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All About Eggs -- Poaching Eggs

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All About Eggs

Basic Skills Unit II: Poaching

Steven A. Shaw

(Note: Here is a listing of preceeding courses -- All about Eggs Introductory Material, All About Eggs -- FAQ and All About Eggs -- Hard Cooked Eggs)

For this class, please post your questions here - All About Eggs -- Poaching Eggs Q&A

Though it is one of the most feared forms of egg cookery, poaching an egg is in many ways simpler than hard-cooking an egg: there is no shell to worry about. This eliminates both the cracking and troublesome-peeling problems that can make hard-cooked eggs difficult to deal with.

Still, if you just crack any old egg into boiling water and cook it until it's done, you will probably not get a very nice poached egg. There are some basic principles and techniques one needs to get comfortable with.

I strongly encourage you to waste as many eggs and as much water as you need to waste today to get this right. Once you get the hang of poaching eggs, you'll find them to be one of the great secret weapons of the kitchen arsenal.

Basic theory

To poach an egg is to cook an egg, without its shell, in hot liquid below the boiling point. Poaching is not boiling; it is more akin to a very low simmer. Just as hard-cooked eggs should not be boiled, neither should poached eggs be.

The ideal poached egg looks somewhat like . . . an egg. So why not cook the egg in its shell -- "soft-boiled" -- and peel it very carefully? Well, you can try and I wish you luck. I've seen it done in at least one haute cuisine restaurant kitchen. But the poor cook had to peel about 4 eggs for every 1 he got right.


<span style='font-size:8pt;line-height:100%'>We tried peeling a soft-cooked egg; it didn't work very well</span>

Thus, we crack open the egg and try to get it to retain as much of its egg shape as possible as it cooks in the liquid. A properly poached egg arises as a result of the white coagulating nicely so as to encase the yolk on all sides -- ideally the yolk won't be visible from any angle when the egg is done. Pretty much all of poaching technique is dedicated to achieving this result.

Fresh eggs

Your life becomes very easy if you have very fresh eggs at your disposal. You will have a ton of leeway with respect to all other elements of poaching technique if, for example, your neighbor is a farmer. The reason restaurants have better luck poaching eggs than you do isn't necessarily because the cooks are better, smarter, or more experienced than you. A big part of it is that they get a lot of eggs delivered every day direct from the distributor, so their poached eggs come out really well. Once, awhile back, a friend who is a restaurant cook came over to my house and tried to poach some eggs. As they disintegrated in the pot, he exclaimed, "What the hell is wrong with your eggs!?!?" He had never poached eggs outside of the brunch service at a high-volume restaurant -- week-old eggs weren't something he had the experience to deal with.

Still, you can get pretty fresh eggs -- 3 or 4 days old if you're lucky -- at a supermarket. When your eggs start getting closer to the one-week mark, though, they won't poach well without assistance. Indeed, when preparing for this lesson over a two-day period, we had significantly better luck with poaching on Saturday (when the eggs were 4 days off the farm) than on Sunday (when they were 5 days old).


<span style='font-size:8pt;line-height:100%'>We're going to be fighting an uphill battle with an egg like this one</span>

It's when you're working with older eggs that you have to employ various modes of poaching trickery to get them back into shape.

Cracking an egg

Nearly every home cook I know cracks eggs against the lip of a bowl or pot. Nearly every professional I know cracks eggs against a flat surface.

The problem with cracking eggs against the lip of a bowl or pot is that this action can drive bits of shell into the egg's interior. This is bad because you can wind up with those bits of shell in your eggs, and also because if there are any bacteria on the egg's surface this can push them inwards. Occasionally you can also break the yolk this way.

The better way to crack an egg is to give it a firm knock against a flat surface, such as the countertop (those who work the griddles at restaurants often just do it against the cooking surface itself). Then, pull the egg decisively apart and the shell should separate nicely as the egg drops out. If you practice a bit, you can easily learn to do this with one hand: use two fingers and your palm to hold half the egg, and two fingers and your thumb to hold the other half. After you knock the egg against the flat surface, simply use your hand to separate the shell. If you're very ambitious you can practice doing this ambidextrously, so as to be able to crack two eggs at a time.


<span style='font-size:8pt;line-height:100%'>Cracking an egg against the lip of a bowl or pot can drive bits of shell into the egg's interior (left); knocking it against a flat surface creates fracture lines that make the egg easy to split without any shell remaining behind (right)</span>

You can crack a very fresh egg right into the poaching liquid and it will probably come out fine, but for the most part it's best to crack the eggs into individual dishes. Small Pyrex ones work nicely, as do little dessert plates or saucers if they're not too flat. This way you can bring the dish right to the surface of the poaching liquid (even better, lower the leading edge of the dish 1/4" or so below the surface) and gently slide the egg in.

The poaching liquid

We will be assuming water for poaching, but you can poach eggs in many liquids. Stock will add its color and flavor to the poached eggs, as will tomato sauce. Some enjoy eggs poached in milk. I don't recommend poaching them in red wine, though -- it gives an unpleasant mottled appearance.

The major factors to consider with the poaching water are its amount, temperature, and added ingredients.

I prefer to work with a lot of water. The increased thermal mass and space are more forgiving, and a good deal of egg-shape formation can occur during the journey to the bottom of a stockpot. But you can poach eggs in a relatively shallow pan so long as the eggs will ultimately be covered by a couple of inches of water. I personally use a medium-large saucepan (2.5+ quarts) for poaching one or two eggs and a stockpot (8+ quarts) for poaching larger quantities. (The photos you see here, not taken in my kitchen, use different utensils.)

The water you use for poaching eggs should be below the boiling point. If your water is at a rolling boil, it will cause so much agitation that the egg will not coagulate neatly. You want your water at a very low simmer -- just the little bubbles occasionally popping up to the surface. This will cook the eggs without messing them up structurally. (If you're poaching only a few eggs, you can also remove the pot from the heat just before you add the eggs -- this will prevent agitation and doesn't much affect cooking time.)

For the same reason a rolling boil doesn't work, the "whirlpool" trick that I've sometimes heard advocated is often counterproductive. It sounds theoretically appealing that if you stir the water rapidly to create a vortex in the middle of the pot, and you crack an egg into that vortex, it will magically wrap the whites around the yolk. It rarely works this way, though. Gentle water is best. And even were it effective for one egg, it wouldn't be particularly workable to poach a lot of eggs using the whirlpool method.

Two additives can help with poaching: salt and white vinegar. They both improve coagulation of the whites: vinegar because it lowers the coagulation temperature, and salt because it directly aids in coagulation. There's really no harm in adding these two things to the poaching liquid -- I use about a quarter cup of vinegar and a tablespoon of salt -- so you may as well do it for insurance purposes. In our experiments, we observed a significant difference between the quality of coagulation in the vinegared and non-vinegared pots.

Mechanical manipulation

Once the egg is in the pot, you can shape it a bit using a spoon or spatula. This definitely helps to rein in the loose bits. It's not going to transform a totally incoherent egg into a beautifully contained one, but it can make some difference.


<span style='font-size:8pt;line-height:100%'>A spatula or spoon can help contain some of the loose bits of egg</span>

There are also all sorts of dedicated devices in which you can poach eggs. Most common are little perforated metal cups that sit on the bottom of a pot. I haven't had much luck with these devices, or with those special poaching pans, but some people swear by them.

The temperature of your eggs

The food-safety police argue stridently against letting eggs come up to room temperature before cooking them. I'm no expert on food safety, but for me the difference in egg performance based on temperature is pronounced in almost every application, from poaching to frying and from soft-cooking to omelettes. As I mentioned in the introductory materials, all over the world you will find eggs sold and stored at room temperature and it's hardly the case that there are salmonella pandemics in all those places. So, it's really up to you.

Julia saves the day

Let's say everything goes wrong: You're serving eggs to a group of elderly, infirm, and infants so your conscience requires that you use them direct from the refrigerator. You're out of vinegar and salt and there are 12 inches of snow outside and your car was just repossessed. Your spoons, spatulas, and poaching all got lost during that big cross-country move. And all the eggs you have are three weeks old.

Not a problem. There is a last resort. And it's such an effective one that you may decide just to do this as a matter of course.

In Julia Child's video series, The Way to Cook, she offers this great piece of advice. Not that she invented it, but it's how I and many other Americans learned about it. The trick is to cook the egg in its shell for a few seconds before cracking it into the water.

Now, if you've ever watched Julia do this, there's a bit of questionable information provided: she says to cook the eggs for 10 seconds. If you watch her, however, here's what you'll see her do:

First, she pricks the large end of the egg with a pin. As we've discussed already in the previous units, this avoids rapid expansion of the air pocket which can break the shell. Next, she places the egg in simmering water (gently lower the egg in with a spoon; don't just drop it from a great height.) Then, she counts:

"One one thouusand!"

"Twoooo one thouuuuusand!"

"Threeeee one thouuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuusand!"

Well, by the time she gets to ten, it has been about 15-20 seconds. That's how long you need to do this for if you really want it to work.

From there, you can crack the egg directly into the water and you'll be fine. Or you can crack the egg into a dish and slide it in; but the white will coagulate so well using this method that it's really an unnecessary step.


<span style='font-size:8pt;line-height:100%'>On the left, this is how most people's poached eggs look: kind of like a fried egg that has been boiled; on the right, a really nice poached egg totally enrobed in its white thanks to Julia's method and a spatula</span>

Cooking time

The standard recommendation is 3-5 minutes. I prefer to gravitate towards 3 because I like a my yolks on the runnier side. Those who are highly concerned about food safety will want to go with 5 or more, but their eggs won't taste as good.

Removing the eggs from the water for service or storage

A slotted spoon is the best tool for removing poached eggs from their cooking liquid. If you're going to serve the eggs immediately -- as in really immediately with no delay, like you're cooking for yourself or just a couple of people and they're all sitting at the table ready to eat -- just place each egg on a couple of thicknesses of paper towel and roll it around a bit to dry it off, then serve it right away.

In most cases, however, you're going to want to prepare your poached eggs at least a little bit in advance. In that case, use a slotted spoon to transfer the finished eggs to a bowl of ice-water. This will "shock" the eggs and stop the cooking. If you omit this step, your eggs will continue to cook once they've been removed and they will eventually overcook themselves. You can keep the eggs in ice water, covered in the refrigerator, as long as overnight or even longer, though the food safety people would rather you didn't. In any event, you will need this trick even if you're preparing your eggs only a little while in advance. You can also utilize the opportunity that cool eggs present to trim any wayward bits of white (use either a knife or scissors).

When it's time to serve the eggs, reheat them in simmering water for about 1 minute. Then blot on paper towels and serve.

Cooking with poached eggs

A poached egg on a piece of buttered toast with a little coarse salt and pepper is one of the great meals -- breakfast, lunch, brunch, dinner, afternoon- or midnight-snack. But of course there are quite a few other things you can do with poached eggs. You can add them to so many dishes. When we were preparing this lesson last weekend, we had as you can imagine quite a few extra poached eggs lying around. So for breakfast Rachel Perlow created an impromptu south-of-the-border feast based on diced potatoes, onions, red pepper, chorizo, tomatoes, tomatillo salsa, and roughly chopped poached eggs folded in ever so briefly at the last minute -- all wrapped in flour tortillas. You could do this with many combinations of ingredients, depending on what you have around. You could even use scrambled eggs, but it's better with poached.






<span style='font-size:8pt;line-height:100%'>An impromptu poached egg creation -- they can make so many dishes better</span>

But of course the most pervasive -- and for good reason: it's great -- recipe with poached eggs is eggs Benedict. It's hard to get a straight answer on the origins of this dish, but here's the word from the James Beard Foundation:

According to Version One, a certain Mrs. LeGrand Benedict, a regular at New York's landmark Delmonico's, had grown weary of the restaurant's offerings. She consulted with the chef, and together they devised the now classic brunch item — English muffin topped with Canadian bacon, poached eggs, and Hollandaise sauce. (Incidentally, Delmonico's also gets recipe credit for Baked Alaska and Lobster Newburg.) A conflicting tale attributes the dish to a hung-over Wall Street broker named Lemuel Benedict. He allegedly put together a breakfast approximating Eggs Benedict from items on the buffet table at the Waldorf-Astoria. The Waldorf's legendary Oscar Tschirky is said to have fine-tuned the dish, substituting English muffins for toast, and Canadian bacon for ham. Eggs Benedict first appeared in print in 1898, and by 1912 were so popular that Underwood Deviled Ham published a recipe for them in an ad campaign. The company used its canned ham, of course, and substituted cream sauce for Hollandaise.

I'll assume you all know how to toast an English muffin and how to cook a piece of ham or Canadian bacon. If you didn't before, you also now know how to poach an egg. So all you need to do is make some Hollandaise, and for that you should visit Jack Lang's class on cream sauces.

Tomorrow we'll make some omelettes, and then we'll separate some eggs and whip the whites to make meringues.

For this class, please post your questions here - All About Eggs -- Poaching Eggs Q&A

(Note: Here is a listing of preceeding courses -- All about Eggs Introductory Material, All About Eggs -- FAQ and All About Eggs -- Hard Cooked Eggs)

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