If my kitchen had a theme, it would be “put a poached egg on it.” (Well, that or “where’s the chocolate!!??”) Not much of a meat eater, I’ll top just about anything with an egg to add a hit of protein: salads, roasted vegetables, pasta dishes, birthday cake (ok, not birthday cake). I’ve poached quite a few eggs in my day, though never really felt like I’d conquered the process. I’ve always used the same method that my egg-loving ex-boyfriend taught me: bring the water to a low boil, add vinegar and salt, lower in the egg, simmer for 2 minutes and 30 seconds and enjoy. Simple enough, and my eggs always tasted decent.
Dissatisfied with mediocrity, I set out to discover the path to the holy grail of poached eggs: no stringy white tails and a lusciously creamy yolk. Realizing I am not the first — or the most well-trained — cook to undertake this challenge, I did a little digging (read: googled “how to poach perfect eggs”). There are a few tricks that are pretty universally agreed upon. Expert poachers all add vinegar to the water: this helps proteins in the white set more quickly, giving them less opportunity to fray in the water. It’s also generally a good idea to add salt to season the eggs as they cook. From there, it splits into a fierce debate.
Not knowing which of the many (many) internet opinions to trust, I put my research into practice and started poaching eggs. I lined up small ramekins filled with eggs along the counter and heated pans full of water. I tried whirlpool versus no whirlpool (minimal difference), simmer versus boil (don’t boil), cracked versus lowered into the water (always lower). I was learning a few helpful tricks but my eggs still looked awfully stringy. That is, until I ditched the pot.
I have two life-altering (or at least breakfast-altering) take-aways to impress upon you: use a skillet rather than a pot, and for gosh sakes turn off the heat! On poached egg take #4, I filled a skillet nearly to the brim with water, added the salt and vinegar, and brought the mixture to a boil. Then I turned off the heat completely and waited for the water to settle down. The movement of the water is what usually causes the egg whites to string out as they set. No moving water, no strings. I lowered the egg into a shallow pan of sub-boiling water — the low sides of the skillet allow easier access and the eggs don’t have as far to fall. I covered the pan with a lid and let it sit for 5 minutes and: ta-da! eggs Benedict-worthy poached eggs, and you don’t even have to monitor them while they cook.
Let’s talk about eggs for a minute. At the risk of stating the obvious, the fresher the egg, the better it will taste (and look) once poached. I either use fresh eggs from my backyard chickens, Norma and June (when they aren’t on a long-term winter laying hiatus), or organic large brown eggs from chickens that are cage free, grass fed, free range, CA SEFS compliant, etc., etc., etc.. The point is: use good eggs.
And if you’re hosting a fancy brunch where form is more important than function, you may want to take the time to crack your eggs into a fine-mesh strainer and swirl them around until the thin, liquid outer white falls through and you are left with only the thick white surrounding the yolk; this goes even further in removing any hint of stringy whites. Then ease the eggs into the pan and prepare for accolades on your perfectly topped salade Lyonnaise.
My kitchen is just too small for many single-use kitchen utensils to earn their worth in real estate, so I’ve been wary of trying the myriad egg poaching devices out there. I will say that if you regularly poach eggs for a crowd, you may want to explore your options as the difficulty level of achieving the perfect poach increases with number.
The next time you need a quick weeknight meal or a crowd-pleasing brunch just remember: keep (the water) calm and put a (skillet-) poached egg on it.
Do you have any egg-poaching do’s (or dont’s) to share?
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