Few things are harder to cook well than chicken, which is ironic, given that it is far and away the most popular entrée protein for the home cook, at least in the United States. But as every cook knows, chicken resists perfect texture. By the time the dark meat is cooked through, the breast is usually tough and fibrous to the bite.

Cantonese chefs long ago perfected a method for poaching a chicken so that the whole bird is just-cooked and delectably tender. Though this procedure is simplicity itself, it is all about timing and ratio, and may require a few trial runs when first attempted. Once grasped however, it is a foolproof method for producing soft, toothsome, tender chicken.

The principles underlying Cantonese poaching are these:

Poach, don’t boil. Always keep the water temperature below boiling after the initial plunge.

Use the correct ratio of water to chicken. (This is the part that calls for a trial run before six people arrive for dinner.)

Seal the skin to hold in juices. (Done twice, by plunging a cold chicken into boiling water, and then again by oiling the cooked bird before chilling it.)

Control flavor. This step, which Western cooks usually skip, involves suppressing the faint, rank undertone in chicken’s natural flavor. Ginger and spring onion are the secret weapons.

This poached chicken stars in a widely popular Cantonese appetizer: a whole chicken is poached, cut up, and served cold, with a dipping sauce.

  1. Clean the chicken, removing giblets and liver, but leave whole.
  2. Bring a kettle of water to a full boil. For a 4-lb chicken, use about 16 C of water. Add salt, 2 spring onions cut into quarters, and 3 generous slices of ginger, cut up.
  3. Plunge the chicken into the water, breast side down. The water should cover the bird, plus a little. In case it doesn’t, have some boiling water nearby you can use to top up.
  4. Bring the kettle back to a rolling boil. Boil for 5 minutes.
  5. Cover tightly, remove from heat, and allow to cool. (Food safety guidelines would advise against letting it come fully to room temperature as the traditional method dictates. Go to step 6 when you can rest your hand comfortably against the side of the pot.)
  6. Remove the chicken, drain it, rub it with oil, and chill it. Cut up, assemble on platter, and serve with dipping sauce.

Note that many modern Chinese chefs use powdered chicken bouillon to spike up the flavor in a broth like this. Some more traditional Chinese sources suggest poaching the water in chicken stock, or in half stock and half water. But even an all-water poach produces a flavorful bird.



Ginger-Scallion Dipping Sauce

2 T minced fresh ginger

2 T minced scallions

1 t salt

2.5 T neutral oil such as peanut

In small pan, bring oil almost to the point of a smoking, and pour it slowly over the combined ingredients