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How to poach an egg

My most perfect poached egg ... Road testing the Per Se method.

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

poached eggs

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!

Tornado time
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.

poached eggs
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.

poached eggs
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.

Bulk orders
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.

62 comments so far

  • Vinegar, yuck! I never order poached eggs in cafes because they always use vinegar and it tastes horrible. Poached eggs are very easy....except that most people are struggling with eggs that are not fresh. If you keep chickens, you see that the white on really fresh eggs stays together in a solid lump. None of the eggs, free-range or otherwise, that we get in shops are really fresh, so the white runs everywhere.

    Commenter
    Cathy
    Date and time
    May 11, 2012, 11:05AM
    • I agree - never order in cafes anymore either as I cannot stand that bitter vinegar flavour spoiling the egg.

      Commenter
      LuLu
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      May 11, 2012, 11:35AM
    • I think you meant to say how delicious vinegar is, I agree entirely! It's the best ;)
      I use the whirlpool and vinegar method generally on up to 4 eggs and it works great although at least one or two of the eggs might have to be torn free of the common clump of eggwhite when doing four. After a squeeze/poke test I then put them into cold water until they're merely hot to ensure they don't continue to cook and harden. Whether with bacon, salmon (hot smoked portions) or chorizo, torn fresh basil is best, if by themselves a touch of wholegrain mustard - both of course requiring a few added drops of extra vinegar ;)
      Actually the killer ingredient is probably The Bramble Patches' Tomato Kassoundi.. I think I bought 3 jars of it last time. It immediately turns any basic can't-be-bothered-cooking-tonight-i'll-just-make-scrambled-eggs-on-toast into a stroke of genius. My last jar is a month out of date and I'm still using it, totally worth the food poisoning ;)

      Commenter
      andrewb
      Date and time
      May 11, 2012, 2:59PM
    • Seems I use the most complicated method of all! I use 2 pans, simmering. 1st pan uses whirlpool & vinegar second still water. Once the white has set the egg can be gently removed from the vinegar pot and transferred to the second pot. This removes almost all of the vinegar taste and allows a greater production rate than pure whirlpool.

      Commenter
      stevem
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      May 11, 2012, 3:30PM
    • The way to poach eggs is with vinegar. And not this nonsense about 1 piddling teaspon to a large pot. I have about 15%-20% vinegar, 80% water. Bring it to a rolling boil, gentle stir then pour in the egg gently. I can get 5-6 on the go in with this method. After 3 mins and 20 second, I move the eggs to iced water. Fresh eggs are best.

      When ready to serve, get plain boiling water and move egg from iced water to boiling water to reheat for about 40 seconds. Then take out, pat dry and put on toast..etc.

      Commenter
      welltravelledone
      Location
      melb
      Date and time
      May 13, 2012, 7:53AM
    • I am very much in favour of the whirlpool method but don't add vinegar! The taste is too strong - just add lemon juice. A single cube of frozen juice is enough. The juice adds enough acid to help "set " the white and doesn't spoil the taste.
      Enjoy!

      Commenter
      grussellt
      Date and time
      May 18, 2012, 5:28PM
  • I learnt how to poach an egg from youtube. I use this method without one single fail!!

    http://youtu.be/Bxvxwk3TFPQ

    It works a charm! An you wont be dissapointed. The whirlpool method is to hit and miss approach! Check it out and I guarantee you will be skipping the expensive cafe's for your own Poached Egg Delight!

    Commenter
    Jas
    Location
    Syd
    Date and time
    May 11, 2012, 11:11AM
    • I just use the silicon egg poaching pods. No mess. No fuss. Just a little olive oil to stop the eggs sticking, into a saucepan on simmer, lid on, and a few minutes later they are done.

      Commenter
      craig schwartz
      Location
      level 7-1/2
      Date and time
      May 11, 2012, 11:21AM
      • I used to use the vinegar approach which worked well. Then I bought the silicon poachers too. I would never go back.

        Commenter
        Andrew
        Date and time
        May 11, 2012, 12:58PM
      • Silicone is a plastic.

        Silicon is a black glassy substance that computer chips are made of.

        Commenter
        enno
        Location
        sydney
        Date and time
        May 11, 2012, 6:17PM

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