When I daydream of dishing out juicy, full-flavored chicken, my mind races in several directions: char-grilled kabobs, crispy fried drumsticks, or perhaps an herbed roast sitting center stage at the holiday feast. But a pile of bland, fat-free poached chicken breasts? It never sparked my interest—until right now.
Test Kitchen expert James Schend passed on his best tricks for making the most mouthwatering, flavorful poached chicken ever. Follow our step-by-step guide for how to poach chicken and you’ll be able to make tender, juicy chicken that packs on a ton of flavor, too. Be warned: these tasty mouthfuls might just rival that rotisserie chicken you bought from the store.
How to Poach Chicken
4 (6-ounce) boneless, skinless chicken breast halves*
½ cup white wine or beer (optional)
Aromatics: 1 bay leaf, 1 smashed garlic clove, 3 thyme sprigs, 1 rosemary sprigs, 6 peppercorns
*Bone-in or skin-on chicken breasts work well for this method, too. You’ll probably want to toss the skin afterward: it’ll be pale and flabby, not brown and crispy.
Step 1: Pick a Pan and Put in the Chicken
Start by rummaging up a large skillet or sauce pan. When it comes to poaching, the size of your pan matters. Choose one that’s big enough to fit your chicken without the breasts overcrowding, but small enough that the dish won’t require a ton of water to cook. The right pan will help the chicken poach quickly and evenly.
Arrange the breasts in a single layer in the pan, leaving enough space so they don’t overlap.
Step 2: Add Booze, Aromatics and Cold Water
Next, give a little oomph to your chicken by pouring in 1/2 cup of booze. (If you sneak a little for yourself, we won’t tell!)
Test Kitchen tip: We like to use a dry white wine because it adds lots of flavor to the final dish. Alternatively you can use beer—or skip this ingredient altogether.
Aromatics, however, are necessary for an extra-flavorful dish. Add the spices, dried herbs and smashed garlic into the pan. These aromatics will steep in the water—kind of like a tea would—and infuse your chicken with satisfying flavor.
Test Kitchen tip: Feeling creative? The door is open to all sorts of ingredients and flavors you can add to the poaching liquid. Almost any fresh or dried herb will work, but don’t neglect the veggies. Carrots, onions and celery are classic, but fresh gingerroot, lemongrass and horseradish can pack a punch!
Next up, fill the pan with cold water. Yes, you heard that right, cold water. Add enough to cover the chicken by a single inch. Using too much water will slow down the time the chicken takes to cook.
Test Kitchen tip: A common mistake people make is to plunge chicken straight into a pot of boiling water. This causes the meat to tighten up quickly, resulting in a tough texture. We like to give our chicken a cold start so it’ll cook extra gently.
Step 3: Bring to a Simmer, Then Reduce the Heat
Dial up the heat on your burner, but don’t walk away. Keep a careful eye on the pan and wait for the water to barely reach a simmer. The moment you see a few bubbles forming, turn the heat down a notch.
Test Kitchen tip: It’s important to keep the poaching liquid from reaching a full boil. Read: no rumbling bubbles. The higher the heat rises, the tougher the meat will be.
Step 4: Continue Poaching
Set your timer to 15-20 minutes and let the chicken continue to poach. You’ll know the dish is ready when a meat thermometer reads 170°. (Any higher than that and the chicken will start to get tough and dry.)
Test Kitchen tip: It’s normal to see white foam floating to the surface as the chicken cooks. You don’t need to remove it unless you’re planning to use the cooking liquid to make a sauce.
Step 5: Enjoy
Ready for perfect poached chicken? Fish your bird from the water with a pair of tongs and serve. If you’re saving it for later, let the meat cool completely before refrigerating.
Test Kitchen tip: It’s best to let the meat cool uncut. This will help preserve the chicken’s juicy texture.
What to Do With it Next
Poached chicken is great for salads, sandwiches, pasta and more. Make a big batch of poached chicken in the beginning of the week, then use it in these dishes for quick and easy meals.
- Chicken Salad Sandwich: Amplify the flavor with fresh raspberries, pecans and orange yogurt in this tasty recipe.
- Pesto Orzo: Mix cubes of chicken with cooked orzo, cherry tomatoes and jarred pesto.
- Mason Jar Salad: Add your favorite dressing to a mason jar, then top with chopped veggies, chicken, lettuce and cheese.
Having cooked chicken ready in the fridge is just one of the ways you can get dinner to the table fast. Here are a few more of our favorite make-ahead meals to try today.