Kitchen 101: Poached Eggs

I’ve never been an intuitive chef. When cooking, I like rules; I’ve found that this significantly lowers my chances of ruining a meal. I follow recipes down to the most minute of details, shaking my head at cookbook authors who forget a step or give vague timetables to follow. Cooking, as you might know, is a science—chemistry, for the most part—and learning the reasons behind the techniques can up your confidence in the kitchen. That’s my hope, anyway; in “Kitchen 101,” an occasional series on Periodic Tabloid, I’ll learn and share the proper way to make simple foods that until this time have utterly stumped me.

Fittingly, let’s start with breakfast—not only because of how much I look forward to it every morning, but also because it involves the first thing I ever cooked: eggs.

I was 19. Yes, 19. You’re probably raising your eyebrows right now the same way my boyfriend did when I offered to make brunch and then froze in front of the pan.

“You just kind of crack in over some butter, right?”  I’d watched my mom do it before. It looked easy enough.

“Shouldn’t you have learned this by now?” He snatched the spatula out of my hands and delivered my first cooking lesson.

Since then odds have grown to 50/50 that I can produce an over-easy yolk. I can usually flip an omelet into a symmetrical semi-circle, and I have heard I make a mean scrambled egg. So it’s with some knowledge of the art form that I tell you what I cannot do: poach an egg. And I was perfectly happy to leave that to the experts until I saw this recipe, which made me long for a perfectly squat and gooey poached egg sitting on top of a cheesy heap of polenta. It was time to take matters into my own hands.

To prevent my old mistakes—tough, lumpy egg whites smooshed around a hard yellow yolk—I consulted an expert: Shirley O. Corriher real-life biochemist and author of Cookwise: The Secrets of Cooking Revealed.

“Eggs present many challenges to the cook,” she writes. But “with a little egg knowledge—how important freshness is, how egg proteins cook, what causes sticking, how egg white foams work—you can make eggs work for you.”

I want my eggs to work for me. I really do. Like the one below—it’s a clean slate, full of promise.

Corriher’s instructions are as follows:

Fill a nonstick 8-inch skillet a little over half full of water (about 2 cups), add 2 teaspoons vinegar and ¾ teaspoon salt, and bring to a slow boil. Break an egg into a saucer and slip it into the water. Just as the water comes back to a boil, reduce it to a low simmer. When the eggs begin to set, take a spatula and gently run it under each one to release it from the bottom. Cook until the whites are firm.

Notably, both prayer and cursing, major elements of previous poached eggs, are absent from this description. I follow Corriher’s guide with monk-like concentration, though my patience is tested when the slow boil takes what feels like forever. “If the water is too hot or the cooking time too long, the protein mesh tightens, squeezing out the water, making the proteins tough and leathery,” she warns. I breathe deeply and wait.

When I slip the egg into the pot, the white wisps fleeing the yolk seem less determined to stray than in earlier tries—in fact, for the most part, they’re embracing the yolk exactly the way I want them to.

Corriher credits this to the addition of vinegar, the acid in which denatures the egg proteins with greater speed than plain water. Since this makes the egg cook more quickly, the feathering I was expecting is prevented. Likewise, the fresh eggs I used have stronger yolks and thicker whites than my usual carton (typically “of a certain age”), which makes the whole thing hold together better.

When I fish out the egg, it is a perfect little package—a smooth oval, a bundle of yolk. I clap my hands together, declaring it precious.

But what about the inside? This perfect façade may yet hide a failed, solid center.  I’m almost afraid to look as I cut into it, until a custard-like yellow ooze slowly pools along the sliced eggs. Readers, in one try I have actually made a restaurant-quality poached egg.

There’s only so much time to gaze fondly upon my little creation. I’m starving by now, and surely there’s some toast to burn so I can sop up all this goodness. One step at a time.

Jennifer Dionisio is the program associate for CHF’s Eddleman Institute.

Episode 71: Breakfast [Distillations]
Unscrambling Chemistry’s Boundaries [Periodic Tabloid]
The Food Lab: Eggs [Serious Eats]

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