Cracking The Poached Egg Code

For years I kept an embarrassing culinary secret: Poaching eggs terrified me. I could handle other egg dishes fine. I could make crepes and custards like a champ, bake a beautiful quiche, cook soft and creamy scrambled eggs, even turn out a decent omelet, but the thought of plunging a naked egg into boiling water made my pulse race and my knees weak. When it came to eggs, I could do anything. Almost.

Then I agreed to teach a class on eggs. Why is still a mystery, but it cured me.

I read dozens of recipes, book passages and blog posts on poaching; they were all over the map. When it comes to poached eggs, there seemed to be but a single constant: Everyone has a "secret." Authors call for deep narrow pots or wide shallow pans; two cups or two quarts of water; adding vinegar, salt or neither to the poaching water; cooking temperatures from 180 degrees to just under the boil, and cooking times from two to five minutes. There are poachers who swirl and poachers who don't. I bought a couple dozen eggs, read through all the secrets and started to practice. I discovered a few truths — but many more myths — about the poached egg.

Truth: For poaching, the fresher the egg, the better. First, as the egg ages, water from the white migrates into the yolk, weakening the yolk membrane and increasing the likelihood that the yolk will break. At the same time, the flexible "chain" — called the chalazae — that holds the yolk in suspension weakens. Second, if you crack open an egg and look at the white part (the albumin), you'll see that there are actually two types — thick albumen surrounding the yolk, and thinner, more watery albumen that spreads out quickly. It's this thin white that dances its tarantella in the poaching liquid and makes your poached egg splay like the wild hair of a crazy scientist. As the egg ages, the proportion of thick to thin albumen decreases and you risk losing more of the white. Conclusion: Start with fresh eggs.

About The Author

Janet A. Zimmerman is an award-winning food writer and cooking class instructor based in Atlanta. Her work has twice been featured in the anthology Best Food Writing (2008 and 2010), and her one and only piece of fiction was printed in the anthology Literary Lunch. In 2010, she received the International Association of Culinary Professionals' Bert Greene Journalism Award. She is a senior manager for the Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, a nonprofit organization dedicated to culinary education.

You'll still have some thin albumen, though, and there are all kinds of tricks advanced for dealing with it. Poachers who espouse the "vortex" method of poaching, in which you swirl the water and drop the egg in the middle, claim that the current causes the whites to wrap around the yolk, resulting in a tidy package. Although some very respectable cooks and well-known chefs swear by this method, it's fussy and requires a deep pot with lots of water. Also, I didn't find it made a bit of difference.

Vinegar is another trick mentioned for corralling stray whites. Acid in the water is supposed to cause them to set faster. Although there is a reason to add some vinegar to egg poaching water (which I'll get to presently), firming the whites is not it.

The one "secret" that does result in compact, nice-looking poached eggs comes from food scientist Harold McGee (in his book On Food and Cooking), who suggests draining the thin white before you poach your eggs. I use a small coarse-mesh strainer for this. Some people recommend a perforated spoon, but it has to be a big one to hold the entire egg — bigger than any I've got in my kitchen.

The second secret also comes from McGee, who explains the restaurant trick of adding vinegar and salt to the poaching water. Since the egg white is alkaline, the vinegar reacts with the white to form tiny bubbles of carbon dioxide at the surface of the egg. If the water is hot enough (near boiling), salt increases the density of the cooking liquid just enough to make the egg bob to the surface when it's about perfectly done. While you can certainly poach eggs without the salt and vinegar, they'll want to sit on the bottom of the pan and thus cook unevenly. Besides, it's really cool to watch an egg expel a jet of tiny gas bubbles and break the water's surface like a miniature submarine.

And that's the main thing I've found about poached eggs: When you get over the fear and trepidation, they're fun. Learning to poach an egg is empowering. Inspiring, even. Not only can you make plain poached eggs (the perfect breakfast with buttered toast), but you open up a whole world of dishes in which poached eggs play a role — luscious eggs Benedict and all its cousins, hash and eggs, and salade Lyonnaise, the amazing French bistro salad. The first time you take a perfect white oval out of your saucepan, you'll feel invincible. If you can poach an egg, you can do anything.

Poached Eggs

You can poach eggs in different-size pans and at different temperatures, but I've found the following method to be the most reliable. For two eggs, use a saucepan that holds about 1.5 quarts. You want about 3 inches of water, so whatever pan you choose should hold that much with some headroom to spare. (Don't listen to those people who tell you to poach eggs in a skillet; it won't hold enough water.) Whichever pan you use, measure the water and use 1.5 teaspoons vinegar and 1 tablespoon salt per quart of water. A thermometer is very handy but not absolutely necessary.

Makes 1 to 2 servings

1 1/2 teaspoons white vinegar

1 tablespoon table salt

2 fresh raw eggs

Pour 1 quart of water into a saucepan that holds about 1.5 quarts. Add the vinegar and salt and heat the water to 205 to 208 degrees. (If you don't have a thermometer, bring the water just to a boil and then turn the heat down so that the bubbling stops. If the water is boiling when the eggs go in, the egg whites will tend to fly apart.)

Use a strainer to separate the thin white — which is discarded — from the thick.   i i

hide captionUse a strainer to separate the thin white — which is discarded — from the thick.

Dave Scantland for NPR
Use a strainer to separate the thin white — which is discarded — from the thick.

Use a strainer to separate the thin white — which is discarded — from the thick.

Dave Scantland for NPR

Meanwhile, place a fine strainer over a custard cup, small ramekin or bowl. Crack one egg into it and let the egg sit, undisturbed, for 3 to 5 minutes. Remove the strainer (with the egg still in it) and pour out any accumulated thin white from the cup. Carefully tip the egg into the cup. Repeat with the other egg and another cup. (If you have two small strainers, you can do the two eggs simultaneously.)

When the water is hot, tip the eggs, one at a time, into the pan. This works best if you place the lip of the cup right at the surface of the water and tip it quickly so the egg goes in all at once. Be bold: If you hesitate and pour in the egg too slowly, you risk the white separating from the yolk.

The eggs will sit at the bottom of the pan for a minute or so, then start to bob toward the surface. For barely set whites and runny yolks, cook the eggs about 3 1/2 minutes, depending on the temperature of the egg. If your eggs have been out of the refrigerator just long enough to strain, they'll still be cool. If they're at room temperature, then 3 minutes may be enough time. Check the first egg at 3 minutes. If the white around the yolk still looks translucent, give it an additional 30 seconds. If you like your eggs more done, cook for 4 to 4 1/2 minutes. Remove the egg with a slotted spoon and, if desired, drain very briefly on a paper towel. (If the egg sits on the paper towel more than a couple of seconds, it may stick.)

To make poached eggs for a crowd, follow the preceding instructions. Fill a large bowl about half full of ice and water, and have it close to your poaching setup. Cook the eggs for 3 minutes; you want them slightly undercooked. As the eggs cook, remove and place in the bath, adding ice as necessary to keep the water ice cold. When you're ready to serve your eggs, bring a pot of water to a boil, add the eggs and cook for 20 to 30 seconds to warm through. The eggs are best used the day they're cooked, but they can be kept overnight.

Spinach Gratin

For a vegetarian dish, skip the bacon and saute the mushrooms and spinach in additional butter or oil. You can substitute hardier greens such as kale or chard for the spinach. To make them more tender, blanch them in salted water for a couple of minutes and drain before sauteing. The amount of panko you will need depends on the size of your baking dish. I use a small oval about 8-by-6 inches (the dish should hold about 2 cups).

Spinach Gratin i i
Dave Scantland for NPR
Spinach Gratin
Dave Scantland for NPR

Makes 2 servings

1 small clove garlic, smashed and peeled

1/3 cup heavy cream

2 teaspoons unsalted butter

1/4 to 1/3 cup panko bread crumbs

Kosher salt

Fresh ground black pepper

2 slices bacon, cut into 1/2-inch pieces

3 to 4 ounces white or cremini mushrooms, quartered if small, sliced if large (6 to 10 mushrooms)

10 ounces (1 bag) fresh spinach

2 large eggs

2 tablespoons grated Parmigiano-Reggiano or other grana cheese

Heat the oven to 400 degrees.

Prepare a saucepan for poaching the eggs according to the Poached Egg recipe. Keep the temperature between 200 and 206 degrees.

Combine the garlic and cream in a small saucepan and bring to a boil. Lower the heat to a steady simmer and reduce the cream by about a third. (Watch carefully. With the small amount of cream, this happens fast.) Remove from the heat and discard the garlic. Allow the cream to cool (stir it occasionally so that a skin doesn't form).

Melt butter in a small pan (or bowl if using a microwave). Toss the panko in the butter with a pinch of salt and a couple of grinds of pepper until thoroughly mixed. Set aside.

Heat a small saute pan over medium heat. Add the bacon and fry until crisp, stirring often to prevent burning. Remove the bacon from the pan and drain on paper towels. With the pan still hot, add the mushrooms and saute until browned. Remove from the pan. Add the spinach a big handful at a time. The spinach will wilt quickly, allowing you to add more. When you have all the spinach in the pan, salt the spinach, cover the pan, reduce the heat to low and cook for 2 minutes, or until the spinach is tender. Remove from heat. Using a slotted spoon, remove the spinach, squeezing against the side of the pan and leaving any liquid behind. If the spinach still seems wet, drain on paper towels.

Spread the spinach evenly in a small gratin dish. Sprinkle the bacon over, then the mushrooms and cheese. Pour the cream in, making sure to distribute it evenly. The dish can be prepared to this point and refrigerated, if desired.

Place the dish in the oven while you poach the eggs. If the dish has been refrigerated, cook for 15 to 20 minutes. The spinach should be hot and the cream bubbling lightly.

Carefully remove the eggs from the poaching water and drain briefly on a paper towel. Remove the dish from the oven and use a large spoon to make two indentations in the spinach. Place one egg in each indentation and sprinkle the entire dish with the panko. Return the dish to the oven for 3 to 5 minutes to brown the panko.

Bistro Salad

The traditional French salade Lyonnaise is made with tender frisee, but this green can be hard to find, so I use arugula or a mix of bitter greens as the base. If you can find chunk bacon, cut it into what's known as lardons — pieces about 1 inch long by 1/4 inch wide by 1/4 inch thick. Otherwise, buy thick-cut bacon and cut into strips about 1/4-inch thick. For a special version of this salad, use the deep-fried eggs from the carbonara recipe.

Bistro Salad i i
Dave Scantland for NPR
Bistro Salad
Dave Scantland for NPR

Makes 2 servings

3 to 4 ounces bacon, cut into pieces about 1 by 1 1/4 inches (2 to 3 thick slices)

2 tablespoons red wine vinegar

1/2 teaspoon sugar

Salt and fresh ground pepper

3 to 4 cups bitter greens such as arugula or frisee

2 large eggs, poached (follow Poached Eggs recipe)

In a heavy skillet over medium heat, cook the bacon until crisp. Remove the bacon, reserving the warm fat. Whisk together the fat and vinegar. Season with sugar, salt and pepper.

In a large bowl, toss the greens and half the bacon with the warm dressing. Divide between 2 plates and top each salad with a poached egg. Sprinkle the remaining bacon over the salads.

Spaghetti Carbonara With Deep-Fried Poached Eggs

On a trip to New Orleans several years ago, I had an amazing pasta dish at the restaurant Herbsaint. Fresh pasta was perfectly cooked and tossed with guanciale (cured pork jowl, one of Italy's greatest culinary gifts) and cheese, then topped with a crisp breaded and fried poached egg. Once I overcame my fear of poaching, I was determined to try to re-create the dish. It's not particularly difficult, but it does require juggling a few tasks at once.

Spaghetti Carbonara With Deep-Fried Poached Eggs i i
Dave Scantland for NPR
Spaghetti Carbonara With Deep-Fried Poached Eggs
Dave Scantland for NPR

Makes 2 servings

2 large poached eggs, chilled in a water bath (see Poached Eggs recipe)

2 large raw eggs

1/4 cup all-purpose flour

3/4 cup panko bread crumbs

Peanut or canola oil for frying

3 thick slices bacon, diced

2 teaspoons kosher salt

5 ounces spaghetti

1/4 cup finely grated Parmigiano, plus another 1/4 cup, coarsely shredded

Fresh ground black pepper

Remove the poached eggs from the water bath and drain on paper towels.

Whisk one of the raw eggs and pour into a small flat dish. Put the flour in another dish and the panko in a third.

Carefully place one of the poached eggs in the dish with the flour and turn over to coat the egg evenly. Move the floured egg to the dish with the beaten egg and turn to coat. Finally, coat the egg with the panko and place on a rack. (Although the chilled eggs will be set firm, you do need to exercise care during this process. Don't try to use tongs or a spoon to move the eggs; rather, use your hands and be gentle.) Repeat with the other egg. Set aside.

Heat about 3 inches of oil (enough to cover the eggs without having to turn them) in a heavy pot over medium high heat until it reaches a temperature of 375 to 390 degrees. (If you don't have a thermometer, add a small cube of bread to the oil. The oil is the right temperature if the bread sizzles instantly and becomes dark golden brown within 10 to 15 seconds.) Keep hot but don't allow it to smoke.

Meanwhile, cook the bacon in a small heavy pan over medium heat until crisp. Remove and drain the bacon, reserving the bacon fat.

While the bacon cooks, add 2 quarts of water and the salt to a medium-size pot and bring to a boil. Add the spaghetti and cook according to package directions.

Whisk the remaining raw egg with the finely grated Parmigiano and a few grindings of black pepper.

When the pasta is done, ladle out a cup or so of the pasta water and set aside. Drain the pasta and return to the pot. Add the bacon fat and toss. Add the egg and cheese mixture and toss again. Cover and keep warm while you fry the eggs.

When the oil is hot, carefully add the crumb-coated eggs and cook for 45 to 60 seconds, or until they are crisp and golden brown. Remove and drain on a rack or paper towel.

Add the reserved bacon to the pasta and toss again. If the sauce has become at all gummy, add enough of the reserved hot pasta water to loosen it up again. Divide between 2 dishes and top each with a fried egg. Grind additional pepper over the top, if desired.

Duck Hash

I came up with this hash recipe when I accidentally ordered twice as many Pekin duck breasts as I needed for a class. The extras went into my freezer, and every couple of weeks I'd pull out one whole breast to cook. I'd eat half for dinner one night, and save the other half for hash a couple of days later. By the time I made it through my stockpile, I looked forward to the hash just as much as the sauteed breast. In the U.S., you'll generally find two types of duck breast in most markets. Pekin duck breasts are small – a half-breast is about 6 or 7 ounces — and are generally sold whole. Magret (or moulard) breasts are much larger, weighing a pound or more per half-breast. Either will work for this recipe. If you don't have duck, chicken thighs work well in this recipe, or you can use the more traditional corned beef in place of the duck (although you won't have the duck cracklings or the joy of potatoes cooked in duck fat).

Duck Hash i i
Dave Scantland for NPR
Duck Hash
Dave Scantland for NPR

Makes 2 servings

1 Pekin duck breast (whole) or 1 small magret (moulard) half duck breast

1 to 2 small Yukon gold potatoes, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch dice (about 1 cup)

Kosher salt

1 very small onion, diced (about 1/2 cup)

1/2 cup chicken or duck stock

1 tablespoon cream (optional)

1 to 2 teaspoons cider or wine vinegar

Fresh ground black pepper

2 poached eggs (follow Poached Eggs recipe)

Chopped chives or parsley to garnish (optional)

To cook the duck breast: Heat a medium skillet over medium high heat for a couple of minutes. While it's heating, score the duck skin by cutting through the skin and fat (but not the meat) about every inch. Turn the breast 90 degrees and repeat, so you have a diamond pattern of score marks. Salt the duck on both sides.

When the skillet is hot, place the duck breast skin side down in the skillet and turn the heat down to medium. For a Pekin duck breast, cook for 6 minutes and turn skin side up. Cook for an additional 4 to 6 minutes for medium rare meat. For a magret half-breast, cook about 8 to 10 minutes on the skin side, turn and cook for an additional 6 to 8 minutes. The skin should be crisp, most of the fat should be rendered out from under the skin, and the meat should be pink. Remove the duck from the skillet to a plate and let rest for 10 minutes or so before proceeding with the recipe.

Place the potatoes in a small pan and cover with water. Over medium high heat, bring just to a boil. Reduce the heat to maintain a simmer and cook for 5 to 6 minutes, until almost done (potatoes should still be slightly firm in the center). Drain thoroughly and pat dry.

Meanwhile, remove the skin and fat from the duck breasts and dice it. Cut the meat into 1/2-inch cubes (you should have 1 to 2 cups of meat).

In a medium skillet over medium heat, saute the diced duck skin until fat renders and the skin is very crisp. Remove the skin and reserve. You should have a thick coating of duck fat in the pan; if not, add vegetable oil to coat the pan.

Raise the heat to medium high. When the fat is hot, add the drained potatoes. Sprinkle with salt and saute for 3 to 5 minutes, until crisp and golden brown. Add the onions and cook for a couple of minutes, until they begin to color slightly. Add the duck meat and cook to heat through, 1 to 2 minutes.

Add the stock to the pan and stir to dissolve the browned bits from the bottom of the pan. Reduce until most of the stock is evaporated. If you like a richer, more cohesive hash, add the cream, stir and cook just until the cream is heated through and coats the hash.

Sprinkle the hash with a teaspoon of the vinegar and a couple of grinds of black pepper. Taste and adjust seasoning, adding more salt or vinegar as desired.

Divide the hash between two plates and top each with a poached egg. Sprinkle with the reserved duck cracklings and chives or parsley, if using.

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