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Cracking The Poached Egg Code

For years I kept an embarrassing culinary secret: Poaching eggs terrified me. I could handle other egg dishes fine. I could make crepes and custards like a champ, bake a beautiful quiche, cook soft and creamy scrambled eggs, even turn out a decent omelet, but the thought of plunging a naked egg into boiling water made my pulse race and my knees weak. When it came to eggs, I could do anything. Almost.

That's the main thing I've found about poached eggs: When you get over the fear and trepidation, they're fun. Learning to poach an egg is empowering. Inspiring, even.

Then I agreed to teach a class on eggs. Why is still a mystery, but it cured me.

I read dozens of recipes, book passages and blog posts on poaching; they were all over the map. When it comes to poached eggs, there seemed to be but a single constant: Everyone has a "secret." Authors call for deep narrow pots or wide shallow pans; two cups or two quarts of water; adding vinegar, salt or neither to the poaching water; cooking temperatures from 180 degrees to just under the boil, and cooking times from two to five minutes. There are poachers who swirl and poachers who don't. I bought a couple dozen eggs, read through all the secrets and started to practice. I discovered a few truths — but many more myths — about the poached egg.

Truth: For poaching, the fresher the egg, the better. First, as the egg ages, water from the white migrates into the yolk, weakening the yolk membrane and increasing the likelihood that the yolk will break. At the same time, the flexible "chain" — called the chalazae — that holds the yolk in suspension weakens. Second, if you crack open an egg and look at the white part (the albumin), you'll see that there are actually two types — thick albumen surrounding the yolk, and thinner, more watery albumen that spreads out quickly. It's this thin white that dances its tarantella in the poaching liquid and makes your poached egg splay like the wild hair of a crazy scientist. As the egg ages, the proportion of thick to thin albumen decreases and you risk losing more of the white. Conclusion: Start with fresh eggs.

You'll still have some thin albumen, though, and there are all kinds of tricks advanced for dealing with it. Poachers who espouse the "vortex" method of poaching, in which you swirl the water and drop the egg in the middle, claim that the current causes the whites to wrap around the yolk, resulting in a tidy package. Although some very respectable cooks and well-known chefs swear by this method, it's fussy and requires a deep pot with lots of water. Also, I didn't find it made a bit of difference.

Vinegar is another trick mentioned for corralling stray whites. Acid in the water is supposed to cause them to set faster. Although there is a reason to add some vinegar to egg poaching water (which I'll get to presently), firming the whites is not it.

The one "secret" that does result in compact, nice-looking poached eggs comes from food scientist Harold McGee (in his book On Food and Cooking), who suggests draining the thin white before you poach your eggs. I use a small coarse-mesh strainer for this. Some people recommend a perforated spoon, but it has to be a big one to hold the entire egg — bigger than any I've got in my kitchen.

The second secret also comes from McGee, who explains the restaurant trick of adding vinegar and salt to the poaching water. Since the egg white is alkaline, the vinegar reacts with the white to form tiny bubbles of carbon dioxide at the surface of the egg. If the water is hot enough (near boiling), salt increases the density of the cooking liquid just enough to make the egg bob to the surface when it's about perfectly done. While you can certainly poach eggs without the salt and vinegar, they'll want to sit on the bottom of the pan and thus cook unevenly. Besides, it's really cool to watch an egg expel a jet of tiny gas bubbles and break the water's surface like a miniature submarine.

And that's the main thing I've found about poached eggs: When you get over the fear and trepidation, they're fun. Learning to poach an egg is empowering. Inspiring, even. Not only can you make plain poached eggs (the perfect breakfast with buttered toast), but you open up a whole world of dishes in which poached eggs play a role — luscious eggs Benedict and all its cousins, hash and eggs, and salade Lyonnaise, the amazing French bistro salad. The first time you take a perfect white oval out of your saucepan, you'll feel invincible. If you can poach an egg, you can do anything.

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Janet A. Zimmerman