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Chat Leftovers: Poaching chicken breasts

Chicken that’s used to make a Gingered Chicken Salad Sandwich is poached with slices of ginger root; some of the ginger is then chopped and included in the salad. (Julia Ewan/The Washington Post)

Would you rather buy your food from a small farmer or a big farming operation? This week, Unearthed columnist Tamar Haspel examines that question and comes to a conclusion: We probably need both kinds to make agriculture work. Read about it here.

Also in Food this week, Laura Kumin pays a visit to Vaccaro’s Desserts in Silver Spring, where the owner is still turning out cannoli like his great-grandfather did, with a few modern touches along the way. Kelly DiNardo writes about moving to Switzerland, where grocery store shopping can have its challenges — but nothing that a quick trip to another country won’t cure. And Canning Class columnist Cathy Barrow tells you about the one food you absolutely must can this season.

Read, then settle in for a terrific hour of culinary give-and-take: the Free Range chat, your weekly chance to interact with The Post’s Food staff. Kickoff is at noon. Go ahead, ask us anything! As always, our two favorite questions will net the questioners a cookbook prize.

Just to wet your whistle, here’s a leftover question from last week’s chat. It’s short and sweet:

What’s the best practice for poaching chicken breasts?

A basic question, but a good one, since not everyone knows how. Poaching is a method of cooking food gently in liquid that’s generally kept below a boil. Sometimes the liquid is water, but more often it’s broth or, in the case of fruit, a light syrup. The goal is to cook the food to a moist tenderness and, at the same time, subtly flavor it with the poaching liquid.

In the case of chicken breasts, the best and most commonly used poaching liquid is chicken broth. It’s a win-win: You use the broth as a cooking tool; then you can strain and reuse it for, say, a sauce or a gravy or a soup, or for cooking rice.

There are many ways to flavor the broth, but keep in mind what the final dish will be. If you’re making a delicately flavored chicken salad, for example, you won’t want to toss a cupful of chopped ginger into the cooking water, where it’s likely to be an overwhelming influence. Examples of poaching-liquid additions are fresh or dried herbs and spices, citrus juice and/or rind, soy sauce, garlic, onion, wine or vermouth, cider, hot peppers, the aforementioned ginger root, vegetables such as chopped carrots or celery, sugar, and good old salt and pepper.

As to the technique itself, nothing could be easier. Place boneless, skinless chicken breasts in a pan in a single layer, cover them with a couple inches of your chosen liquid, add flavorings, then bring the liquid just barely to a boil over medium-high heat. (Occasionally a recipe will tell you to boil the liquid first, then add the chicken, but that’s rare.)

Once the boil is reached, reduce the heat to keep the liquid simmering but not boiling. If foam/scum rises and collects on top, you can skim it off or not, depending on whether you plan to reuse the liquid. Otherwise, just let the chicken cook. For how long? That will depend on how many breasts are in the pan, how large they are (if they’re over eight ounces, try pounding them flatter to help them cook faster and more evenly), how much liquid is in there, and maybe some other factors. But you can start checking at around 10 minutes. The chicken should be barely opaque in the center. At that point, take the pan off the heat, put a lid on it and let it sit for 15 to 20 minutes. There should be no trace of pink in the center. Theoretically, the meat picks up flavor as it sits in the slowly cooling liquid, but don’t think you can get maximum flavor by letting it sit there for too long: You’ll risk bacteria problems.

Remove the chicken from the liquid — reserving the liquid if desired — and let it cool. The meat is ready to use in salads, sandwiches or whatever else you’ve got planned.

Our Recipe Finder database has several recipes that will let you practice your poaching skills. Try some of these:

Gingered Chicken Salad Sandwich

Chicken With Summer Squash Salad and Fresh Herbs

Whole-Grain Mustard Tarragon Chicken

Louisiana Chicken and Sweet Potato Hash

Tangerine Poached Chicken With Clementine-Pomegranate Relish



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