Poaching fruit by simmering it in a flavored syrup deepens its flavor, softens its flesh, and gives it a shiny, almost translucent appearance.
The sugar in a poaching syrup penetrates the fruit and keeps it firm during and after cooking. Sugar also slows the cooking process, so the fruit takes longer to cook and absorbs more flavor. Use less sugar for firmer fruits so that the heat can more easily penetrate the center; use more sugar for soft, delicate fruits to help keep them firm. For firm or slightly underripe fruit, use a light syrup (1/4 to 1/2 cup sugar to 1 cup liquid). Poach soft or very ripe fruit in a medium syrup (2/3 cup sugar to 1 cup liquid).
Poaching syrups are usually made with granulated sugar and water, but brown sugar, honey, and maple syrup, used in roughly the same proportions, add rich flavors and a deeper caramel color. Try fruit juice or wine for part or all of the liquid. Wines with high acid or tannin are best mixed with an equal amount of water. Reduce the amount of sugar if you use a sweet juice or wine.
The classic additions to a syrup are a split vanilla bean and lemon zest, but these are just a starting point. Try cinnamon sticks, whole cloves, fresh ginger, nutmeg, star anise, even black peppercorns. Fresh herbs such as mint, bay, basil, and lavender add a fresh note. After poaching, you can reduce the syrup to a glaze to use as a sauce.
Here are the basic steps for poaching fruit:
• Choose firm but not overly ripe fruit. Peel fruit with thick skins, like pears.
• Make a syrup in a deep pan. Be sure to make enough to completely cover the fruit.
• Lower the fruit into the boiling syrup and reduce the heat to a simmer. Rapid boiling will damage the fruit.
• Cover the fruit with parchment to help it cook more evenly. Don’t stir or the fruit may break apart.
• Test by piercing the fruit with a knife; the tip should slide in easily. Poaching can take a few minutes to an hour.
• Let firmer fruit cool in the syrup. It will absorb more flavor and won’t wrinkle as it cools. If the fruit is soft, remove it and cool it on a plate.