Here is the bottom line. Eggs vary a lot, just like people. We might follow the same poaching procedure, and you’ll get a perfect egg, while I’ll get an egg drop soup. In my kitchen, an egg getting into a pot of simmering water is like a student getting into Harvard – she needs to take the admission test. The admission test for the egg is the slotted spoon. If all the white runs through the spoon, the egg is not a poacher. It might be a very yummy egg, and you can save it for other uses, but if you want to poach eggs from that batch, you should use the sous-vide technique.
Can’t you judge the poachability of an egg based on its freshness and origin? It works as well as judging the smarts of a student based on the wealth of their parents, their sex, and race. Until you break that egg and look inside, there is no way of knowing how well it will poach.
YouTube Link: How to Poach an Egg
Sept 20, 2013 update: I got feedback from my students that poached eggs can be difficult to take off the paper towel. It's usually not a problem for 1 egg since you can flip it into the palm of your hand, peel off the paper towel and serve, but when you have multiple eggs, it becomes tricky. If cooking more than 1 egg, store them in a bowl of cold water. When ready to serve, warm them up in 140F water for 15 minutes, then dry them off on a paper towel one at a time and serve. If poaching many eggs, keep them cold since they hold together better this way.
In the last year, I have poached a lot of eggs taking careful notes and experimenting with many techniques, egg types, and freshness levels. Here are my findings:
Does freshness matter?
Kind of. As the eggs sit in the fridge, more of the white will convert from gelatinous to liquid. However, 2 day old egg from one batch might behave like 2 week old egg from another batch. Besides, the liquid white is not all that big of a deal. You can drain it off. What makes all the difference in poaching is the thickness of the gelatinous white that’s left. Unfortunately, that depends on the egg type and not only on freshness.
Does it help for the egg to be organic, local, or free range?
No. Some of the worst offenders were organic, local, free-range, 2 day old, tastiest eggs from Ameraucana hens. Some people say that too fresh is not good either, so I’ve tried poaching eggs from that batch after keeping them for 3 more days and then for another week. No good – the white was just too thin. That being said, I am definitely not saying that organic, local, or free range is a bad thing for poaching. It’s just not a factor you can use to predict how well an egg will poach. A different batch of Ameraucana hen eggs might have poached quite well.
Does the vortex help?
Yes. It wraps the white around the yolk, and keeps a beautiful round shape. It also helps the white coagulate faster. When you put a 40 or even 70 degree egg into 212 degree water, the water around the egg cools off and the white takes longer to coagulate giving it more time to spread. When you make the water move, new hot water is washed over the egg to replace the cooler water surrounding it and the white coagulates faster. It works just like the fan in the convection oven.
Unfortunately, this rules out poaching in a skillet or poaching several eggs at the same time.
How much water do you need?
You need at least 2 inches to create a vortex and give the egg a round rather than flat shape. I use a 2 quart pot that is 3 inches tall and add just over 2 inches of water into it. Unless you are very practiced with the vortex technique, I suggest you use a 3-4 quart pot to make stirring without spilling easier.
Does vinegar help?
Yes, but like many remedies it’s not without side effects. Most people expect the egg to taste sour. The sourness is not very noticeable, but the outside of the egg becomes a bit tough and chalky tasting. The more vinegar you add, the more it helps to keep the egg together, but the worse the egg tastes. Out of curiosity, I put an egg with completely liquid quite (a hopeless poaching prospect) into a bowl of room temperature vinegar for 4 minutes. Then I drained it on a slotted spoon and poached it. It came out as a perfect oval. Too bad it was not edible. The outer layers of white were awfully chalky and tough.
At least now I had proof that vinegar was not an old wife’s tale. It definitely coagulates the egg, so I tried to find the amount of vinegar that could help eggs keep their shape without ruining their taste. 1 Tbsp vinegar per quart of water helped a bit, and didn’t taste too bad. But I find that I never use it. For eggs that don’t lose all their white through a slotted spoon, vinegar is not needed at all. For eggs that fail the slotted spoon test, the vinegar helped avert a complete disaster, but the resulting egg was nowhere near perfect in either shape or taste.
Can’t I trim the white off after cooking?
Sure, you can trim a bit of the white off after cooking. The reason I like to remove the thin white before cooking is to give me a way out in case I know I’ll be dealing with a lousy poacher. If all of the white is thin, it might completely separate from the yolk during poaching and trimming it will leave you with just the yolk. If I know this up front, I might either add some vinegar to the water, or change my plans entirely and cook my eggs sunny side up, scrambled, or soft boiled.
Scalability and Reliability
After watching the video in this post, you probably noticed its limitations. It works on eggs that pass the slotted spoon test and is most practical for a few eggs. What if you are cooking poached eggs for 12 people, or have uncooperative eggs, or both? That’s when the sous-vide technique comes in, but we’ll leave it for another post.
29 down / 21 more to go