There are a few egg-poaching tips almost all experts abide by...
- Use fresh eggs (their membranes are stronger and less likely to break, according to Alton Brown and, in J. Kenji López-Alt's words, they have tighter whites and yolks that better hold their shape as they cook).
- Don't crack your egg directly into the water. Instead, break them first into bowl or a strainer, then pour or lower this vessel into the water for the most gentle transition possible.
...but beyond that, it's a basic technique fraught with disagreement (and superstition)—just check out the comments on Amanda's "control freak method".
Should the eggs be strained? Is a non-stick pan critical? And how big should it be? Is the addition of vinegar to the water necessary to help the whites coagulate? How hot should the water be? Should you make a whirlpool? How vigorous should the whirlpool be? How many seconds should you count—aloud—between when you stop actively whirlpooling and when the egg is lowered in? What is up and what is down!? Does God exist!?
In Plenty More, Yotam Ottolenghi not only makes poaching an egg sound easy, he also lays out a technique that I'd never come across before—one that seems to fly in the face of some general wisdom (and that works—well!).
Here's how Ottolenghi tells us to poach eggs for his Fried Upma (a semolina porridge) on page 198:
Fill a shallow saucepan with enough water for a whole egg to cook in. Add the vinegar [1 tablespoon white wine vinegar] and bring to a rapid boil.
First note: A rapid boil!? If you're going to bring the water to a boil at all, most recipes will instruct you to then reduce it to a gentle simmer before adding the egg. Kenji adds the eggs at 180° F, when the water is "quivering but not quite simmering yet," whereas Alton Brown waits until 190° F. Ottolenghi, though? He's playing with fire.
To poach each egg, carefully break it into a cup, then gently pour it into the boiling water.
Second note: Yotam does not instruct that the egg be strained, which Kenji calls the one poached egg "trick" that "really really works"—he doesn't just crack the egg into a strainer, he swirls the egg around to proactively release any excess whites that will become runaway wisps once poached. Yotam, on the other hand, does not strain the egg or obsess over the ideal whirlpool velocity.
Immediately remove the pan from the heat and set it aside. After about 4 minutes the egg should be poached to perfection.
Third note: Remove the pan from the heat?! And leave it uncovered? With the egg just sitting there? It seems crazy when you consider that Kenji suggests you gently flip the eggs as they poach to ensure even cooking, and that Alton Brown, in this Food Network video, emphasizes the importance of keeping the water temperature at 190° F.*
And even recipes that do call for the pan to be removed from the heat as soon as the eggs are added—like on Framed Cooks and What's Cooking America—call for the pan to be covered, which helps retain heat. Is it because Ottolenghi's water is to a rapid boil (i.e. it's hotter to begin with) that he does not have to cover the pan? Or create a vortex? Or flip the eggs to ensure even cooking?
I find removing the pan from the heat once the eggs are in there to be reassuring: You can closely monitor their movement and their doneness. It's a calmer method, one that allows you to take a step back and let residual heat take its course. After four minutes, you simply use a slotted spoon to transfer the egg to a warm water bath while you poach the rest of the gang.
And when I tried Ottolenghi's technique (though, I admit it: I strained my egg and lowered, not poured—a nervous cook's prerogative!), it worked perfectly, on the first try.
* Note: What's really strange is that while Alton Brown's video tells you to keep the pan on the heat, the words that accompany it on the same page instruct: "Turn off the heat, cover the pan and set your timer for 5 minutes." Which is it, Alton?)
How would you advise someone to poach an egg for the very first time? Tell us in the comments!