Poaching is a gentle cooking method that works perfectly for lean, meaty fish like halibut. Image source: Flickr CC user Miriam Kato
I’ll admit that despite my cooking background, perfectly searing a piece of fish (especially a delicate one like halibut) can be a daunting task. You have to have your pan just hot enough, with just the right amount of oil, and the window between having the oil at the smoking point and burning it is miniscule. I barely have enough time to cook myself dinner, let alone spend time lovingly basting my halibut fillet so it doesn’t dry out. And I’m sure I’m not the only one that feels that way. That’s where poaching comes in.
Most of us associate poaching with those eggs you get on top of your English muffin that are drowned in hollandaise sauce, but poaching is actually a technique that can be used to cook fish without the inconsistent variability of pan searing. It yields a moist fillet without the addition of too much fat and requires less coddling and anxiety. Try this technique with halibut, a fish that is versatile but lean, making it slightly easier to dry out than some other fish. Halibut also has meaty flesh that seems to absorb cooking liquid flavors well--it’s the perfect fit for this cooking method.
Your Guide to Poaching
Poaching essentially just means simmering--cooking the fish in a liquid that’s sending up a steady stream of small bubbles, which, unlike the large bubbles created by boiling, won’t break up the delicate fish cooking in the liquid. Water boils at 212 F, while it simmers at around 180-190 F. By submerging the fish in liquid you retain its natural moisture, and by using a simmer over a boil you are able to cook the fish in a slower, more controlled way. Think about how all those fancy restaurants these days use sous vide machines--that technique is basically cooking everything at a simmer.
Depending on your method and the size of your fillets, poaching takes anywhere from 7-20 minutes with little to no fussing or attention required. You can poach fish on the stove top in a covered pot or in the oven in a shallow ceramic dish covered with a lid or aluminum foil. If you are doing portioned fillets of fish then you want to make sure your poaching liquid is already simmering before adding the fish. You’ll know when your fish is done when it appears opaque and has gained some firmness.
Different Poaching Liquids and Their Additions
The liquid you use for poaching fish can vary from court bouillon (see recipe below) to milk to olive oil. By simmering the fish in a flavored liquid, you can preserve the flavor of the fish itself while imparting the flavor of the liquid. Court bouillon is a traditional liquid used for poaching fish, and it gets its flavors from the staple aromatics used in making stocks: carrots, onion, celery, parsley, bay leaf, and peppercorn. However, you aren’t limited to those flavorings and you can add in other aromatics, like garlic or leeks or herbs like rosemary, oregano, or thyme.
Or you can even use wine instead of water (a nice crisp white wine like a Sancerre or Pinot Gris is good here and you get the added bonus of getting to drink some while preparing dinner). With a little forethought, court bouillon can be made in larger quantities and stored either in the fridge for up to a week or in the freezer for a few months; this can be the basis for a quick poached fish dinner that will help you dissuade yourself from giving in to the fast food burger on your way home.
Suggested additions: thyme, rosemary, oregano, leeks, garlic, lemon juice and peel
Combine the all the ingredients, then bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer for 10 minutes. Use right away or cool and store either in the fridge (up to one week) or freezer (up to two months).
Poaching in Olive Oil: Healthy and Quick
When I poach fish I like using olive oil because it already has a lot of natural flavor, and I think it goes especially well with white fish like halibut or cod that are meaty but mild in taste. The nice thing about poaching with olive oil is that you don’t have to do anything ahead of time like you do with the court bouillon. Simply throw in some garlic cloves, some sprigs of thyme or rosemary, and some lemon to enhance the flavor of the oil, then bring to a gentle simmer and proceed.
Olive Oil Poached Halibut
Salt and pepper to taste
Season halibut fillets with salt and pepper and allow to come up to room temperature. If you’re using an oven to poach, set the oven temp to 300 F. Combine everything but the halibut in a poaching dish, then put it in the oven and bring the olive oil up to about 150-200 F (use a cooking thermometer, or eyeball it and watch for steady streams of tiny bubbles). Next add the fillets to the baking dish, cover with aluminum foil, and check after 15 minutes (though it may take up to 30 minutes depending on the size of the fillets).
If you’re poaching the fish on the stovetop, combine all the ingredients except the halibut, then gently place fish in the pot, cover, and maintain the oil temperature around 150 F. Check after five minutes--it should take about 7-10 minutes to be fully cooked through (you’ll know by its opaque color and change in the firmness of the flesh). Garnish with parsley and olives and serve with your favorite sides of vegetables and starches (I love to serve poached fish over couscous, with steamed green beans in vinaigrette on the side).
Make Dinner Even Easier with Fresh Fish Delivery
I always struggle with the convenience of fast food while trying to stay healthy. Poaching fish is a great way to make a quick dinner that suits both needs without creating too much stress. To reduce your stress levels even more, you can order fresh halibut online; seafood may sound like an odd choice to order through the internet, but if you buy from a trustworthy online market like Daily Fresh Fish, your fish will arrive fast, packaged to maintain it at the perfect temperature, and fresher than your average supermarket. Daily Fresh Fish also sources all their seafood responsibly--it’s a big step up from your fast food burger.