BY RICK MARTINEZ
Yes, everybody makes basic cooking mistakes. Like, say, something as simple as overcooking mushrooms or toasting grains and spices. Below, reader Gail Magnani confesses botching a batch of poached eggs to associate food editor Rick Martinez. Welcome to Effed it Up.
This may sound ridiculous, but my poached eggs are a wispy mess. I have tried gently lowering them into the water. I have tried poaching with vinegar, without vinegar--you name it, I've tried it. What is the secret to making them as perfect as the line cooks at my local diner can?
A perfectly poached egg is a pure culinary delight--a soft-as-butter white holding in a warm, creamy yolk. But mastering the poach is a real pain in the... Well, you know. But, after preparing a few thousand eggs "benny" (Benedict) at a NYC restaurant during brunch service, I'm pretty sure I've got this. Gail, soon, you will too!
The first thing I thought when I read your note was "I wonder if she was using old eggs?" Keep an eye on the date on the carton. Some are two weeks from expiration and others are closer to four. Even though it's not completely possible to know when the eggs were first laid, one to two weeks old is ideal for poaching. See, in my experience, a fresher egg holds in tighter and will maintain its shape--almost the same shape as the shell--and the yolk will sit higher above firmer whites.
A key technique comes from Heston Blumenthal, the chef and owner of The Fat Duck, a three-Michelin-starred restaurant in England. Straining your raw eggs for about a minute in a fine mesh sieve allows any runny whites to pass through, leaving only the firmer part of the white behind. It makes a perfectly shaped poached egg. Added bonus: When you strain your eggs, you won't have to add any vinegar to the water.
Vinegar is basically an insurance policy that ensures your eggs will set, even when the water temperature drops. Except it will not keep your whites together. The acid in the vinegar coagulates the protein and "cooks" the egg slightly faster than without it--in the same way that ceviche is "cooked" when you add lime juice to it. There is not that big of an advantage to adding vinegar to the mix; and the down side is that you have to rinse off the egg when it comes out of the poaching liquid to get the vinegar off the surface.
Try this: Heat two quarts of water in a medium saucepan over high heat just until it simmers. Bubbles will form on the bottom of the pan, but it should not be boiling. If you have an instant read thermometer, it should register 190°F. Your ultimate, optimal temperature for poaching is between 180°F and 185°F but the cold eggs are going to drop the water temp, so start high. Gently crack one fresh egg into a fine mesh sieve over a small bowl and let sit for one minute. Let any loose white fall through. Place that egg into a small bowl, teacup, or ramekin. Repeat with another egg.
Using a slotted spoon gently stir the pot of simmering water to circulate the water and carefully slide the egg into the water. A few seconds later, slide in the second one. Both eggs should be moving around the pan in a circular motion. Give another gentle stir to make sure the eggs keep moving and are not sticking together. You don't want the eggs to rest on the bottom of the pan or the undersides will set faster than the top. Poach until whites are set but yolks are still runny, about three to five minutes depending on the temperature of your water. After about three minutes you can lift the eggs out of the water with a slotted spoon to see how set the yolks are. It should give when touched but should also slightly resist. Once they are set, transfer to paper towels and serve immediately, or transfer to a bowl of warm water to hold until you are ready to serve.
Poached egg in red pepper sauce. Photo: Alex Lau
The temperature of your eggs and the water you drop them in also play a major role in the shape and texture of the final poach. Room temperature eggs are looser and will result in the pesky wispy bands once you drop them in hot water. Cold eggs straight from the refrigerator will hold their shape better. But they will also lower the temperature of your water, especially if you are poaching multiple eggs. One cold egg will drop the temperature of 1 quart of water by about 5°F. If you are poaching several eggs at once, you will need to adjust your heat and cooking time accordingly.
Peak poached egg right here. Photo: Eva Kolenko
By far, the most valuable thing I can say about learning to poach an egg is...wait for it...PRACTICE. Before my first midterm culinary exam where we had to present a dish adorned with perfectly poached eggs, I bought a dozen eggs and I practiced. A lot. I watched the water, checked the temperature, looked at the shape of the eggs to get a grasp on how eggs poach. The reason those diner and restaurant eggs look so good is because those line cooks are cranking out dozens, hundreds, maybe even thousands of eggs each week. It becomes second nature. And soon, Gail, it will be for you.
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