The Larousse Gastronomique (1988) gives this definition: “Poached Eggs – Eggs removed from their shells and cooked in boiling liquid (usually water with vinegar added.)” Lang, Jennifer Harvey, ed. Larousse Gastronomique. New York: Crown Publishers. English edition 1988. Page 406.
They can be eaten on their own, or, particularly in French cooking, used as an ingredient in other dishes with sauces, etc. Julia Child wrote,
“The French, who never eat an egg for breakfast, dress a poached egg in aspic, pose it in a tartlet shell, decorate it with sauces and garnitures, or tuck it into a soufflé and serve it proudly as a hot first course or the mainstay for a light meal.” Julia. The French Chef Cookbook. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 1968. Page 102.
Traditional poached eggs are cooked free-standing directly in a pot of simmering water, with no support.
Many people, however, just don’t like these free-style poached eggs. The problem with poaching right in water is that the eggs can turn out quite drippy, and create puddles of water on your plate, even after draining. And some people end up with “egg drop water soup”, which they flush down the toilet in disgust having wasted perfectly good eggs.
Consequently, many people now use a special egg poaching pan. Purists say that a special poaching pan is not necessary, and that it gives the eggs a cafeteria look and shape. They add that free-style poached eggs have more character.
And, they add, eggs cooked in those poaching pans might be something, but poached eggs, they are not.
Small wonder that some people now have just taken to buying their eggs already poached. You just warm them in their vacuum packs, and serve.
The spreading problem
Eggs poached by the traditional method — directly in simmering method — can have a tendency to spread out all over the pot.
If you can get really fresh eggs, as in eggs just rushed in from the backyard, you have very little worries about poaching free-style: the white will hardly spread out at all. Jacques Pépin writes,
“When you make poached eggs, do not forget that the fresher they are, the easier it will be. The less they are fresh, the more the whites have the tendency to spread out in the water.” Pépin, Jacques. La Technique. Montréal, Quebec: Editions Optimum Limitée. 1978. Page 94.
Most of us get our eggs from supermarkets, however, and have no idea how many days ago exactly the eggs were laid.
If you poach eggs in a regular pot with only a few inches of water, you will get flat poached eggs that spread out, kind of like the shape of fried eggs. If you use a deep pot with a lot of water in it, you will get rounder ones, as the egg white has time to coagulate around the yolk on its way down to the bottom of the pot.
White vinegar added to the water helps the egg white to congeal better and reduces spreading. The Penguin Companion to Food says:
“A little vinegar must be added to the boiling water before the egg goes in. The reason for this is that the acid promotes coagulation and reduces the tendency for long streamers of egg white to form.” Davidson, Alan. The Penguin Companion to Food. London: The Penguin Group, 2002. Page 324.
Some cooks say to not add salt, as that would just work to negate the effect of the acid. Jacques Pépin writes,
“You add a bit of vinegar to the water (preferably white vinegar, to avoid tainting the eggs) to firm up the white. Salt, on the other hand, will make the whites runnier…. ” Pépin, Jacques. La Technique. Page 94.
Other food writers say that salt (and vinegar) both help the process:
“Poached eggs are soft-cooked eggs without a shell. Because they have no container to hold their shape, caution must be taken to keep them intact. Raw eggs are split into a pan of simmering water, where they cook until the whites set, about three minutes. Using the freshest egg available makes a big difference. Thick fresh egg white clings tightly to the yolk, forming a compact poached egg. Adding salt and vinegar to the poaching liquid, which helps to set albumin proteins more quickly, or sliding the egg into a slotted spoon and allowing the thinner white to runoff before adding it to the poaching liquid, both yield tidier results.” Joachim, David, Andrew Schloss and A. Philip Handel. The Science of Good Food. Toronto, Canada: Robert Rose. 2008. Page 203.
Don’t poach eggs in an aluminum pot, or your eggs may taste funny.
Traditional poached eggs
To poach eggs directly in water, have a slotted spoon handy. Place a couple inches of water in your pan and 1 tablespoon of white vinegar or 1 tablespoon of lemon juice (even bottled will do fine.) The acid of the vinegar or lemon helps the egg white from spreading out.
Bring the water to a low boil over medium-high heat. Getting exactly the right simmer is important — if the water’s not hot enough, the egg will spread out before it sets. If the water is lapping away at a rollicking great boil, it will toughen the egg and send strands of the egg white off to all corners of the pot, making “tentacles.”
Crack the egg into a small bowl, such as a fruit nappy. Stir the water to make a whirlpool, then stop stirring, and slide the egg into the centre of the whirlpool. Use your slotted spoon to nudge the egg together.
Cook 2 minutes for a runny yolk, 3 minutes for a medium-firm yolk, 4 minutes for firm. In fact, food safety experts are now saying 5 minutes, but for a lot of people that certainly is going to be very safe, as that egg will be so rubbery that they won’t eat it anyway, and you can’t get much safer than that.
Remove the egg with a slotted spoon and place on a piece of paper towel to drain the water off. Never put straight onto the plate you are going to eat off of, or the rest of your meal will get water-logged. Serve immediately.
To do more than one at a time, you can slide one egg at a time into the water just after the previous egg has started turning white. It can get tricky, though, keeping track of which egg has been in how long.
The most effective way to cook a lot of poached eggs for a crowd may be to borrow a restaurant technique, but be aware that some purists poo-poo this method. Poach all eggs in advance to 1 minute. Remove from hot water, plunge into cold water and let sit there till needed. Then heat all the eggs up at once in hot water for 1 minute.
Jacques Pépin writes,
“You can poach eggs several hours, even a day ahead (as most restaurants do), in order to avoid the stress of doing them at the last minute.” Pépin, Jacques. La Technique. Page 94.
Advice from the pros
The Larousse Gastronomique (1988) gives these directions:
“Break the egg into a cup and then slip it quickly into boiling water with vinegar added (1 tablespoon per litre, 2 pints, 4 ½ cups). Cook for 3 to 5 minutes with the water barely simmering, depending on how firmly set the yolk needs to be. If the egg is very fresh, it will not spread out in the water and the white will coagulate instantly. When cooked, remove with a slotted spoon, refresh in cold water, drain on a cloth, and trim. The eggs should be poached one by one so that they do not merge together in the water. They can be kept warm in water at 70 C (158 F). Lang, Jennifer Harvey, ed. Larousse Gastronomique. Page 409.
James Beard gave these directions plus a helpful cheat to keep the egg together:
“Pour enough water into a small, shallow pan to cover the eggs. Bring to a gentle boil, not a rolling boil. Add a little vinegar, and start swirling the water to create a miniature whirlpool. Break the egg into the center of this, and then gather the white together with a spoon or other tool. If you are deft, this produces a beautiful rounded egg. Cook it – do not boil it – until the white is firm. Remove it from the water with a slotted spoon or slotted lifter (there are excellent ones to be found in Japanese shops). Dry on paper towels or a dish towel. If you are going to use the eggs later, either cold or reheated, for a dish, store in a bowl of cold water. When ready to use, removed carefully and dry on a towel. Beard, James. American Cookery. Boston, MA: Little, Brown and Company. 1972. Page 101.
H.P. Pellaprat, co-founder of the Cordon Bleu cooking school in Paris, gave this advice (note that he doesn’t seem concerned about the impact of salt on the egg white):
“To ensure poached eggs are a good shape they must be perfectly fresh. Put an appropriate amount of water in a flat casserole (sautoir) and add ⅓ oz salt and 1 tablespoon vinegar per 4 pints water. As soon as the water boils, break one egg after another into it. Not too many eggs should be poached at a time since they should not be allowed to touch. As soon as the water boils again the pan should be drawn aside sufficiently to keep it at boiling point without bubbling. Poaching takes 3 minutes, the time required for the white to become hard enough to surround the soft yolk. Only when the eggs are to be used for cold dishes, are they poached for 4 minutes. When they are ready they should be removed from the hot water immediately and placed in cold, slightly salted water to prevent them from cooking further. They can therefore be prepared in advance and need only be placed in hot, not boiling, water to heat them up again.” Pellaprat, H.P. Modern French Culinary Art. London: Virtue & Company Ltd. 1969. Page 267.
Julia Child says the first step is to test how fresh your egg is and that, if it isn’t fresh enough, not to bother trying to free-form poach it:
“Poached in the French manner the egg is dropped from its shell into a pan of barely simmering water where it sits quietly for 4 minutes, until the white is set but the yoke remains liquid. The perfect specimen is a graceful free-form oval; the white masks the yolk completely. To achieve this attractive result, you must have a very fresh eggs. To tell if an egg is fresh, break one into a saucer: the yolk stands high and the white clings to it, only a small amount of watery liquid falls away from the main body of the white. A stale egg cannot be poached in the free-form manner because its relaxed and watery white trails off in the poaching liquid, leaving the yolk exposed. Therefore, test an egg from your supply before you poach them this way.” Julia. The French Chef Cookbook. Page 401.
Delia Smith also agrees that if an egg isn’t completely fresh, don’t try to (free-form) poach it:
“If you want to cook [an egg] perfectly it is vital to determine how old the egg is… An egg needs to be fresh if you want to… poach it, because what you will get is a lovely, neat, rounded shape. Alas, a stale egg will spread itself more thinly…. If you put it into water to poach, it would probably disintegrate, with the yolk and white parting company.” Smith, Delia. How to Cook: Book One. London: BBC Worldwide. 1998. Page 12.
Poached egg cheats
Julia Child at one point recommended pre-boiling whole eggs in their shells in simmering water for just 15 and 20 seconds, then cracking them and proceeding them as normal. A small bit of the egg white will start to cook and go a tad white, and this helps the eggs to stay together better in the water.
Anthony Bourdain in “A Cook’s Tour” mentions a method that involves cracking the egg into a piece of plastic wrap, tying it up, and then poaching the egg like that – you’d want to make sure that you had plastic wrap that was safe to cook in. (See directions here.)
James Beard gave these two cheats:
“It is probably much easier for most people to follow one of these two methods of poaching eggs:
(1) Prepare water for poaching and let it heat to the feeble ebullition stage. Gently break each egg to be poached into a small cup – measuring cups with handles are ideal for this purpose. Carefully turn the cup over into the water, holding the cup inverted over the egg for a few seconds. This holds the white intact until it sets. Continue poaching as above, pasting the eggs with a little hot water, if you like. Transfer them carefully to a paper towel or dish towel.
(2) There are rings equipped with folding handles available on the market for frying eggs in perfect circles. If you place these in a pan of water and invert the eggs (in cups) into the rings, they will poach perfectly.” Beard, James. American Cookery. Page 102.
Egg poaching pans
An egg poaching pan is a double-boiler. The water goes in the bottom, then a top level goes on which holds rounded bottom cups into which you break the eggs. You can buy special sets that are electric or stovetop. Many cooking pot sets come with a free poaching insert that fits on one of the pots. You can also buy the inserts that will fit onto most pots and frying pans.
The Penguin Companion to Food describes the pans like this:
“Many people have egg poachers which consist of one or several shallow metal containers, each of the size to take one egg and fitting into a larger container in which water is boiled. The small containers are buttered and the eggs are broken into them.” The Penguin Companion to Food. Page 324.
The eggs never actually touch the water. Because of this, it’s a bit of a misnomer to call them poached, they’re actually steamed eggs — or something else. The Penguin Companion to Food agrees:
“The results are quite pleasing but are not, strictly speaking, poached eggs. Indeed it is hard to know how to classify them. They really are closer to fried eggs, although steaming plays a part in their cookery.” The Penguin Companion to Food. Page 324.
You may still want to put a bit of vinegar in the water — not because it helps the eggs up above in the insert at all, but because a teaspoon of vinegar in the water of any sort of double-boiler can help prevent the water discolouring the pot.
Cook for the same times as you would for poached eggs put in water: 2 minutes for a runny yolk, 3 minutes for a medium-firm yolk, 4 minutes for firm.
Using an egg poacher is a far easier way to make poached eggs for a gang than trying to poach eggs en masse free-style, especially considering the number of additional items (coffee, toast, etc) that must be juggled at the same time.
Microwave egg poaching
Fill small bowls (made of glass or microwave-safe plastic) such as fruit nappies, custard dishes or smallish coffee mugs half full with water. Zap until the water in them boils. Remove from microwave (caution: water heated in microwave can surge), crack an egg into each bowl. Return to microwave, zap for 1 minute. Take one out, test, and return to zap at 15 or 30 second intervals (depending on your microwave) until done to your liking.
|↑1||Lang, Jennifer Harvey, ed. Larousse Gastronomique. New York: Crown Publishers. English edition 1988. Page 406.|
|↑2||Julia. The French Chef Cookbook. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 1968. Page 102.|
|↑3||Pépin, Jacques. La Technique. Montréal, Quebec: Editions Optimum Limitée. 1978. Page 94.|
|↑4||Davidson, Alan. The Penguin Companion to Food. London: The Penguin Group, 2002. Page 324.|
|↑5||Pépin, Jacques. La Technique. Page 94.|
|↑6||Joachim, David, Andrew Schloss and A. Philip Handel. The Science of Good Food. Toronto, Canada: Robert Rose. 2008. Page 203.|
|↑7||Pépin, Jacques. La Technique. Page 94.|
|↑8||Lang, Jennifer Harvey, ed. Larousse Gastronomique. Page 409.|
|↑9||Beard, James. American Cookery. Boston, MA: Little, Brown and Company. 1972. Page 101.|
|↑10||Pellaprat, H.P. Modern French Culinary Art. London: Virtue & Company Ltd. 1969. Page 267.|
|↑11||Julia. The French Chef Cookbook. Page 401.|
|↑12||Smith, Delia. How to Cook: Book One. London: BBC Worldwide. 1998. Page 12.|
|↑13||Beard, James. American Cookery. Page 102.|
|↑14||The Penguin Companion to Food. Page 324.|
|↑15||The Penguin Companion to Food. Page 324.|