It’s sick season, and I’m a little sick. It’s not COVID, but it is the first head cold I’ve had in over two years, and it will not go away. I suspect there might be others in a similar boat. What we all need, besides cold meds and rest, is a good chicken soup, and the best chicken soup starts with gently poaching a whole chicken.
Tender pieces of poached chicken floating in a golden, clear broth is my personal platonic ideal of what a chicken soup should be. Noodles and vegetables are also important, but even the most perfectly cooked noods can’t save a mediocre broth.
Why you should poach instead of boil
Gently poaching a whole chicken gives you a broth with a clean, pronounced chicken flavor – and when I say “gently,” I mean it. This bird doesn’t see any hard boiling for more than a few seconds, which means you don’t extract any of the scummy bits (or, in turn, have to skim them off).
Boiling a chicken, or chicken bones, gives you a stock with a deeper, almost earthier flavor and a darker, more murky appearance – and you run the risk of overcooking your chicken. Stock is great for gravy, stews, and even other soups, but in a chicken noodle or matzo ball situation, I want a golden elixir that can only be achieved by a long steep. I’ve used this method countless times; the chicken is always sumptuous, and the broth is reliably scrumptious.
Photo by Bluebird Provisions
How to poach a chicken
We have covered this method before (and I refer to it a lot), but it deserves a full re-cap. While most poached chicken recipes will have you lightly boil the bird over medium-high heat, we simmer ours over low for a mere 25 minutes before covering and steeping for at least two hours, lovingly extracting as much chicken flavor as possible, without imparting those dusky flavors you get from boiling. (The chicken itself is also incredible.)
Start by letting your bird come to room temperature. Cover it in plastic wrap if it didn’t come in shrink wrap, and let it sit on the counter for an hour. Remove giblets and trim off the tail, along the excess skin around the cavity. As A.A. Newton explained in her poached chicken treatise, this warming step is not optional: “Starting a room temperature chicken in room temperature water ensures it cooks all the way through, so don’t skip this step!”
Next, put the chicken in a colander and scrub it, inside and out, with a handful of coarse salt to remove any gunky bits, especially on the skin. Rinse it, then place in a big pot, cavity side up, and fill it with room temperature water. Keep adding water until the bird is covered by a few inches, gently rotating the bird so it’s breast side up. (About a gallon should do you.)
Add whatever aromatics and seasonings you wish to the pot. If you’re going for a classic chicken noodle vibe, an onion or two (skin-on for extra rich color), a few coarsely chopped carrots, a couple celery stalks (also coarsely chopped), and a bisected head of garlic will do the trick, especially if you include a tablespoon of peppercorns and few sprigs of dill. I crave ginger when I’m ill, so I usually opt for a thinly sliced knob of the aromatic root, along with a head of garlic (top lopped off), and a handful scallions. (Some fresh chili slices are also appreciated, especially if I’m nursing a cold.) No matter what aromatics you choose, you’ll also need some salt and a little sugar. I use a 1 1/2 teaspoons of coarse salt, and a tablespoon of table sugar, but feel free to play around to suit your tastes. (A pinch or two of MSG wouldn’t hurt either.)
Cover the pot and bring to a boil over medium-high heat, then immediately reduce the heat to low and gently simmer for 25 minutes. Cut the heat (move off the burner if you’re using an electric stove), and let steep for at least two hours, or up to four. (I rarely go over two, and that always seems to be plenty of time.)
Remove the chicken from the pot. The easiest way to do this is to stick a sturdy spoon handle into the cavity, then lift it out with the support of an additional spoon, letting the broth inside the cavity drain back into the pot. Let your chicken rest while you strain your broth.
Assemble your soup
Now you get to add the vegetables you want to eat (the first batch will be far too mushy), along with your noodles, so bring your strained broth to a boil. The timing of when you add each ingredient to the pot will be determined by the how long it will take each to cook. Finely chopped or sliced carrots and celery will be toothsome yet tender after a mere five minute boil, while most pasta shapes take 7–12 minutes to cook, depending on their girth. Add the noodles first, then add veggies when you have five minutes of noodle-cooking time remaining. While those are cooking, shred or dice your chicken into bite-sized pieces. Add the chicken once the noodles and vegetables are cooked through. Ladle into bowls and garnish with green onion, dill, or whatever you crave. Sip, slurp, and be soothed.