use most often on weeknights when I'm busy and want a low maintenance but delicious main course, and for dinner parties, when I want to serve fish but don't want to worry about sauteeing at the last minute.

We have a terrific fish vendor at our local farmers market (Borough Hall in Brooklyn Heights). His seafood is so fresh and pristine that there's nothing more I want to do with it than cook it simply, seasoned with sea salt and spritzed with a lemon wedge at the table. And I certainly don't want to risk overcooking it, which is one of the reasons poaching fish or shellfish in olive oil is such a genius method. An oil bath creates a protective cocoon around the seafood so none of the edges dry out, and just enough of the oil clings to it to give the seafood a buttery feel. And because of the low temperature, the seafood isn't done one minute and overcooked the next -- day-dreamers and multi-taskers get a time buffer. Chances are you'll end up with fish or shrimp that tastes pure and clean, and pairing possibilities that are endless (think salsa verde, romesco, grits and risotto).

To poach any kind of fish: Lay the fillets in a shallow, oven-proof casserole dish or skillet, just large enough to hold the fish in a single layer. Cover the fish with a 1/8-inch thick layer of olive oil (a good brand, but not your best), season with a flakey sea salt and any other herb or spice you like, then send it into a 275-degree oven, basting it often, until it's cooked through. For a 1-inch thick fish fillet, it takes about 30 minutes.

To poach shrimp, scallops or lobster: I like to cook them on the stovetop. Place them in a single layer in a saucepan and pour in enough oil to just cover them. My default aromatics are thyme and lightly smashed garlic cloves (see photo above). Then set the pan over low heat, letting it warm enough so that tiny bubbles begin emerging on the sides of the pan, but none of the shellfish are bouncing around. Baste often and you'll see the shellfish slowly turn opaque and constrict. When they're cooked properly, they'll be bouncy and light and not at all tough.

 

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A New Way to Dinner, co-authored by Food52's founders Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs, is an indispensable playbook for stress-free meal-planning (hint: cook foundational dishes on the weekend and mix and match ‘em through the week).

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46 Comments

Tasha April 8, 2015
Is the intention to submerge the fish (so 1/8 of an inch above the 'top' if the fish)..just wondering if I am reading this right as it would seem that you then wouldn't need to baste...hope and that makes sense :)
 
Mary January 3, 2014
I just discovered this fantastic way to poach seafood. Some recipes call for just a few minutes of poaching and some said the fish needed 1 to 1 1/2 hours. I poached cod at 200 degrees for one hour and it was perfect. Season the fish with salt and pepper and lay it on a bed of thinly sliced Meyer lemons. Pour olive oil over and place in pre-heated oven. I think the shorter cook times were for oil that had been brought up to temperature and then poured over seafood.
 
Ashley M. December 23, 2013
Thank you for this - it let me try something new for our typical shrimp dinner - served browned butter white asparagus, roasted radish & shallot salad and some nice crusty bread. I'm just trying to figure out what to do with the leftover oil and butter now (I poached in both because I ran out of olive oil somehow!) - Perhaps I'll mix it with some lemon juice for dipping sauce or add sun-dried tomatoes for some pasta... Who knows! Thank you though, really! Can't wait to try poaching some lobster!
 
Nora October 18, 2011
I've tried poaching fish in olive oil before and it was way overcooked. Any guesses as to what went wrong? Cooked too long? At too high heat? It sounds so good but I don't want to do wrong by anymore good fish.
 
Amanda H. October 18, 2011
A couple of things could have happened -- could have been too long, but more likely that the heat was too high. The oil should barely bubble, and the fish should cook slowly. Test it as you go, so you'll know as soon as it's done, and I tend to take it out a little before I think it's fully cooked because the heat of poaching will keep it cooking after it comes out of the oil. Summary: low and slow!
 
mt97 March 9, 2010
This is the second time I've poached my shrimp since reading this post - I doubt I will cook shrimp any other way! What an easy and elegant technique. I tossed the shrimp with pasta, some red chili flakes, parsley, and a spritz of lemon. I wolfed it down and was desperate for more. Thanks for the post!
 
Amanda H. July 31, 2010
Thanks for letting me know your thoughts!
 
wingirl March 3, 2010
leftover raw rock shrimp that is, not poached...
 
Amanda H. July 31, 2010
Just wrap it in plastic wrap, then foil. And I'd try to freeze the oil, too. (Sorry for the slow reply, which is now not very helpful at all, but I just saw this in my inbox!)
 
wingirl March 3, 2010
Just made the rock shrimp - fantastic - cant wait to try some other seafoods. Do you think I could freeze the 10 bucks of oil? And any tips on how to best freeze the rock shrimp, you mentioned yours were frozen and I surprisingly have a bit of leftovers.
 
NakedBeet March 1, 2010
I really want to try this with some fish or duck, but this method of cooking completely scares me. It sounds incredibly flavorful and delicate, but I'm not wrong to assume that it's more caloric than just pan frying something, right?
 
Amanda H. March 1, 2010
You drain the oil from the fish after cooking so it shouldn't be any more caloric than the dressing on a salad -- plus it's olive oil, which is delicious and good for you! Hope you'll try it out.
 
DicinginDenver February 28, 2010
Not to be too daft, but when you say to cover the fish in a 1/8 inch layer of oil, do you mean that the fish is submerged in oil that extends above it 1/8th of an inch, or do you just mean to coat the bottom of the pan with an 1/8th of an inch of oil, so that it only covers a small part of the fish? thanks.....
 
Amanda H. August 1, 2010
Sorry -- meant to reply to your question way long ago. I meant the former -- to submerge the fish by 1/8 oil, but you can also get away with less as long as you baste the fish regularly.
 
Nancyjenkins February 28, 2010
Very interesting, Amanda (& Merrill). Eleanora Consoli, a friend with a cooking school near Catania in Sicily, does this with a whole round of swordfish--cut from the tail end to make a nice circular cut, about 2 1/2 inches thick. I think it's a good idea to strain the oil (after it's been used, natch) before storing it--if it's strained and stored in the fridge, you ought to be able to use it at least two more times. But I'd save it for frying any kind of seafood because inevitably it will pick up fishy flavors. Good discussion!<br />nancy
 
Amanda H. February 28, 2010
Thanks Nancy! Very cool and exciting to have you weigh in here. Nancy is the author of "The New Mediterranean Diet," "Flavors of Puglia," "The Essential Mediterranean," "Cucina del Sole" and others. She is also one of my mentors.
 
Claire K. February 28, 2010
I've seen comments here about saving the oil to use for another recipe - how long will the oil keep before it spoils?
 
Amanda H. February 28, 2010
You should definitely store it in the fridge, and I'd say 1 week.
 
mariaraynal February 27, 2010
I see garlic cloves in the photo, but could you add onions, carrot, celery, other veggies or even citrus to add flavor? And would you eat or discard them afterward?
 
Amanda H. February 28, 2010
Yes, you can use any aromatics you like (citrus sounds nice) -- harder ones like onions and carrot won't soften by the time the seafood is cooked, but if you don't mind that, then yes, you can certainly eat them.
 
lulu February 26, 2010
hi amanda: have been wanting to olive oil poach fish, did it very recently just for me. now want to do it for guests. i did it stove top, keeping oil at 150. curious if there is a difference w/oven poaching/why you prefer? also, recently at a restaurant i had fish soaked in olive oil then done sous vide -- found a lot more olive oil taste in that fish. any tips as to how to get more olive oil taste in the fish when oil poached? thanks so much!!
 
Amanda H. February 28, 2010
I haven't tried soaking the fish or shrimp or what have you in olive oil first -- that may be the trick. Because I can't see why the sous vide method would add any more olive oil flavor than just pure poaching would. Also I haven't seen much difference between oven and stove-top poaching. I tend to oven poach fish and stove top shrimp/shellfish -- might be the shape. I like spooning the warm oil over the shrimp as it cooks. How is that for a not very helpful answer? Sorry! Great questions, just haven't figured out all of this yet.
 
Aliwaks February 26, 2010
i just tried this is class (where there are copious amounts of olive oil)a week ago, I poached artichokes with garlic & thyme, curious to know about 2 things: If you poached with butter is clarified butter the best way to go? ( there is also much clarified butter at school, and seafood class is next week) and what about frozen/thawed shrimp? Less wonderful than fresh but always on hand.
 
Amanda H. February 26, 2010
Yes, clarified butter. And the rock shrimp in the photo above were frozen and they cooked up well.
 
Teri February 26, 2010
Maybe you could use the oil to make a batch of roux for gumbo or jambalaya?
 
Amanda H. February 26, 2010
Great ideas. I'll add paella.
 
thelastmike February 26, 2010
I have often wondered about oil poaching on two fronts.<br />1. With no higher temp saute first I have worried about wee beasties on the outside of the raw meat/fish/poultry.<br />2. Having often seen the explanation that deep frying is not greasy if the oil is high enough temp due to steam pushing outward from the food not allowing oil in - how does oil poaching not end up excessively greasy ( I wondered here if it is to do with deep fried foods most always having a batter or breading on them but oil poaching I've always seen on 'naked' product.<br /><br />Would love any comments or enlightenment on the above points.<br />Thanks<br />Mike<br />... long time listener, first time caller.
 
Amanda H. February 26, 2010
Hi Mike, you don't want the temperature too low because you need the fish or shellfish to cook and kill the wee beasties. A 275-degree oven will do it. And since you lift the seafood from the oil with a slotted spoon or spatula, there's not much oil left on it -- the coating should be like a salad dressing, just thinly blanketing the seafood.
 
monkeymom February 26, 2010
Yes another oil question: How do you get the seafood out of the oil without taking too much and having it be swimming in oil? Do you need to blot off or strain the excess oil from the seafood? <br />
 
Amanda H. February 26, 2010
I just use a slotted spoon or spatula, because I find that you want to leave the bulk of the oil behind but leave a slick of oil on the seafood.
 
lastnightsdinner February 26, 2010
This is one of my favorite ways to prepare seafood. I save the oil for fritto misto or other fried seafood preparations.
 
Amanda H. February 26, 2010
Thanks for this!
 
merrygourmet February 26, 2010
Another oil question: Curious to know what brand olive oil you use that meets the criteria, "a good brand, but not your best."
 
Amanda H. February 26, 2010
I use Frantoia extra virgin olive oil, but you could use a less expensive one like Colavita.
 
spinthebottleny February 26, 2010
Have always wanted to try this technique -- thanks for the tips & inspiration!
 
EmilyNunn February 26, 2010
Amanda, thank you. I've always wanted to do swordfish this way, with capers later.
 
Amanda H. February 26, 2010
Haven't tried it with swordfish but I think really any fish works.
 
amysarah February 26, 2010
I often poach fish (whatever looks good) pretty much like this, especially in the summer when I tend to make vats of salsa verde to have on everything - from fish to grilled chicken to simply boiled new potatoes. As you said, it's perfect for entertaining when you want to be relaxed about timing - I always think of it like bowling with the bumpers down: you can't overcook it, it's just as good at room temp and as easy to make a lot as a little.
 
Amanda H. February 26, 2010
So true -- and thanks for the reminder, I'll do a salsa verde post soon.
 
drbabs February 26, 2010
There's a restaurant in New Orleans, Pascal Manale's, that's famous for what it calls Barbecue Shrimp, really shrimp (shells, heads and all) poached in oil, butter, lemon, Worcestershire sauce with herbs--bay leaf, thyme, lots of salt and pepper. The sauce is ideal for dipping French bread! (Most of my friends don't like peeling cooked buttery shrimp, so I peel and devein them first!)
 
Amanda H. February 26, 2010
That sounds so good! Love Worcestershire in anything.
 
Merrill S. February 26, 2010
This sounds a lot like an old recipe from the NYT for Barbecued Shrimp, although that one also has tons of cayenne. Delish!
 
drbabs February 27, 2010
Oh! Cayenne, too!
 
Ali10 February 26, 2010
What can you do with all that oil afterwards?
 
Amanda H. February 26, 2010
Great question -- maybe someone else will have a thought, but my experience is that you can't do a ton with it. If you were serving the fish or shrimp over a salad, you could use some of the oil in the dressing.
 
Amanda H. February 26, 2010
Also, see lastnightsdinner's response above.