How to Make the Perfect Poached Egg

The egg you remember from your childhood, the healthy breakfast of your dreams – it’s easier to make than you thought.

My grandmother has kept chickens for years. As a child I loved visiting the hens in the morning and hauling a basket full of variegated white, brown, and speckled cream eggs back to the house. Because of the chickens’ protein and nutrient-rich diet of corn, bugs, and table scraps, the yolks of these eggs were nearly orange, with a buttery, rich flavor. I grew up dipping wheat toast into fried eggs at Grandma’s kitchen table, hooked on the simple decadence.

I survived on eggs in college. I was short on cash and time, but my part-time job as a yoga instructor meant I had to be health-conscious with my food choices. I carried a container of hard-boiled eggs in my bag to tide me over between classes. Cold from a lunchbox and dipped in a little salt and pepper, they were a healthy alternative to fast food or processed bars.

A whole egg on its own is only 72 calories, but offers 7 grams of protein and 5 grams of fat – and at just over a dollar for a dozen, it’s no wonder eggs have been a pantry staple since long before my grandmother’s day. They’re the perfect intersection of health and old-fashioned economy.

But Grandma’s eggs were fried in butter or oil – and a hard-boiled egg is good, but hardly delicious. When I moved into my first apartment and had more time to experiment, I started reading recipes – Julia Child, Martha Stewart – to determine the best way to approach the challenge of poached eggs. The more I learned, the more mouthwatering opportunities presented themselves.

What better way to make an egg than without additional oil or calories? And what better way to start a Saturday morning than with a tender and delicate poached egg, slashed open with the side of a fork over a slice of whole wheat toast or perched atop Canadian bacon and an English muffin, smothered in hollandaise? I began to see that while poached eggs are elegant, they’re as simple as the eggs I was used to eating. A foolproof method and a little courage are all you need to master them.

Some recipes use vinegar as a stabilizer, to set the white, and others, like Julia’s, require a precise water temperature and deliberate stirring motion to give the egg a round, uniform shape. The method that has worked for me through numerous trials borrows ideas from all the great egg-poachers. It produces a compact result without the drama of stirring and free from any lingering taste of acid. The keys are “pre-boiling” the egg to start the cooking process before the egg is cracked, which coaxes the white into setting more quickly, and removing as much vertical distance between the egg and the water when it’s cracked.

All you’ll need is a saucepan, water, a timer, a slotted spoon, and an egg.

  1. Slowly bring a saucepan half-full of water to a simmer – the surface of the water should be moving, but gently. A rolling boil, with violent movement, splashing and bubbles, is too hot. You can always turn the heat down and wait for the water to come back down to a simmer before adding the egg if you’ve gone too far.
  2. Rinse off the egg under the faucet to remove any dirt or debris, and use the slotted spoon to lower it (in its shell) into the water. Start the timer for 10 seconds. When the time is up, raise the egg out of the water with the slotted spoon and set it aside to cool off.
  3. When the egg is cool enough to handle, rap it lightly on the counter (or any hard, flat surface – try not to use the edge of the pan, as this can disturb the white), and placing your thumbs at the crack, lower the egg as close to the surface of the water as you can without burning your fingers.

Note: you can break the egg into a small dish and use the dish to slip the egg into the water if the hot water is too daunting, but try to crack the egg as close to the bottom of the dish as possible to preserve the integrity of the barely-cooked white before it goes in the water.

  1. Gently release the egg into the water. You’ll see it start to turn white almost immediately, and little tendrils of egg white will balloon up and out at the edges.
  2. Start a timer for 4 minutes. Foam might collect on the surface of the water as the egg cooks, and if this bothers you, you can skim it off with the slotted spoon – it’s nothing more than emulsified, cooked egg white. When the timer is up, lift the egg out of the water with the slotted spoon and set it onto a plate lined with a few paper towels to drain off excess water.
  3. Serve immediately after draining, while hot. You can reuse the water for another egg, or attempt two (or more!) at once, if you’re feeling bold and are using a medium-to-large-sized saucepan.

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