Whenever I stay in a hotel, I always order poached eggs for breakfast. It's such a treat to start the day with a thing of beauty, rather than the soggy, straggly mess of protein I generally scoop out of the pan at home. Simple in theory, if not execution, a poached egg is, in my opinion, the only choice when someone else is cooking – the small pleasure of watching the golden yolk spill under my knife never grows old. But I could count the number of presentable examples that have come out of my kitchen on your average hotel toast rack – and still have a couple of rungs to spare for granary. So I'm determined to crack (sorry) the secret of the perfect poached egg.
The chef's secret weapon
Whenever poached eggs are under discussion, the word vortex seems to pop up, which makes cooking them sound excitingly like Star Wars. The theory is that you have to create a whirlpool in your pan of boiling water to help the egg hold its shape when it first enters the water. I understand the logic, but somehow, my eggs do not. However, having sought the advice of Marcus Wareing, who learnt to poach eggs at the feet of the breakfast chef at the Savoy – "For every order, they came out tip-top immaculate" he recalls fondly in his book – I realise that I've been doing something fundamentally wrong.
It's the verb that throws me – instead of stirring the boiling water with a spoon, I should whisk it, vigorously, before sliding in the egg (previously broken into a ramekin, with a drop of vinegar) and turning down the heat. I can't believe it; even as it spins wildly around the pan, I can tell this one is going to be something special. When I eventually lift the egg out after three minutes, I can hardly contain my excitement; it looks like a proper, hotel poached egg, of the kind that might be served at the Savoy, if it ever reopens. The outside is like a delicate oval snowdrift, the interior perfectly gooey. I'm in heaven – there almost seems no point in trying anything else. But my friend Ali, who does, I must admit, make a good poached egg, swears by Delia's rather different method, so I feel obliged to give it a try.
Delia Smith is, of course, a woman who knows all about eggs – after all, she taught an entire nation how to boil the things. And in her Complete Cookery Course, she explicitly pooh-poohs the whirlpool as something used (sniffy voice) by "French chefs" – "the method below has proved 100% satisfactory in my experience" she continues tartly. Needless to say, this does not involve a whisk; in fact, the idea seems to be to keep the water as still as possible.
To this end, she uses a small frying pan, filled with 4cm of barely simmering water – "keep the heat low enough for there to be just the merest trace of tiny simmering bubbles on the base of the pan and no more." I break the egg directly into the water (the use of a cup being apparently unnecessary, although I would suggest it is useful, if you're not quite such an old hand as Delia) and cook for three minutes. The shallow pan has give me something that looks rather like a softer fried egg – the yolk is prominent atop a base of white. It's perfectly cooked, but visually, a bit of a let down.
I complain to Ali that she's sold me a poached egg-shaped pup, and discover that Delia seems to have quietly updated her poaching methods over the years, despite her claim that this original recipe was completely satisfactory. The recipe on her website is slightly different – there's less water (2.5cm this time) and after allowing the egg to simmer very gently for a minute, one then turns the heat off and allow it to sit "calmly and happily in the hot water" for 10 minutes. This time, the result reminds me of the fried egg sweets I used to buy from Woolworths – a great lumpy yolk on top of a cartoonish white. Again, the texture is perfect (although the top of the yolk must have been poking out of the water, as it hasn't quite set), but it just isn't as fun to cut into as a perfect ball of egg.
I also try a similar method from Margaret Costa's Four Season's Cookbook, which involves boiling water, and leaving the eggs covered, with the heat off, "until set", which gives me an egg which looks like it's been caught in a violent hailstorm on its way to the plate. Mark Hix, the face of next month's British Egg Week recommends "lowering the lip of the cup a couple of centimetres below the surface of the water and letting the eggs flow out," which does help to curb the more wayward tendrils of white, although, I find myself disloyally thinking it would work even better with a whirlpool.
A clever cheat
Having always sworn by the timings for boiled eggs in the New English Kitchen, I'm keen to give Rose Prince's poached eggs a whirl. Not that there's any whirling involved here – she's far too sensible. Instead, I line a ramekin with a square of cling film, crack an egg into it, then twist it shut with my fingers, giving a result rather reminiscent of something I once won at a fair. I lower the pouch into a pan half-filled with simmering water, cook for three minutes, then dunk the whole thing in iced water. When the little bag is cool enough to handle, I realise I have a problem. The egg has stuck to the cling film, and in the course of trying to free it, I break the yolk.
I've only cheated myself with this little escapade, I reflect glumly – and I'm about to put the cling film away, when it strikes me that lightly greasing it first might well help matters. I'm right; with a tiny drop of vegetable oil, Rose's method is a triumph – once released from its cling-film jacket, the cooked egg reminds me of a perfectly puckered Chinese dumpling - which is a good thing, obviously. Not sure they'd serve it at the Savoy though.
The needle trick
After vortex, the second most important word when it comes to poaching eggs seems to be "fresh"; if your eggs are too old, then the whites won't coagulate properly. I prove this to myself when attempting a recreation of my original Savoy-style triumph a few days later; even with the vinegar, my eggs come out straggly. Without it, they're a disaster; so unless you're sure that your eggs have been laid in the past 48 hours, it's safest to use vinegar to help the congealing process. (According to speciality egg producers Clarence Court, the best way to test the freshness of your egg is to put it into a bowl of water: the more they float, the older they are, as the egg pocket at the top expands as the egg ages.) There's no need to add spoonfuls to the water though, unless you particularly like the vinegary flavour; a single drop in the egg itself seems to be just as effective.
But, say it's Sunday evening, the shops are closed, and you have a sudden yearning for a poached egg on top of your corned beef hash – but all you've got is half a dozen that must be three weeks old. Is there any hope? Well, according to Julia Child, that's not a problem. She has a trick that is, apparently, failsafe – pricking the flat end of the egg with a needle, and then cooking it in boiling water for about 20 seconds, before turning the heat down to a simmer, and cracking it into the water as normal. This of course, starts the coagulation process for you; but does it work? Well, sort of. The egg is decent enough, and better than one from the same box cooked in the normal fashion, but it wouldn't pass muster at the Savoy.
If you'd like to cook more than one egg at a time, then Rose's cling film tip is a clever one, but personally, I've been sucked into the cheffy vortex which scorns such tricks in favour of simple showing off. I like a deep pan (according to Hix, the deeper the pan, the more teardrop-shaped the egg), and apart from his tip about lowering the egg in, a hefty pinch of salt is all I can add to Marcus Wareing's recipe; thus seasoned, it's absolutely perfect.
The perfect poached egg
Large pinch of salt
1 large fresh egg, preferably organic
1 drop of malt or white wine vinegar (optional)
1. Half fill a medium saucepan with water and bring to the boil. Add a hefty pinch of salt.
2. Meanwhile, crack the egg into a small jug or bowl and add a drop of vinegar.
3. Stir the boiling water vigorously with a balloon whisk until you have a whirlpool then immediately slip the egg into the centre, lowering the jug a couple of centimetres into the water.
4. Turn the heat down low, and cook for three minutes – use a timer to prevent overcooking.
5. Drain the egg on kitchen paper, and serve immediately. If you're poaching it in advance, drop it straight into a bowl of iced water instead, or it will carry on cooking; to reheat, simply warm the egg through in a pan of gently simmering water.
What's your favourite tip for poaching eggs – and what's the best kind of egg to poach; are duck eggs noticeably nicer, or do they just look better on menus? Does your water type affect the cooking time? And once your eggs are poached, what do you like to do with them?