The secrets of poaching, from eggs to swordfish

Aug. 1, 2023
Frisée au Lardons recipe displays the beauty of a poached egg. Photo: Getty Images.
Frisée au Lardons recipe displays the beauty of a poached egg. Photo: Getty Images.

To poach food is a splendid work-around against summer’s heat. Whether atop the stove or in the oven, poaching rarely raises the same heat as roasting, baking or, say, setting a pot to boil for pasta. Poaching’s heat never reaches a solid, rolling boil, or 212-plus degrees Fahrenheit, and is always in the range of 150-180 degrees.

This is even more the case at high elevations (Denver’s, say, at 5,280 feet above sea level or in the kitchen in any mountain town). Poaching occurs at temperatures lower than those at sea level and, hence, releases less heat into the kitchen in which the cook need suffer. (Note: cooking at high elevation also takes more time, generally 25 percent more.)

The only methods that beat it, in the temperature department, are grilling outside or zapping in the microwave, two cooking techniques that many of us cannot or prefer not to employ.

Poaching also brings forth our better angels. It is a gentle way to cook and is very forgiving. Its precision is the obverse of baking’s. It is well-suited for any season of dispiriting heat. Poaching just says, “Kick back and relax.”

The French court bouillon (“briefly boiled broth”), water flavored with white wine and the trinity of carrot, onion and celery, as well as herbs such as thyme or rosemary, is the classic poaching medium for most fish, but also cutlets or paillards of pork, chicken and turkey and — a delicious turn not often considered — various vegetables (leek, carrot, parsnip, waxy potato, turnip and rutabaga, to name just a few). Court bouillon also can moisten and flavor the dishes served to the side of the food once poached, such as bread, rice, polenta, pasta or potatoes.

But you can poach in liquids other than or in addition to water, such as full-on broths or stocks, or in water that has been substantially altered by the addition of a healthy portion of sugar or sweet wine. You also can poach in wine alone, or solely in olive (or other vegetable) oil.

Any poaching liquid can capture the flavors and aromas of other countries, in addition to the classic French tastes of a court bouillon. For Morocco or Ethiopia, as an instance, add a few dried chiles, a couple cloves of garlic, some fenugreek seeds, and some whole allspice if you have it. A taste of Italy arrives by way of fresh oregano, small, sweet peppers or pepperoncini, and a couple of dried tomatoes. Greece, with the addition of lemon, capers, mint and oregano.

Such flavored liquids or oils poach and make exotic both savory foods such as the proteins of fish or fowl, but also, with the addition of sugar or sweet wine, sweet or dessert foods such as poached fruits, fresh or dried. For instance, a compote of dried fruits flavored and scented in the Moroccan way (with large golden raisins and dried apricots in leading roles) is a terrific way to end a meal.

Learn how to poach eggs

People shy away from cooking poached eggs because they think it’s both too messy and too tricky or difficult. Well, poaching is both tricky and a bit messy, but it’s not that difficult.

(That said, note that poaching an egg “properly” leaves its yolk slightly uncooked and runny. Some risk exists, therefore, in eating it as such. For that reason also, uncooked egg ought not be given to young children.)

Bring two to three quarts of water and two tablespoons kosher salt to a rolling boil in a large saucepan or high-rimmed frying pan. Lower the heat to the lowest possible flame. No need to add vinegar to the water, but don’t forget the salt.

Here’s the first trick: Before getting the egg into the hot water, you want to separate away the thin watery white that surrounds the thicker firmer white, that itself surrounds the yolk. That should result in a very pretty poached egg with a yolk that’s still a bit runny but safely heated through, sitting inside a well-set white, with no scraggly white that looks like lace curtains fluttering in the wind.

The easiest way to let thin, raw egg white drain from around its yolk is to let it slip through your fingers.
The easiest way to let thin, raw egg white drain from around its yolk is to let it slip through your fingers. Photo by Bill St. John, for UCHealth.

Do that by cracking the egg into a bowl, then either slip it into your upturned closed hand, letting the thin white drip through your almost-closed fingers (careful: it takes only a couple of seconds) or placing the egg in a fine sieve and letting the thin white drip through.

Then carefully lower the egg into the hot water, gently swishing it or even turning it over, slowly, so that the white sets but the yolk still runs, 4-5 minutes total.

Swordfish poached in olive oil

Serves 4


4 swordfish steaks or other suitable cuts (see note), each 1-inch thick

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

4-6 cups good quality but modestly priced pure olive oil

Straight-sided, ovenproof pan large enough to hold all fish in 1 layer


If removing the fish from the refrigerator, bring it to room temperature by taking it out at least 1 hour ahead. Heat oven to 225 degrees. Season fish on both sides with salt and pepper.

Pour oil into pan and heat over stovetop burner until oil is 130 degrees (use an instant-read thermometer). Slip pieces of fish into pan and immediately place in oven. Let poach for 25 minutes. To serve: remove fish with slotted spatula or spoon.

Cook’s note: Swordfish is actually a cow that swims, its flesh more meat than “fish.” So, any firm-fleshed seafood fillet will work here. In addition to swordfish, try salmon, tuna, mahi-mahi, pollock, cod, grouper, haddock, halibut, some bass, even a whole Arctic char. Also, you may reuse the olive oil for several more poachings of fish, if strained of any solids and kept refrigerated.

Frisée au Lardons

I found this salad years ago at the restaurant Le Vieux Bistro in Paris, now sadly shuttered after a long life. Whenever I make it for dinner parties at my home, two nice things happen: happy memories and many oohs and aahs. Serves 4.


4 large eggs

4 slices thick bacon, cut into 1/4-inch matchsticks

1 small clove garlic, peeled and crushed into a paste

2 tablespoons Dijon mustard

3 tablespoons red wine vinegar

1/4 teaspoon sugar

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper

1 head frisée (young curly endive), washed well, dried and torn up

3 tablespoons salad oil (vegetable oil or a mix of vegetable and olive oils)


Lightly poach the eggs in slowly simmering water. When the eggs are set but not hard and still somewhat runny, remove them with a slotted spoon and place them in clean, tepid water. Set aside. In a separate pan, sauté the bacon pieces until they are crisp but not dried out. (If you wish, you may briefly blanch the bacon pieces beforehand in simmering water. This will remove some of the smokiness and salt.)

While the fat is still hot, stir in the crushed garlic, mustard, vinegar, sugar and pepper. Stirring, let the sauce boil up quickly, then immediately remove from the heat. Set aside.

Place the frisée in a large salad bowl and toss until thoroughly coated with the salad oil. Add the reserved sauce, toss again well and distribute the salad onto 4 plates, making sure there are equal portions of bacon pieces. Place a poached egg atop each salad.

Note: Frisée used to be difficult to find, but it is not anymore. Be sure, though, not to buy the dark green greens called “curly endive” or “escarole.” It is too rough for this salad. What you want are the young, yellow-white centers of young heads of frisée.

Reach Bill St. John at [email protected]

About the author

For more than 40 years, Bill St. John’s specialties have been as varied as they are cultured. He writes and teaches about restaurants, wine, food & wine, the history of the cuisines of several countries (France, Italy, Spain, Belgium, and the USA), about religion and its nexus with food, culture, history, or philosophy, and on books, travel, food writing, op-ed, and language.

Bill has lent (and lends) his subject matter expertise to such outlets as The Rocky Mountain News, The Denver Post, The Chicago Tribune, 5280 Magazine, and for various entities such as food markets, wine shops, schools & hospitals, and, for its brief life, Microsoft’s In 2001 he was nominated for a James Beard Award in Journalism for his 12 years of writing for Wine & Spirits Magazine.

Bill's experience also includes teaching at Regis University and the University of Chicago and in classrooms of his own devising; working as on-air talent with Denver's KCNC-TV, where he scripted and presented a travel & lifestyle program called "Wine at 45"; a one-week stint as a Trappist monk; and offering his shoulder as a headrest for Julia Child for 20 minutes.

Bill has also visited 54 countries, 42 of the United States, and all 10 Canadian provinces.