Poached eggs

Eggs - simple, really. Boiled (and if you can’t boil an egg, you won’t get a lot out of what follows), scrambled (harder than they look, but hey), fried (mmm), omelettes (and there’s an art to these, too), but - poached… For years I had a hit rate of about 30%, ending up more often than not with a saucepan full of tiny streamers of cooked egg with a yolk sitting smugly - somewhere - in the cloudy middle. So I researched (aka googled) and discovered many approaches: use poaching rings, leave your egg in a tiny bowl to cook (cheating, by the way, and you end up with a bowl-shaped egg that’s not been in contact with the water - the same goes for those regrettably bourgeois egg-poaching pans, with the little lift-out cups ), making a whirlpool in the middle of your pan (this was getting desperate), even the “wrap it in clingfilm” approach (supposedly what the pros use, but really - have you ever tried wrapping a raw egg in clingfilm? Or removing clingfilm from a soft-poached egg without most of the egg remaining tangled in the clingfilm? If you poach your egg for so long that it’ll bounce, then this might be OK, but that’s missing the point entirely).

However, here, now, is how I get it right every time. I’m sure it’s described elsewhere, but this was the result of deep, deep reflection on the days of failure encountered along the way. A poached egg has to cook in contact with water, otherwise in my book it isn’t poached. So that rules out rings, bowls, clingfilm and poaching pans straight away. The three key principles:

  1. Your hot water must be really still, so as not to disturb the egg while cooking
  2. You must introduce the egg to the water gently, so it doesn’t spread everywhere
  3. A generous splash of vinegar will help keep the egg together, but don;t overdo it (unless you really like vinegar)

You will need

  • A stainless or non-stick saucepan of salted, boiling water (a little more salt than you’d use for potatoes, but much less than for pasta), with a lid that fits
  • A captive egg (free-range and organic, please), fresh as possible (that is, not something you’ve had sitting around since last week)
  • A small heatproof bowl - 6 or 7 cm across, big enough for the egg, no lip or rim. The little glass ingredient prep bowls you can buy are ideal.
  • White wine vinegar
  • I prefer rescuing my egg from the water with a frying slice rather than a slotted spoon - the edge of these is often a blunt instrument and won’t slide nicely under the egg

If your pan is only “nominally” non-stick, season it first by rubbing a little oil on a piece of kitchen paper over the inside of the pan - this will avoid the egg glueing itself to your saucepan while it cooks.

Break the egg into the bowl. Slosh some vinegar (how big is a slosh? Two tablespoons?) into the boiling water, and turn the heat under the pan right down - it should barely be boiling. Give it a couple of seconds to become still.

Now pick up the bowl by the edge, and slowly and carefully slide the egg into the water in the middle of the pan. You should see it starting to set (which is good). Take it easy - in fact take as long as you can before your fingers get uncomfortably hot.

Put the lid on the pan and start counting (ok, use a timer if you want). Two minutes for a really soft egg, 2″30′ is my ideal, 3″ if you like a hard-ish yolk. When the time’s up, open the pan, gently ease the slice under the egg to lift it. Slide carefully onto fresh toast, a toasted muffin, bagel, smoked salmon, ham, asparagus (very blissful), whatever.

If you need to cook a second egg you’ll need to bring the water back to the boil and add another splash of vinegar before introducing the second egg as before. You can, if you want, transfer the first egg to another small bowl and stand said bowl in cold water while egg number 2 is cooking. After retrieving the second egg, slide the first back into the water for twenty seconds or so to warm, if you need to serve both together.

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