How to Poach Fish

January 13, 2014

Once you've perfected basic techniques like frying an egg and cooking rice, it's time to move on to those things that may have initially scared you off. Every other Monday, chef and stylist Camille Becerra is going beyond the basics to help us tackle even the scariest cooking techniques.

Today: How to master the art of poaching fish.

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As a chef tournant -- the title for a trained chef in a big kitchen who is capable of moving around from station to station at a drop of a hat -- I learned that I was always happiest when I was assigned to the fish station.

Poaching is an extremely gentle cooking method that allows you to exercise the two traits needed in fish cookery: a vigilant eye and a delicate hand. The reward of mastering this technique is a succulent texture that only fish can provide.  

I’d also like to note that because this cooking process is a fairly slow one, it allows you to understand how a piece of fish goes from raw to perfectly cooked. Peek in every so often and give it a touch to check its firmness; this will help you become more confident cooking fish with quicker methods using higher temperatures.

Court bouillon, bouquet garni, and cartouche are all French culinary terms you will want to know and learn if you don’t already. Court bouillon is the flavorful poaching liquid you will use to cook your fish. Traditionally, a court bouillon is equal parts water to white wine, usually just enough to cover the fish, with the addition of an acid like lemon or vinegar. A bouquet garni (a bundle of herbs tied together with string) and a good pinch of salt are added for even more flavor. Always taste to guarantee that your poaching liquid is well seasoned and delicious. The addition of other aromatic ingredients like hard spices, chili, onion, fennel, and tomato is of course allowed, and can only help in making your court bouillon that much more flavorful.

Lastly a cartouche should be made, which is a piece of parchment cut to the size of your pan. This ensures that the liquid in the court bouillon does not evaporate too quickly.


Here's how to do it:

Heat your water, wine, bouquet garni, and whatever acid and aromatics you are using. Simmer on low for 10 minutes so that the flavors develop.

Cut fish into 5- to 6-ounce pieces, season generously with salt, and allow them to come to room temperature -- this will take approximately 5 to 10 minutes.


Cut your cartouche.


Add fish to the simmering court bouillon. Set your timer for 6 minutes. Once the time is up turn off the heat, remove the cartouche, and allow your fish to sit in the court bouillon for an additional minute or two. Remove the fish carefully from the court bouillon with a wide metal spatula.  


You can strain the court bouillon and reduce it a bit then whisk in pieces of cold butter, which will give you a delicate sauce called nage. Or simply serve with a drizzle with good oil, like extra-virgin olive oil or better yet, mustard seed oil for a spicy kick.


Photos by Emma Jane Kepley

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Camille Becerra

Written by: Camille Becerra



I A. March 19, 2015
to Tamara LaBaer and Kolo .... yes, you place the cartouche on top of the simmering fish in the flavored broth. I cannot explain why no one wanted to answer you sooner. So, sorry about that!
BTW, you can watch Martha Stewart try and demonstrate her technique for making the right size cartouche for your cooking vessel by searching on her web site. It is fun to try. Never works for me, however, as I am clueless when it comes to following such a formula ! Happy Cooking!
Tamara L. January 19, 2014
After the fish goes into the broth,(the Court bouillon)is the
cartouche placed on top of the simmering fish in the flavored broth? If I'm not describing it correctly, please set me right.
Kolo February 20, 2014
I am curious about this too?
Tamara L. February 21, 2014
Yes, still waiting for a clarification, please, on "how to"?
Thank you.
Tamara L. February 21, 2014
Camille Becerra, please address my question and Kolo's above. Somehow it was missed. Thanks.
CarlaCooks January 14, 2014
Thanks for the short lesson. I look forward to trying this technique. Do you have a guide or general rule of thumb for cooking time/thickness of the fish? On an unrelated note, I love your t-shirt! Very cool, and I totally agree :)
Camille B. January 14, 2014
minute per oz. usually, thicker the fish the better...
and as for the t-shirt, thanks. :)
Poires A. January 14, 2014
I particularly like poaching salmon in milk then using the milk to make a white sauce flavoured with herbs - it produces such lovely salmon that doesn't make the house smell like frying and doesn't dry the fish out.
Camille B. January 14, 2014
mmmmm, sounds lovely, i love milk poached anything and never have done so with salmon. thanks.
rynnybit January 13, 2014
are the pieces of fish typically about the thickness shown in the last photo?
Camille B. January 14, 2014
i used cod. the thicker the better, they are less flakey and more meaty, which is ideal for poaching.
EmFraiche January 13, 2014
Does this method work well with any kind/cut of fish?
pamela January 13, 2014
certainly, but you will have vary the cooking time to the thickness.
Camille B. January 14, 2014
is does, although with thinner flakier fish it tends to get tricky.
Camille B. January 14, 2014
Ivy H. January 13, 2014
Not the smartest question, but how do you choose a suitable (red or white) cooking wine? Would the selection depend on the recipe as well?
C K. January 13, 2014
red wine is used mostly for meats & deglazing, and white for fish/seafood also good for deglazing as well...
Ivy H. January 13, 2014
Yes, but how to choose a white wine for, say, poaching fish?
C K. January 13, 2014
any wine, just choose what you like
C K. January 13, 2014
maybe not something so sweet though, I tend to use Chardonnay myself lol
pamela January 13, 2014
i usually use an inexpensive, dry french wine. my favorite is 'le vieille ferme'.
Camille B. January 14, 2014
yup. red wine will color the fish... not really eye appealing. inexpensive dry table wines are safe bets.