How To Poach An Egg

“Take eggs and break them in scalding hot water and when they are sufficiently cooked take them out.”

-A Forme of Cury, 14th century

Simple eh? There are many ways of poaching an egg, but I poach eggs every week and over the years this is the way that I have found the easiest and the best. Why every week? The best way of all of eating poached eggs is on Marmite toast for breakfast (Kate Humble’s favourite)…ideally on a Saturday. However they are also good with a classic eggs Benedict, or with bubble and squeak and wow wow sauce. At Ballynahinch Castle Hotel they serve ‘David’s Sourdough’ breakfast – poached eggs on fresh tomato and grilled sourdough.

Poached eggs on fresh tomato and grilled sourdough at Ballynahinch Hotel
Poached eggs on fresh tomato and grilled sourdough at Ballynahinch Hotel

John Gregory-Smith in his gem-filled book, Turkish Delights, serves his version of çilbir, retaining the yoghurt (which is spooned over a little like a Hollandaise sauce in an eggs Benedict) but replacing most of the chilli butter with lemon-drizzled avocado and serving on toast.

Poaching is a very old way of cooking an egg which appears in the fourteenth century recipe compilation, A Forme of Cury (‘cury’ being from the French cuire), written by King Richard II’s head chefs. In that rendering, once cooked the eggs were covered in a sauce for which you needed to “take egg yolks, and raw milk and whist them together. Add to this ground ginger, saffron and salt. Set it over the fire, but do not let it boil. Take the cooked eggs, pour over the sauce and serve it forth.”

An early form of Hollandaise sauce perhaps?

Method for poaching eggs:

  1. Put whatever plates you plan to use in to warm.
  2. Use the best and freshest eggs you can. Clarence Court Burford Brown sunset-orange eggs are wonderful.
  3. Take them out of the fridge, if that’s where you keep them, to get them as near to room temperature as possible.
  4. Fill a reasonably sized saucepan with water and bring it to a light simmer. Peter Eaton, head chef at The Woodspeen, impressed upon me that fact that I SHOULD NOT BOIL madly. 
  5. Add about a teaspoon of white wine vinegar to the water. This helps to keep the egg ‘together’.  At the Woodspeen they poach their eggs in a mix of 70% water, and 30% of Saracen’s distilled vinegar. 
  6. Break your egg into a small measuring cup (I use the ⅓ cup size).
  7. Get out a clean tea towel, or tear off three or four sheets of kitchen paper and put, ready, just beside the hob. Obviously… , especially if you have a gas hob, don’t allow this to be a fire hazard!
  8. If you are not good at juggling do anything else you might need to do – make toast for example.
  9. With one hand stir with a desert spoon so as to get the water in the saucepan whirling around a vortex. Don’t bother to do this if you are aiming to poach two or three eggs at once.
  10. With the other hand pick up the egg in the measuring cup, get it as close as you can (without burning yourself with the steam… again… obviously) to the vortex in the water, and deftly slide the egg into the water…. Reduce the heat a little to prevent the water boiling madly and dispersing the white.

…..for….how long? Well, if it’s a fresh, smallish, already room temperature egg it’ll take about two minutes… if not, then longer, but in fact it is easier to simply do this by just looking – the egg yolk should still be seen to be moving, liquid, but the egg white should have become opaque. Don’t agonise…. every second the egg stays in the boiling water, the yolk will become harder, and the beauty of a poached egg is the runniness of the gold centre as it pours out of its wavy white casing when the eater cuts into it with the knife.

how to poach an egg

What is the science behind adding the vinegar?

Egg white is mostly protein and water. The acid in the vinegar causes the protein to coagulate more quickly.

What happens if the yolk breaks?

  • Give it to yourself
  • Try lapping the water in and over the egg from the sides of the pan
  • Camouflage with a sauce (eg a hollandaise sauce if you are making eggs Benedict) or chopped herbs
  • If looks are everything (who are you cooking for?) begin again!

How to professionally extract the egg from the water

When it’s time to take the egg out use a smallish round slotted spoon. This will make the egg look neat. An alternative way of making the egg look professional, if you really need to, is to ‘trim’ off the flailing tendrils of white with kitchen scissors.

Rest the egg, in the slotted spoon, for a few seconds on the tea towel/paper towel to rid it of any clinging water and avoid whatever you are serving the egg on getting soggy.

Cooking ahead of time

Do you, for some obscure reason, want to cook the poached eggs ahead of time? I learnt this trick at the Ashburton Cookery School. At the time I thought it would be endlessly useful, but I haven’t used it so far.

What you do is cool the egg (or eggs – chances are you’re doing this because you’re doing this for six or so people as part of a smart starter). All you need to do is to cool the eggs and keep them in the fridge for a up to three or four days. Then drop (carefully and gently) into boiling water for about a minute – remove with a slotted spoon, and rest on the tea towel or paper for the reasons described above.

The beautiful Kate Moss looking like a poached egg

The swirling white of a poached egg reminds me of the amazing ghostly image of Kate Moss at the end of the 2006 Alexander McQueen show. Incredible!

Music to cook to

Dean Martin and Helen O’Connell, How Do You Like Your Eggs In The Morning?

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