Saturday, August 21, 2010

"Poached by an Angel"

A perfect poached egg is a thing of beauty—an aesthetic and nutritional miracle that is, happily, within anyone’s reach. The technique is simple, and even the priciest organic chicken eggs cost less than a quarter apiece. One would be hard-pressed to name a more versatile and inexpensive delicacy.

Recently I served a poached egg to my friend Susan. She looked at the egg perched on it’s mound of hash browns and said, “It looks like it was poached by an angel.”

Alas, for every angelically-poached egg, there are many thousands of less-than-heavenly poached eggs.

The phrase “perfect poached eggs” gets about half a million hits on Google. There are a lot of people who think they know how to do it. I have looked at all 500,000 of these sites, and I am sorry to report that nearly all of them are flat-out wrong.

I have poached a lot of eggs, using every technique available to me, including adding vinegar and/or salt to the water, swirling the water before adding the egg, using water at various temperatures and pans of various sizes, bringing the eggs to room temperature before poaching, and employing assorted mechanical poaching devices. I have poached eggs individually and en masse. I have poached medium, large, extra-large, and jumbo eggs. I have poached eggs in the oven, on the stovetop, and in a microwave. I have poached emu eggs in the outback. Okay, not true about the emu eggs, but I have poached.

My first few hundred attempts were not perfect, but over the past few years I have developed a simple technique that produces a perfect or near-perfect poached egg most of the time.

The egg: Of course, if you have access to a good farmers’ market—or better yet, if you have chickens—freshness will not be an issue. The happier the chickens are, the better their eggs will taste.Freshness is the key. Learn to read and interpret the date on the egg carton. In the U.S., there is a three-digit number on the carton that tells you when the egg was packed. This number, from 001 to 365, is the “Julian date,” with 001 representing January 1, and 365 (or 366, during leap years) indicating December 31. The “sell by date” is usually thirty days after the “pack date,” or about five weeks after the egg leaves the hen. For poaching purposes you want an egg that is not more than two weeks old. If the egg is older than that, make yourself an omelet.

The grade of the egg is somewhat important. Grade A eggs can be fine for poaching, but Grade AA eggs usually work better. Egg grading is an arcane business, but it does take into account the firmness of the albumen (the white), and that makes a big difference to the appearance and texture of the final product. Shell color, however, is irrelevant—that depends entirely on the breed of hen, and is no indication of quality. Any size egg will work—keeping in mind that the bigger the egg, the longer it will take to cook. I usually buy whichever size has the most recent date on the carton.

The pan: I use a ten-inch non-stick skillet. A smaller pan will work, but its lesser volume means that the water will cool more quickly when you add the eggs. Adjust cooking time accordingly.

The water: Use plain tap water. No vinegar or salt! I don’t know what it is with these vinegar-adders. Acidulating the water does nothing good for the egg’s texture or appearance, and everything bad for the taste.

The cooking: Fill the pan to within ½ inch of the top and heat the water. When it reaches a boil, turn it off and let it sit for a minute while you prepare the egg for immersion.

Your egg should be cold, straight from the fridge. Anyone who tells you different is wrong. A cold egg will hold its shape better. Crack the egg into a small bowl. It is important here to understand the structure of the egg. (This is not biology class, so don't worry - I’m not going to get into a discussion of the chalazae and vitelline membrane and so forth.) I think of an egg as being composed of four parts: the shell, the firm white, the loose white, and the yolk. The “firm white” is the thicker albumen that surrounds the yolk. In a fresh egg, this will comprise most of the white. The “loose white” is the thinner, more liquid albumen—the part that spreads out around the edge like a frill when an egg is sautéed. The older the egg, the more the “firm white” breaks down to become “loose white.”

When cracking the egg into the bowl, take care that the sharp edges of the shell do not tear into the firm white. This is important! Tearing into the “firm white” will produce a lopsided end result. Be gentle. Respect the egg.

Carefully lower the egg into the hot water. The water temperature will be somewhere around 180-190° F. Believe it or not, the precise water temperature is not that important, so long as it is at least 160°, and less than boiling.

If you have performed your task well, and if the egg is fresh, it will look something like this:

Once the egg is in the water, do something else for five or six minutes. Fry some potatoes, slice some bread, make a cup of coffee, check your email—whatever. Now look at your egg. The white will be opaque. The loose white will have spread out a bit. Carefully trim the loose white away with your spatula. Slide the edge of the spatula between the egg and the bottom of the pan. The egg will be quite jiggly. At this point, the process becomes very personal. It’s between you and the egg. If you like your egg quite loose, lift it carefully from the water and serve at once. If you like it on the firm side, you can turn on the heat for a few minutes. Not too hot though—the water should never boil. If your water gets too hot, the egg white will become unpleasantly firm.

I mentioned before that the exact water temperature is unimportant. I lied a little. Sorry. The final texture of the egg can vary tremendously depending on time and temperature, but because one person’s perfectly poached egg is another person’s slimy nightmare, I cannot make specific recommendations. David Chang (Momofuku) poaches his eggs for thirty minutes at 160°. Thomas Keller (The French Laundry) poaches eggs at about 205° (a simmer) for less than two minutes. Two completely different approaches, both producing excellent, albeit different, results.

IMHO, the slower the poach, the nicer the texture. It is possible to slow-poach an egg to the point where the yolk is nearly (but not quite) solid, while the white remains soft and yielding. This is the Momofuku ideal. A fast poaching results in a much firmer white contrasting with a runny yolk, as preferred by Thomas Keller. I like an egg that is somewhere in between.

Like I said, it’s personal. I considered giving exact water temperature, timing, egg size, and water volume…but really, this is worth learning to do by feel. There are so many variables—altitude, egg temperature, cookware material and weight, barometric pressure, moon phase, pollen count, etc.—that the more precise the instructions, the more likely you are to fail.

To test the doneness of your egg, lift it from the water with a slotted spatula** and look at it. Experience is important here. After a few tries, you will learn to gauge the doneness of the egg by the way it behaves on the spatula.

Cooking more than one egg at a time: Some cooks recommend lowering each egg into the water individually. Bah. That is counterproductive and completely unnecessary. You can crack two, three, or four eggs into a bowl together and slip them all into the water bath at once (gently, please). The eggs will not stick together, and they will all get done at the same time. One thing to watch out for though, is that multiple eggs will lower the water temperature more quickly, so you will have to add more time or more heat than you would for a single egg.

Serving: Recently, I have been enjoying my poached eggs on hash browns.* They are also quite nice on toasted bread, or eaten with a spoon from a small cup. You could swing out and make Eggs Benedict, or even serve them cooled to room temperature on a green salad.

Concerning perfection: Not every poached egg will come out perfect. Sometimes you will tear the albumen when cracking the egg, and get a lop-sided result. Sometimes the white will be too runny, and your egg will come out looking like a shallow disc with the yolk jutting up from the middle. These eggs will taste just fine, despite their lack of visual appeal.

“We aspire to perfection, but we do not insist upon it.”

* My article on “Perfect Hash Browns” will be coming soon.

** The slotted spatula will make it easier to keep the egg from sliding off as you lift it out of the water.

4 comments:

Little Messy Missy said...

That last pic makes me want that for breakfast. I raise chickens so off to the coop I go!!!

Heather said...

Okay, I'm seriously waiting on the perfect hash browns post. My hash browns are a disgusting mess.

Amy Bates said...

How many recipes make you laugh? I hope some day you will write a cookbook. I love the delicious looking pictures too!

Anonymous said...

Excellent. Thanks forthe link from the NPR article. Yours is much better. I had no idea how long. I'm going to try this after geeting some fresh eggs.

Joy Jacques (joyousmn.blogspot.com)