The breasts are one of the most prized portions of a chicken, two fat slabs of potentially juicy meat. Though capable of being prepared with a range of cooking methods, poaching chicken breasts is an often-overlooked way to prevent drying, while naturally imparting the flavor of the boiling broth. Two important factors in poaching chicken breasts are the seasonings used and the temperature at which they cook. To add tenderness ahead of time, many chefs also vigorously pound the breasts before giving them a pre-poach bath in the soup that they will be cooked.
Since poaching chicken breasts involves a quick boil and then long simmer, many chefs use a chicken stock seasoned with ingredients they want to impart to the meat. One recipe for poached chicken with green sauce, in the Food section archives of the New York Times Web site, brings the chicken up to temperature in chicken stock with garlic, onion, salt, pepper and coriander seed. This is brought to a high simmer with the chicken for just five minutes, then the heat is reduced to low for another hour of slow cooking. After that, the chicken is left to cool in the stock for another half-hour, while a special sauce is made of mustard, garlic, vinegar, capers, oil and parsley for color.
Other techniques use just seasoned water — a minimalist approach that is often countered by other elements on the plate, such as a vibrant sauce or a uniquely dressed salad. For instance, one recipe for poaching chicken breasts at the Asian cooking Web site Just Bento boils breasts in a shallow pan of water tinged with just a piece of ginger, salt and a liquor like sherry or sake. This is brought to a boil for no longer than a minute, then set aside, tightly covered, for about 15 minutes, sometimes longer.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends that all poultry should be cooked to an internal temperature of 165°F (about 73.89°C). This can easily be gauged with a meat thermometer throughout the time it takes for poaching chicken breasts. Leaving the chicken in the broth or water for just a few minutes longer should suffice to get the pink out.
A few variations of poaching chicken breasts exist, all yielding a meat that is not only tender and flavorful, but also largely unoiled and uncharred. One of these so-called wet cooking methods is the water bath, which involves marinating the breasts in a seasoned marinade, then vacuum-packing it for a steady hot bath in its own juices that cannot be diluted by the water. Since many diners appreciate a nice charred shell on their chicken breasts, many chefs will quickly sear the meat as soon as it leaves the liquid, for just a minute or two on each side.