“One of the most private things in the world is an egg until it is broken.”
— M.F.K. Fischer
If I’ve ever been ambivalent about eggs, it was due to the immaturity of youth. I used to think they were too weird for me, and too . . . well, intimate, in an animal kind of way. But I’m past that now.
Eggs have become one of the most important ingredients in my kitchen. Like a dog that will do any trick to make you happy, eggs can be your best friend. They’re a wonder ingredient. I would put a little cape on these things if I could. If I haven’t yet convinced you, here’s a survey of wisdom from my cookbook shelf.
Auguste Escoffier, French chef born in 1846 and author of The Escoffier Cookbook (complete with 2,973 recipes!), says, “Of all the products put to use by the art of cookery, not one is so fruitful of variety, so universally liked, and so complete in itself as the egg.”
Doyenne of domesticity Martha Stewart says, “The egg is a food that lets us perform magic in the kitchen.”
Mark Bittman, everyone’s favorite minimalist, says, “No other ingredient has the power to transform itself or other dishes as does the egg, perhaps the most important food in our kitchen.”
Deborah Madison, famed vegetable enthusiast, says, “Eggs are often described as the perfect food. Simply put, eggs do things in the kitchen that other foods just can’t do.”
Curious as I am, I decided to commit myself to the curriculum of eggs. Scrambled, turned into an omelette, boiled, half-boiled, fried, or baked, I look up information about every preparation whenever I make it. One technique I’ve learned tons about is poaching, which can seem intimidating even to the surest hand.
A few things about poaching eggs make the heart race a little bit, but don’t let any of it get to you. Nothing messes up a poached egg more than your own fear of it, so relax and have fun. Once you have a bit of confidence, get out a saucepan and poach 4 of them all at once. That’s how to really show ’em who’s boss.
To poach an egg, crack a very fresh raw egg into a bowl (or many raw eggs into individual bowls), dip about a half inch of the bowl into a simmering saucepan of 3 inches of water, tip the egg out, and cook for 3 to 4 minutes, until the white becomes a firm pillow to carry the still-soft yolk to the plate.
One of the challenges of poaching a raw egg is that the whites fly around the yolk like the arms of a simmering octopus. To help fix that, add a tablespoon of vinegar (“acidulate” the water, says Alton), which keeps things together. Lots of people also suggest creating a whirlpool (Martha says, “technically a vortex”) in the water before sliding the egg in, as the momentum traps the whites close to the yolk. This is a cool trick, but for a long time it led me to think you can only poach one egg at a time — and that’s just not true. If you’re poaching an egg for yourself, go for the vortex. If poaching for a group of people, you can cook up to 4 eggs in the same pan. In this case, skip the vortex. To avoid the octopus effect, after you tip the eggs in, simply push the whites back over the yolk with a wooden spoon and hold there for about 3 seconds.
The most useful thing I’ve learned about poaching eggs is their durability. You can put them on a plate covered with a paper towel and trim off the messy edges. If you’re using them in a dish that’s still cooking, put the poached eggs in a bath of hot water until you’re ready to use them. If you really like planning ahead, Alton Brown says poached eggs can be refrigerated in ice water for up to 8 hours and reheated in hot water.
In Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Julia Child offers lots of tips of perfect poached eggs. Especially if your eggs aren’t fresh, cook the shelled egg for half a minute to firm the white slightly, then crack it into the water to finish poaching. Alternately, Child and Bittman agree — a good substitute are medium-boiled eggs. Child says to boil an egg for 6 minutes, peel it, and use it in place of poached eggs. Bittman says, with a safety pin, poke a hole in the top and bottom end of a raw egg. Boil gently for 4 minutes, cool under cold water, and peel. (Beware: I personally find it more challenging to peel a medium-boiled egg than to poach a raw one, so experiment and find what works for you.)
I can’t begin to tell you how many things are improved by a poached egg. Maybe that’s what the Internet is for. But in my humble opinion, the crowning glory, the poached egg pièce de résistance, is Oeufs en Meurette, a sensual French dish I stumbled on and fell in love with immediately.
I wrote about this dish for my column with Valley Natural Foods. As soon as it’s in circulation, I will share the full recipe here. For now, here’s a hint of all its glory. If you’re lucky enough to wake up next to someone you love on Valentine’s Day, make this for both of you. You’ll be happy you did.