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01/16/2015 11:22 am ET Updated Mar 18, 2015

Whole Slow-Cooker Poached Chicken

Nicholas Day on cooking for children, and with children, and despite children. Also, occasionally, on top of.

Today: A better -- and lazier -- way to poach your chicken. 

This is the time of year when I catch myself thinking things like, "For my next life, I want to come back as a person with two ovens."

And until that comes to pass, it is the time of year when the slow cooker, which failed to justify its existence all summer long, becomes a supremely useful appliance. To help you hold on to your holiday sanity, we reviewed some of those uses last time: beans umpteen ways, chili, Southern choucroute. This time, a time-honored function of the slow cooker: Cooking, with excruciating tenderness, a large hunk of meat.  

But not in the way you might think.

Most meat dishes that do well in the slow cooker do well braised. Pork shoulder, brisket, short ribs, beef shank: All of these collagen-rich cuts, and many others, are built to be braised in the slow cooker, and they require almost no oversight. The last brisket I made in the slow cooker was so good it has all but ruined brisket cooked any other way.

But there’s another, often overlooked cooking method the slow cooker excels at: poaching. On the stove, poaching is a fickle, attention-demanding activity because a pot of water kept just below boiling is always threatening to boil -- and once the pot is boiling, so is whatever’s in it. (Good for pasta; less good for meat.) Poaching takes place some thirty degrees or so below boiling, a finicky temperature range to maintain. But a slow cooker heats up so slowly and so cautiously that it naturally keeps the water below boiling. Its weakness is its strength; it poaches because it cannot not poach.

If you poach a whole chicken in a slow cooker, what you get, after several hours, is chicken that’s astonishingly moist and delicate -- chicken that barely seems cooked at all. Think of it as pseudo sous vide. Yes, unlike sous vide, you’re sacrificing some flavor to the water bath around the chicken -- but also unlike sous vide, that water bath has been transformed into a mild, extremely useful stock. 

The recipe here comes from the book where I learned this trick, One Pot, from Martha Stewart Living. This version is Asian-inflected, with shiitakes and star anise and ginger. You could do that, or you could do use a few bottom-of-the-crisper aromatics. The specific recipe is less important than the basic technique. Once you have poached chicken this good, there’s no end of things to do to it, and included in that list is almost nothing at all.  

Whole Slow Cooker-Poached Chicken

Serves 4

3 bunches scallions

1 bunch cilantro, stems and leaves

1 whole chicken (about 4 pounds)

2 celery stalks, chopped into 2-inch pieces

12 shiitake mushrooms, stemmed

6 thin slices of ginger

6 star anise

1 teaspoon peppercorns (white, if possible)

1 tablespoon plus two teaspoons coarse salt

8 cups water

See the full recipe (and save it and print it) here. 

Photos by James Ransom

This article originally appeared on Food52.com: Whole Slow-Cooker Poached Chicken

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