How to poach an egg
My most perfect poached egg ... Road testing the Per Se method. Photo: Sarah McInerney
For such a simple dish - if you can even classify it as that - there are a lot of ways to tackle a poached egg.
Some call for a whirlpool, others for vinegar and one, for oiled cling film. Hot water and eggs seem to be the only constants. That and a preference for fresh eggs. Poach an older egg and you can end up with spidery tendrils of egg white that diminish the bulk of the end product.
Rather than consult one expert as in previous Tried & Tasted’s, I decided to road test a number of approaches. Some I found in cookbooks and others online. Five methods were explored, each producing a different result. A poaching method for every occasion, perhaps? That's my working theory.
Before I delve into the details, here are some of the general things I learnt about poaching eggs.
- Fresh eggs are definitely best. A one week difference had a big impact on the end result.
- Ditch the frying pan (my rookie mistake); a wide, shallow saucepan, filled to at least 10cm is best. A big cast-iron casserole dish proved to be the pick of what I had at hand.
- Crack your egg into a cup or ramekin before popping it in the water. Ensure your yolk is intact at this point. Don’t pour it into the water from up high, immerse the lip of the vessel in the water and guide the egg gently but swiftly out in a smooth motion.
THE ROAD TESTS
The need for speed
Jamie Oliver (result pictured left) and Margaret Fulton’s (result pictured right) methods are the most straight forward of those I tried. All they require is hot water with either salt or vinegar added. The benefit of these approaches is that you can poach with ease multiple eggs at the same time.
Fulton, in her Encyclopedia of Food and Cookery (recipe: here), asks that a shallow saucepan be half filled with water. Once boiling, the eggs are added, the lid goes on and the pot is moved off the heat for the recommended time (3 1/2 minutes for soft, four minutes for hard). She suggests adding some white vinegar to the pan if the eggs are old. This will help the whites set or coagulate quicker meaning less wispy bits floating about in the pan.
Oliver (recipe: here) calls for salted water brought to a light simmer over medium high heat. Add the eggs to the pan and cook for two minutes for soft, four minutes for hard.
The verdict: There’s no mess or fuss with these approaches. They’re quick, simple and pretty fool-proof. Although, you won’t necessarily get a lovely rounded poached egg. In Fulton’s method, in particular, the egg white spreads out quite a bit in the pan. I found the whites silkier using her method and also less straggly, possibly from the vinegar.
For a weekend breakfast with the family, these are the way to go - that way everyone can eat together. Or perhaps more importantly, you get to the weekend papers a bit sooner!
The holy grail of poached eggs is a rounded or oval shape with a slightly thickened, but still runny, yellow yolk, which oozes out over the toast when cut (or if you’re like me, a hard yolk that’s completely incapable of oozing or even dripping onto the toast).
Enter, the whirlpool.
Photo: My road test of Stephanie Alexander's method (you can see the tail tucked behind).
Stephanie Alexander uses a spoon. At Thomas Keller’s Per Se in New York, they use a whisk. These are used to stir the water in a circular motion until a vortex is created in the middle. The egg is poured into the centre, and all going well, the whirlpool action will help the egg white to set around the yolk, forming a more compact, rounded shape than when the egg cooks au naturel. One at a time is best but after some practice I managed two okay.
The Stephanie Alexander recipe comes from The Cook’s Companion. The egg is popped into the vortex and then the swirling stops. She also adds 1 tbsp of vinegar to the pot.
At Per Se, according to a recent article in Bon Appetit magazine (recipe: here), the swirling continues throughout the cooking process. The egg is also soaked in 1/2 cup of white vinegar for five minutes (‘‘which tightens the white so it’s less likely to spread out’’) before being added to the boiling water vortex.
The impact of the whirlpool is instantly noticeable. The white starts heading upwards and over the yolk once the egg hits the pan. It works best with the Per Se method (see photo at top of page), although I did make quite a few batches of egg soup in the process - swirling the water without catching the egg with the whisk is easier said than done (I found my small whisk much easier to wield in the pot than my standard size one). This method, which was perfected by the restaurant's chef de cuisine Eli Kaimeh, recommends doing one at a time and then changing the water after the second egg, which does taste more strongly of vinegar than the first.
It also makes for a more time consuming process.
In the case of Alexander's recipe, there just isn’t enough force from the initial whirlpool to get it all the way there so I end up with a nice round shape, with a stringy tail of white. This isn’t a big deal - it can be cut off, and it’s much easier to poach multiple eggs at the same time using this method than the one used at Per Se, even if the latter’s results are a tad more flash.
The verdict: Poached eggs have uses beyond being eaten on toast for breakfast. For a dinner party dish where you're out to impress, these are worth the effort, especially as you can make them ahead of time and reheat before serving.
Another option is this poaching 'cheat' outlined on the Not Quite Nigella blog. It's from the MasterChef Australia cookbook (recipe: here) and involves cracking eggs into a piece of oiled cling film, twisted them into a little parcels and then cooking them in simmering water.
Photo: Sometimes a cheat does prosper! Road testing the version from the MasterChef cookbook
The eggs come out perfectly poached but do resemble little egg dumplings, which is something to bear in mind.
The whirlpool approach got me thinking - how do big commercial operations like hotels poach eggs for a busy breakfast service. The Per Se method, while producing a beautiful result, is all about painstaking perfection, not plating up serve after serve of eggs benedict and poached eggs on toast. Jerome Tremoulet is the executive chef at The Windsor Hotel in Melbourne. They can feed between 100 and 200 people each morning in their dining room.
So do they pre-poach their eggs and heat them up to order for their a la carte service? No. They use a method similar to Stephanie Alexander’s (with some salt added to the pot) and have three big pots on the go.
Tremoulet says he can cook five to 10 at a time, but his breakfast chefs can do more.
As he says - and I discovered - when it comes to whirlpools, practice makes perfect.
Do you deviate from the methods listed here? Have you tried one of those poaching contraptions? Use the comment function to share your poaching secrets.