Basic Cooking Skills-Let’s talk about eggs

Perfect soft boiled eggsOk, sometimes your Bad Aunty betrays herself as a flawed and normal person. Not often, and certainly not  happily, but it happens. What prompted this was…I forgot how to soft boil an egg.  I know how to poach an egg, and I’m reasonably adept at hard boiling eggs, (peeling those suckers is a different story)  but I totally forgot the mechanics of the soft boil. Do you start with cold water? Boiling water? How many minutes?  aaarrrrgggghhh…….. whadoIdo??? I was so embarrassed that I could not remember this very basic technique. (Maybe it’s early onset dementia, or maybe it’s the effect of that 3rd martini I had the night before.) Knowing that quite often there’s more than one way to skin a cat, I tried a cold water method first–put eggs into cold water, bring to a boil, reduce heat to simmer and cook for 2-1/2 minutes. That was OK, but the eggs were overcooked for my taste and the heat/time ratio seemed imprecise. So next time I tried the boiling water method for the same amount of time, 2-1/2 minutes, but that didn’t cook my eggs enough. I had a phlemy-looking, runny mess. Not. Eating. That. But I seemed to be on the right track, so I tried again with the boiling water method and set my timer for 4 minutes. Very good, delicious in fact, if you like quite runny yolks. Which I do. Next time, however, I’ll set my timer for 4:15 and I’ll bet that my eggs will be perfect.

Eggs seem like the simplest thing to cook. You can’t mess up an egg. Right? So wrong. Here is the deal on eggs. It is much easier to ruin a good egg than cook it well. Do you remember the old “This is your brain on drugs” commercial, when an unseen person cracks an egg into a scalding hot pan and the egg instantly turns into a inedibly overcooked disaster? (So graphic. I’ve never forgotten how they murdered that poor egg. To say nothing of the brain they were referring to.) So what is the secret? Heat control. Eggs like low heat. No matter how you cook an egg–fried, boiled, poached, or other–use low heat and keep a careful watch on the time. The timing is nearly as crucial as the heat; now is probably not a good time to multitask.

Here is a good basic primer of egg cookery. You just need to figure out how you like your eggs–runny to rubbery–and cook them from 3-8 minutes.

Soft boiled: You start with a sauce pan filled with enough water to completely cover your eggs, but don’t put your eggs in yet. Bring your water to a full boil, then bring the temperature down so the boil becomes a simmer. Once you can maintain that gentle heat use a large spoon to lift and place each egg in the simmering water. Then, set a timer for 4-5 minutes.  (More cooking time for firmer eggs, less time for softer and runnier eggs.) When your timer goes off take the eggs off the heat and immediately run cold water over them, just to the point where you can handle the cooked egg without blistering yourself. Take a table knife and give the egg a sharp crack in the middle of the egg. Carefully pry the two sides apart. Scrape out the cooked egg and serve on buttered toast, roasted potatoes, or just plain with salt and pepper. Yum!

Hard boiled: Place desired number of eggs in saucepan, cover with cold water, but keep the pan uncovered. Bring the pan to a swift rolling boil, then take the pan off the heat, place on cold burner, cover the pan with the lid, and set the timer for 20 minutes. Let the eggs just sit in the hot water. Meanwhile take a large bowl, put a couple of handfuls of ice cubes in the bowl and fill halfway with cold water. When the timer rings take the eggs out of the hot water and immediately plunge them into the ice water bowl. This will stop the cooking. When eggs are cool enough to handle take them out of the ice water and crack each end of the egg, then roll the egg under your hand on the counter to crack the egg shell all around. Place back into the ice water to cool completely. This will help you peel the eggs cleanly. This method will prevent the unsightly gray-green discoloration around the yolk that overcooking will cause; the whites will be set and the yolk cooked but still moist in the center.

Fried: You’ll most likely be cooking your eggs in fat; butter, oil, bacon fat, etc. If you cook in bacon fat immediately after frying bacon give yourself 3 minutes or so between the bacon and the eggs to let the pan and the fat cool down. (Just put the bacon in the oven at 200 degrees to keep warm.) Then carefully crack the eggs into the fat and put the pan back on medium heat. Cook until the whites are nearly set. If you like your eggs over easy/medium, very carefully turn the eggs over and cook another 30 seconds or so. Serve immediately. For sunny side up simply fry as before,  but don’t turn the eggs. Cook until whites are set, and you might want to ladle some of the hot fat over the yolks.  If it seems the tops of the eggs are cooking too slowly you can put a lid on the pan for a few seconds. But, you’ll need to keep a careful eye on those puppys!

Poached: Why the simple act of poaching an egg has become the culinary equivalent of scaling Mt. Everest is a mystery to me.  If you can read and follow directions (a tall order, I know) you can poach a perfect egg. Actually, even though I’d love to take credit for this method, all kudos go to Julia Child. This is directly out of her masterpiece “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” and is simplicity itself. And one of the very cool things about this technique is that you can poach the eggs ahead of time and hold them for when YOU are ready to serve them. So! No more spending your hard earned $$ on useless egg poaching cups and special equipment at the kitchen store. You can do this! Here’s what you want to have on hand:

Required Tools
  • Flat wide skillet
  • Individual small cups – 1 for each egg
  • Timer (Your Iphone timer works great!)
  • Large spoon, slotted is best
  • A bowl or large measuring cup half filled with cold water and a couple of ice cubes.

Crack the eggs into individual cups or bowls, 1 egg per bowl. I’ve found my little espresso cups work brilliantly for this. Set the cups of eggs aside.

Get yourself a wide flat skillet. (Of course, you can poach eggs in any basin that will hold hot water, but a wide flat skillet is much easier.) Pour enough water into the skillet so your eggs will be fully submerged. Add 2 measured tablespoons of white vinegar. (This is optional. Vinegar helps the eggs hold together in the water if the eggs are a bit less than fresh, so if you have eggs right out of the bird you probably won’t need vinegar. It’s up to you.)

This next step is the hardest part. Heat the skillet of water over medium-high heat. Don’t let the water  boil. Just before the water comes to a boil little bubbles will start floating from the bottom of the skillet to the top. They’re not really breaking the surface, but not far from it. This is exactly the temperature you’re looking for-almost simmering, but not quite. If the water boils before you notice, turn down the heat to get it to the correct temp.

Adjust your burner so that you can maintain this heat. When you’re satisfied that you can, carefully slip the eggs out of the cup into the hot water. When all the eggs are in the pan set your timer to exactly 4 minutes.

With a very gentle touch, about halfway through the cooking, nudge the eggs off the bottom of the pan with a spatula and set them floating.

At the end of 4 minutes the egg whites should be mostly holding together, the yolk securely encased in egg white. They should look like little white coalesced gems of eggy goodness.

Take your slotted spoon and carefully lift each egg out of the hot water and slip it into the cold ice-water bowl. This will stop the cooking and rinse the vinegar flavor, if used. Refrigerate the bowl of eggs and complete the rest of your meal. They can sit there in their cold water bath for hours, or even a day. When you’re ready to eat them take that same wide flat skillet, fill it with clean water (enough to immerse the eggs) and place over medium high heat. Bring the water to the same degree of not-quite-boil and with the slotted spoon gently lift each poached egg out of the cold water and back into the hot water. Set your timer for 30 seconds, no more. Your eggs will be perfectly done, perfectly hot, and all on YOUR time schedule. And everyone will think you’ve got something going on.(And they’ll be absolutely right!)

The upshot-great egg cookery takes a bit of practice, careful watching and low heat. Once you’ve mastered that you can master anything in the kitchen.

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