Monday, July 13, 2009

One perfect poached egg

I'd like to propose a new Olympic sport -- egg poaching. All we now need is for France to host the Olympics. I doubt any other country would take my proposal seriously. You see, a perfectly poached egg is as hard to achieve as a perfect dive. Sure, any idiot can just jump into the pool and make a big splash, just like any idiot can dump some eggs into the water and fish them out 4 minutes later. But to produce a beautifully compact orb of white completely enclosing the yolk takes years of practice and determination. I can just imagine the judges giving out scores based on how well the white stayed around the yolk.

"Look at that white spreading. What do you think this is -- egg drop soup? Final score: 5.3"
"There are some threads, but the white is forming some cohesive shape. It actually looks like an oval. Oh no, but that yolk is way off center and bulging out. A poached egg is not a fried sunny side up. Final score: 7.5."
"It's looking good, the white is together, the yolk is enclosed. But look at that shape -- way too long. It needs to be closer to a circle. Final score: 8.7."
"It's lovely. Perfectly oval, but not too elongated. The white is together, the yolk is enclosed. It's just a tad off center, so the judges might take a few points off, but other than that it's perfect! Final score: 9.8"

I don't know if 10 ever happens in real life. That's the holy grail of an absolutely perfect poached egg. With enough tinkering and trimming we can get extremely close, yet it always remains ever so slightly out of our reach.

My egg poaching score has been hovering around 7 for over a year now. With enough trimming my eggs didn't look completely dilapidated, but the yolk was sticking out and it resembled a sunny side up egg more than a poached one. I have tried every trick known to man or at least to U-Tube (from CIA instructor to Jacques Pepin to your average Joe). It was good to know that I was not the only person having serious trouble with this supposedly simple technique. Rob Manuel at b3ta documented four ways to poach an egg and I have tried them all except for the vortex method because he seemed to have such disastrous results with it. His final success of poaching an egg in plastic wrap worked for me too, but I had some concerns about cooking the plastic wrap. You should see this thing when it comes out of the water -- there is definitely some chemical reaction going on there because the plastic wrap melts slightly.

I almost gave up hope for a perfectly poached egg until last week. I was looking through the recipes from Persimmon's soup class that Jessica (one of my students) was kind enough to share with me and noticed instructions for how to make a poached egg (served with one of the soups). Chef Champe Speidel recommended the vortex method, but unlike other sources he described it in enough detail to make me want to give it a try. Here is the basic idea: you create motion in the water that wraps the egg white around the yolk. The devil is in the details of course. Here is what I've learned from Champe's recipe.
  • You need a gallon of water. It never occurred to me to put one egg into this much water. I thought that the more water you have, the more the egg spreads.
  • You need 3 Tbsp vinegar per gallon. I usually used way less thinking it gave the egg an unpleasant taste.
  • Use a whisk to create the vortex in the water. You really need to create some momentum in the water and drop the egg the second you stop whisking.
  • Poach eggs one at a time for 4 minutes each.
  • The ice-bath is not optional even if you are serving the eggs immediately. You still need to rinse the vinegar and all the loose pieces of white.
Armed with this info and a new found excitement about poached eggs, I headed into the kitchen. I brought a gallon (= 4 quarts = 16 cups) of water to a boil in my relatively deep 4 quart saucepan. Then I added the vinegar and turned down the heat so the liquid simmers gently. I cracked an egg into a small bowl and held it in my left hand. With my right hand, I whisked the water vigorously until it formed a deep vortex (it looked like a funnel reaching about half way down the depth of the pot). As soon as I stopped whisking, I dropped the egg right into the center and waited for 4 minutes, monitoring the temperature of the water and regulating the heat so that it just barely quivered. I fished out the egg with a slotted spoon, rinsed it off in the ice-bath, and what do you know -- it was pretty close to perfect. I'd give it 9.5.

By the way, this wasn't even a particularly fresh egg (it sat in my fridge for a week). The generally accepted wisdom about poached eggs is that they have to be very fresh for the white not to spread.

I tested the same technique in a smaller pot using only 1.5 quarts of water and it didn't work as well. The egg sank and flattened before the white had a chance to completely enclose it.

I have good news and bad news for you my friends. The good news is that I now know how to make a perfect poached egg. The bad news is that I only know how to make one perfect egg per pot, and I don't think Olympic judges would like that. My scores for subsequent eggs follow an exponential decay curve. My first intuition was that it had something to do with the temperature of the eggs. They must have warmed up while waiting their turn. I tried keeping the eggs in the fridge until it's their turn to take a dive, but still no luck. I have a feeling that the egg white remaining in the pot of water attracts the white of the egg that is supposed to be poaching and pulls it away from the yolk. Whenever I start from scratch and bring a completely new pot of water to a boil, the eggs start behaving again. Could it be that the vinegar evaporated? It's a mystery. If you have any suggestions, I'd love to hear them.


Anonymous said...

Great post! But boiling 8 pints of water for a couple of eggs for breakfast might put a bit of a strain on the environment. Like you I've discovered that you can get away with just about a pint in a small deep pan. Not quite as perfect but it might save the planet. Best wishes. Peter

Unknown said...

I don't really understand the point of this project. A perfectly poached egg should taste delicious, and I couldn't care less how it looks. If it holds together, isn't soggy and has the right consistency of yolk, does it matter if it's off center? I greatly enjoy expanding my cooking but I do try to focus my energies where they count.

Helen said...

Hi Tom,

The quest for a completely enclosed yolk might look finicky at first, but I find that in order for the egg to be cooked evenly, the yolk does need to be enclosed in the white. It's the same reason you truss a roast. Not just to make it look cute, but to make it cook evenly.

I admit that the effort it takes to master poached eggs does not seem to be worth it. I do it just because I enjoy these kinds of projects and experiments, but if you don't want to waste time in the kitchen, don't worry about it.

To tell you the truth, I actually prefer a good pan-fried sunny side up egg, but where is the challenge in that? :)


Anonymous said...

Could be that as you drop the cold eggs into the water, they cool it enough to have an effect.

nativenapkin said...

Sometimes perfection is unattainable (just ask any Borg). I haven't had to produce in a professional environment for many years, so my standards have mellowed. But unlike commenter Tom, I do care about aesthetics. I have found that doing no more than four eggs, added in rapid succession to a quart of water with a couple of glub-glubs of vinegar in it will get two beautiful Benedicts on the breakfast table quickly. Great detail on your post!

jo said...

commercial plastic wrap has a different temp melt point than commercial. Visit one day and I'll give you some. Then you can try it and agree that it is a pretty perfect way to poach and egg.
i agree with Tom though, a sloppy poached egg, given the amount of white is perfectly acceptable to me cooking at home.

Anonymous said...

You produced a beautiful poached doubt, and sincere congratulations!

Helen said...

Nativenapkin: I agree about eggs benedict. If you cover the egg with sauce, even a sloppy egg will look good. unless it completely lost its yolk, it will still taste good. I just want to know how to make the the right way out of principle. High end restaurants do it somehow.

Jo: I've tried the plastic wrap method and it's great! is commercial plastic wrap officially safe to use in simmering water? I might have to come visit sometimes :)


Bridgette Collado said...

nativenapkin: do you also use the vortex in your quick n' dirty method?

Anonymous said...

Saran Cling Plus and Saran Premium have been certified by the FDA and and can be used in temperatures of up to 190 degrees fahrenheit. I do not know of any plastic wrap that has been cleared for use in simmering water, though. In any case I believe soft boiling eggs is an easier, more natural approach.

Unknown said...

To make multiple poached eggs at once you need an immersion circulator. The high-end restaurants probably do it that way.

It's possible to do it without an immersion circulator, but probably not worth the trouble:

Unknown said...

P.S. And we have actually used plastic wrap to do it, too, and it works great. Just use a double boiler (you don't want the wrap touching the bottom of the pot) and keep the temp under simmer (our lowest heat burner works great for that, or keep some ice cubes nearby). Just regular plastic wrap, you don't need anything special.

Anonymous said...

Terrific post! I cheat and use an electric egg poacher. Shame...for shame.
Your egg comparison was excellent.

Unknown said...

Your post had me laughing. At least you can make one perfect poached egg...that's better than a lot of people out there! :)

emiglia said...

Wow... I love your step-by-step guides like this one. I've never tried to make poached eggs before... maybe it's time?

Jean Z. said...

Thanks for your post. I'm set to poach some duck eggs in the coming weeks and have been scared sh**less about ruining them. I will definitely give this a try (with some cheap chicken eggs first, though). -- Jean

Unknown said...

I use silicone egg poacher inserts. I only need about an inch of water and a lid for my pan. Works great.Not classic, but repeatable results.

Unknown said...

Good Grief! Plastic Wrap no longer is even allowed in my house, never mind to put it in hot water for cooking an egg. The vortex method sounds much safer.