The poached egg is a delicious and elegant treat, as pleasing to the eye as it is to the tongue. Yet it is also the Boo Radley of the egg family: seldom seen, frequently misunderstood, wrongly feared.
I’m not sure why so many people find poached eggs intimidating, but it’s a shame, because if you can boil water and crack an egg, you’re 90 percent there. Perhaps it’s the name. Everyone knows what boiling, frying and scrambling mean, but poaching sounds forbiddingly exotic.
Perhaps people are scared off by the idea that you have to create a little whirlpool in your saucepan before adding your egg. (That technique works, but it means you can only cook one egg at a time, and it’s totally unnecessary.)
Or maybe it’s the vicious circle in which egg-poaching anxiety creates a market for superfluous poaching devices, the existence of which perpetuates the idea that poaching eggs is hard. Unless you’re insufferably uptight about having eerily round, symmetrical eggs, those contraptions are a waste of kitchen space.
Probably most egg-poaching failures are caused by boiling, rather than simmering, the water. A strong boil will obliterate a fragile, shell-less incoming egg. Instead, the egg, once deployed, should hang lazily in the water, undisturbed. It should not be buffeted by bubbles. Take care also not to fill the pan too full of water, about an inch and a half should do. If the water is too deep, the dense yolk will plunge toward the bottom of the pan, trailing the white behind it like a comet.
Many recipes rightly call for putting the finished eggs in cold water to stop the cooking and wash off the vinegar. (Do add vinegar to your saucepan; it helps the white coagulate.) There’s an even greater benefit to this step: After eggs have cooled off for 30 seconds or so, you can fish them out of the water with one hand and, with the other, pick away stray or stringy strands of white – taking eggs into the upper echelon of aesthetic refinement.
Once you have the technique down, you’ll start noticing all kinds of situations that cry out for the addition of poached eggs. They’re great atop a crunchy salad, served with sauteed leafy greens, or poached in soup broth or tomato sauce. The most prominent vehicle for poached eggs in the U.S. is surely eggs Benedict, whose savory decadence is unparalleled on brunch menus. I must say I find ultra-rich Hollandaise sauce to be over the top.
But I can’t argue with eggs Benedict’s toasted English muffin foundation: The mix of gooey yolk and crunchy bread is irresistible. Here, I suggest swapping out the Hollandaise in favor of goat cheese and a mustard vinaigrette, for a lighter but assertive combination that showcases the egg, rather than drowning it in richness.