For me, a poached egg is the best egg. It has the runny yolk and toast topability of a fried egg, and the feel good health factor of a boiled egg. In some ways, when eating a poached egg, it feels as though you are cheating. Water alone should not be able to produce something so tasty and indulgent.
They do make you work for it though. Despite every TV chef and cookbook telling you that there is no need to worry about poached eggs, they all proffer a different trick for producing the ‘perfect’ egg. Such variety in methodology reveals the truth: making poached eggs is difficult. There is a fine line between a perfect one, and a floating yolk surrounded by stringy membrane.
I have tried almost every trick in these books. I have wrapped in cling film, floated in a plastic mould, pre-blanched for 30 seconds, added vinegar, not stirred water and drained off excess white in a sieve. Some are better than others, but none are perfect. I use a very simple method. No real tricks involved. I have also developed a way of cooking lots of poached eggs to serve to friends for breakfast, as whatever recipe/trick you use, it will inevitably be limited to cooking one or two eggs at a time. I thought of this method myself, but would be very surprised if every restaurant cook working a breakfast shift had not already thought of it…
Cooking the egg
As mentioned above, my method of preparing poached eggs is simple. To cook the egg, use a deep pan, well filled with water. Bring the water up to the boil and then turn the heat down slightly, so that there are still bubbles rising to the top, but these are small instead of the large bubbles characteristic of a ‘rolling boil’. Then, using a whisk, stir the water in an anti-clockwise (clockwise if left handed) direction to create a whirlpool effect, bring the whisk closer to the middle of the pan as you go. Quickly but gently crack the egg into the centre of the vortex. Hopefully, the water movement will wrap the egg white around the yolk as it sets. Leave to cook for about 2 minutes, or until the white has set fully but the yolk still feels soft (you can check this by carefully lifting the egg to the surface with a slotted spoon once it has begun to set). Then remove the egg and let it steam for a couple of seconds on the spoon. This will ensure that no excess water accompanies the egg onto your plate. I like to eat poached eggs on brown toast with salt, pepper and a squeeze of lemon juice.
Whether your egg comes out of the pan perfect or stringy will be determined by how well the egg white stays together during cooking. Harold McGee (the man largely responsible for the emergence of ‘molecular gastronomy’) explains in his book On Food and Cooking that an egg white becomes progressively less cohesive from the moment the egg is laid. This means that freshness is everything. A fresh egg dropped into shallow water from a meter above the pan is more likely to form a decent poached egg than a 3 week old egg carefully dropped into a perfect vortex. The quality of the egg is also obviously an important consideration, given that poaching is all about letting the ingredient speak for itself. Clarence Court produce fantastic eggs, with wonderfully orange yolks. If possible, opt for a single breed free range egg, as these tend to be superior. I have been told and have read that the colour of the yolk is simply the result of the colour of the hen’s feed. Regardless of this, I have found that the best tasting eggs have the most vivid yolks. If the colour just seems to make them taste better, I don’t care.
Anyone who has tried to cook fresh poached eggs for more than two people at once will have quickly regretted it. The way around this, apart from using two or three pans, is to prepare your eggs in advance. Fill a large bowl or pan with cold water and ice cubes. Cook your eggs one at a time, using the method above, but remove from the pan as soon as the white has set, when the eggs would normally be slightly underdone, and plunge them into the ice bath. This will instantly stop them from cooking. When completely cool, take them out and place onto a plate, to stop them becoming watery. Repeat with as many eggs as you need to make. When the time comes to serve them, simply heat a large pan of fresh water up to boiling point, and carefully drop the eggs into it. Let them heat up for about 45 seconds to 1 minute, and serve as you normally would.