“She can’t even boil an egg!” Before she stopped being able to boil water, that was the last word on kitchen cluelessness. Between you and me, that cook with the bad rep got a bad rap. It’s easier to poach an egg, fry an egg, whip up an omelet, or serve forth a souffle than it is to soft-boil an egg. It’s easier to shuck oysters, pass the CPA on your first sitting, or train cats to pair socks than it is to produce a perfect soft boiled egg.
A perfect soft-boiled egg has a completely cooked white and an oozing warm yolk. A few seconds too few, and you’ll tap open a nauseating translucent-white/cool-yolk combo that goes straight into to the dog’s dish. A few seconds too many, and the yolk’s soft but stiff—a medium-cooked egg. (I’ve never understood the medium-cooked egg; it seems like a soft-boiled or hard-boiled gone wrong. But with lots of butter and regrets, it’s edible.)
Last winter I craved a soft-boiled egg. I wanted to wash my dusty collection of bird-bodied eggcups, some unused since I scored them at a long-ago tag sale or my first visit to a Sur la Table in Santa Monica. I wanted pain de mie, toasted, buttered and cut into soldiers. I got greedy: why not two soft-boiled eggs, scooped warm from their shells onto a nest of toast points? I’d lost my job, the Black Dog of depression was my faithful mutt, and the grey days of February were broken only by oral surgery and the bloody orgies of Tess Gerritsen thrillers. Even the best-adjusted lady—and I’m medium-adjusted at best—would get wiggy. In my darkest hours I considered going into the egg cozy business. What better way to keep my fingers occupied (and my smoke count under forty a day) than to create egg couture? What better way to while away a few months of meds, Monster.com and unemployment checks? I realized I was reverting to craftswoman consolations, and that I’d better slap on some eye makeup, pull out an egg carton and check out any new thinking about how to soft boil an egg.
My father was the family egg cook, and I remembered his recipe for a Four-Minute Egg: lower an egg into a pot of water at a gentle boil, set the timer for four minutes. Remove when the timer dinged. Daddy made a reliable soft-boiled egg.
Research beguiles me, so I whiled away a few hours with cookbooks. According to the experts, from the Rombauers to Harold McGee, Daddy had it all wrong. What I’ll call the “Slow Start” is accepted wisdom in egg cookery. Put a 70-degree egg into a saucepan, cover with an extra inch of cold water, bring to a boil, then simmer for two to three minutes.
North Americans don’t leave eggs on display in cunning wire baskets, nor do I know how to find an egg’s armpit and take its temperature. Sure, I could have warmed one in hot tap water for a couple of minutes, but that seemed like fussiness; we’re talking about a boiled egg here, not zabaglione. My plan was to cook the egg for the longer suggested time and if necessary, try, try again. I’d paid $1.79 a dozen at Walgreen’s for my test subjects and I could afford to be fearless; I wasn’t experimenting with sturgeon eggs.
I filled a small deep saucepan with water and slipped in the egg. The problem with the Slow Start Method is that it requires devoted pot-watching, because the timing starts when the water reaches a boil. The cook has to see when the rolling bubbles form. I’m sure there’s a remote thermometer out there that would beep as the water reached 212, but that seemed like mucho materiel for a fifteen-cent test subject.
I lurked, the water boiled. I turned it down so that it maintained a tranquil bubble, and set the timer to three minutes. I busied myself buttering toast then stood, tea strainer in hand, to pull out the egg when my squat red kitchen timer chimed.
A boiled egg is hot, wet and slippery. With the help of a potholder I wrangled it into an egg cup and stood there counting back the years—the last time I’d boiled an egg, Oasis and Blur were thumping from my daughter’s bedroom. I performed a gentle tap tap tap with my paring knife and reached for the toast fingers.
Raw egg white. Slimy, snotty, raw egg white and a thin liquid yolk that was barely warm. I tossed the egg, tossed the toast—almost tossed my cookies—then refilled the saucepan with water and deposited Test Subject 2. I didn’t spend a lot of time waiting for the water to boil because the phone rang. By the time I’d convinced a landscaping company that I was planning to let my property revert to prairie, the water was preparing to churn out big-boy bubbles. I adjusted the heat, set the timer for three minutes, and made more toast. When the timer pinged I started counting. When I reached twenty (one thousand) I pulled the egg, beheaded it and danced a victory Watusi: the white was cooked firm, its texture neither rubbery nor shiny and glutinous. The yolk was runny, lightly thickened and clung to the toast like White-Out on a black satin jacket. I topped up the butter and salt and pepper in the perfect Brancusi serving vessel and thought: “I stressed less the last time I made Beef Wellington!”
Washing up, I pondered. Slow start, rolling boil, and three minutes and twenty seconds to soft boiled bliss—too much pot watching and counting for fifteen cents worth of perfect protein. I don’t have a timer that ticks off to the second. Waiting around for the pot to boil was dandy; I could wipe off a couple of cabinet doors or start a batch of yoghurt. But the counting method was primitive. I cast about to find a better metric for that three-minute twenty-second paradigm.
I reeled with my brilliance—I was a freaking genius. I have the perfect set-up in my kitchen, a CD player with a remote. All I’d need was to find a 3:20 track, cue it up and hit Play. No need to buy a more sensitive timer, no dorky counting. All the February misery and meds were as nothing. I was on my way back, Baby!
I tore into the glittery stacks of CDs, only to face another challenge. My beloved Motown/Stax selections rarely hit two minutes, let alone three. After spending four hours I’ll never reclaim, I found two possibilities for my digital egg timer: The Who: “My Generation” (3:18) and The Bagpipes and Drums of Scotland: “When the Battle is Over"(3:21).
My husband couldn’t see the coffee table for the CDs when he got home. Neither would he buy into my brilliance—he gave me the same wary glance that I’d last seen when I told him that our path to a whiz of an old age was going to be strewn with designer tea cozies. He thought I was nuts.
He was right. I’d entered culinary Cuckoo Land.
I just wanted a soft-boiled egg I could eat without the bagpipe overture. The Slow Start Method wasn’t making it, so I decided to forget the Rombauers and McGee and try my father’s Fast Start Method. I wouldn’t have to mooch around the kitchen, catching the water as it hit 212. I could stick a pan on the stove, walk to the mailbox, answer the phone or run out for cat food and cigarettes, tasks short enough to assure me a pot of boiling water.
Father didn’t know best, or he’d used smaller eggs. A four-minute egg done Fast Start was the exemplar of what I can’t gag down. I was negotiating sutures and bleeding gums, unable to chew a steak or gum Rice Krispies, I was empty and angry. I was hungry. Why couldn’t I boil an egg?
I make my own marshmallows. I can knock off puff pastry without the maidenly dew of sweat. I can bone animals and fish big and small. My Paris-Brest, my babas au rhum, my bacon and eggs get good press. Not only can I make a perfect pate, I can source caul fat in the 'burbs. But I couldn’t boil an egg.
I was as committed to my goal as Newton was to The Calculus. As to mathematics and time, I discovered that my microwave—a machine I've owned for ten years—had a timer that counted to the second. (That’s what happens when you store your microwave at knee level.) As severe as Marie Curie in her lab coat, I in my apron set out to make lab notes.
- February15: 4:20. Threw it out. White nowhere close to done. Oatmeal for lunch.
- February 17: 4:35 Tossed it. 15 extra seconds didn’t make much of a difference. Yoghurt and a banana.
- February 18: 4:50. Almost! White still too soft, but I ate it! (Pick up some pepper later.)
- February 20: 5:00 White cooked. Yolk thick and runny! Perfect!
Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote a story called “The Birthmark,” in which the husband becomes so disturbed by a tiny stain on his gorgeous wife’s cheek that the birthmark blinds him to her beauty. When I had topped my excellent egg, the albumen was still a micro-millimeter unset where it met the yolk. My obsession egged me forward: I knew in my bones I hadn’t achieved perfection—I was roosting on mere excellence. That slippery remnant of white became a preoccupation, the niggling doubt that I’d failed to capture the egg-cup grail.
How to firm up the ends without risking a medium-boiled egg? I wasn’t going to mess with my five minutes learned the hard way, no Siree Bob! I considered finding the wire holder that comes with the Easter egg dye kit, and parboiling each end for fifteen seconds before lowering the entire egg into the pot, but that would feel like cheating because it would require extra counting. (Nor did I want my husband to suggest that I should adjust my meds.) But that twist of wire was my Newton’s apple—it sent me free associating about Easter baskets. I prick one end of the eggs I hard boil for Easter, to protect them from cracking. What if I pricked both ends, exposing the white to some extra heat? There was no hard science to back up my hunch, just intuition and desperate, piteous hope. I wanted to crack this ovoid mystery and move on with my life.
I punched two neat holes with the very needle I’d used to appliqué satin braid to my baroque egg cozy. I lowered the egg into boiling water. I set the timer for five minutes. I found a forlorn English muffin at the back of the fridge, and started it to toasting. I fretted. When the magic minutes were up, I stood my egg in its cheery cup, and crossed myself. I topped my prize, and checked the white. God must listen to the prayers of atheists: it was perfect. Not excellent, perfect.
As Simon said: “Time, time time, see what’s become of me, while I looked around for my possibilities. I was so hard to please.” Time flies. Time is of the essence. Had I but world enough and time. There’s a time for every purpose under heaven.
The time for my purpose was five minutes flat.
Margaret McArthur, aka maggiethecat, is the former editorial director of the Daily Gullet. She writes, cooks and tends her garden near Chicago.