Have We Been Poaching Eggs All Wrong?

April  3, 2018

I’ve been poaching eggs at least once, if not four or five times, a week for decades. That’s how I know there’s way too much overthinking, and just plain silly thinking, around poaching eggs. They are the easiest (and best) eggs you can make!

An old boyfriend taught me to make poached eggs. Rather, I watched him do it. He’d crack and ease the eggs one by one into a shallow pan of simmering water, plop the lid on the pan, turn off the heat, push toast in the toaster, and go shave. He’d stroll back into the kitchen clean-shaven, retrieve the toast, and plop the eggs on top. Nothing to it—and a nice memory.

I do it the same way, 50 years later—only I sip my coffee and listen to NPR instead of shaving.

"Where did people get this idea that I'm difficult?" Photo by James Ransom

I know you’re thinking that I forgot to mention putting vinegar in the water to firm up the egg whites, or salting the water, or swirling the water to wrap the whites around the yolks, or even pre-straining the eggs to remove the thin watery portion of the whites to prevent that stringy mess in the water.

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I do none of these things—not because I’m lazy, but because I’m fussy as hell about my poached eggs. And I’m also rather efficient. I’ve tried and discarded all of the poached egg “improvements,” “hacks,” “tips,” and whatever. And yet, my eggs are trim and shapely and perfectly cooked, with tender silky whites and yolks as runny (or firm) as you like them.

What I Don’t Do & Why:

Vinegar in the water: Never. Vinegar firms up the whites, but the viscous portion of the whites are going to firm up anyway (and the runny portion is still going to be stringy). The whites always cook faster than the yolks. Firming the whites faster with vinegar simply overcooks them before the yolks are ready. Whites cooked in vinegar water appear opaque rather than shiny, and they are tough and chalky rather than tender and silky. This is one reason I rarely order poached eggs in restaurants—I can spot an egg cooked in vinegar water immediately (or at least before I take a bite).

Salt in the water: Salted water also seems to make the eggs whites slightly chalky. People should salt their eggs at the table!

Swirling the water: This is supposed to wrap the yolks in the whites to make a lovely shape. But you have to cook one egg at a time. If you’re cooking for a crowd, you have to pre-cook and reheat them. Who needs that? Meanwhile, swirling doesn’t improve on the lovely shape I get without swirling. Oh, and this: The firmer portion of the egg whites stay with the yolks whether or not you swirl, and the runny ones will still float around. So why bother. (If I want a swirl, I’ll eat salted caramel ice cream…)

50 years of poaching eggs (without fancy techniques) later... Photo by Alice Medrich

Straining the raw eggs to remove the thin runny whites: You must be kidding. An extra step like this doesn’t hurt anything—unlike the addition of vinegar or salt to the water—but it’s unnecessary and very likely to dissuade you from making poached eggs on a regular (much less every-day) basis because, well, it’s an extra step! I let the runny part of the egg whites float around in the pan while the more viscous part naturally forms a lovely oval around the yolk. When the eggs are done, I trim the raggedy whites easily between the edge of the slotted spoon and the sides of the pan as I remove each egg from the water. Like I said, my poached eggs are quite shapely, thank you.

What You Do Need

A frying pan or skillet with a lid. It should be deep enough to hold 1 1/2-2 inches of water. (Actually, my skillet only holds only 1-1 1/4 inches of water, and it works perfectly, even though I have to set the lid slightly ajar to prevent the water from flowing over the pan when I cover it.) An 8” pan is fine for 2-4 eggs and a 12-14" pan works for up to 12 eggs.

A large slotted spoon: The bowl of my spoon is 4 inches long and a generous 2 1/2-inches wide. This dimension makes it easy to trim raggedly whites between the edge of the spoon and sides of the skillet as you lift the egg from the water.

A clean dish towel or folded paper towel: This is essential to blot excess water from the eggs. The second reason I shun poached eggs in restaurants is that they always come in a pool of water. Ugh.

Good eggs: The fresher, the better, for both shape and flavor. (If eggs are less than great, poaching may not be the best choice for them anyway.)

How to Poach Eggs, Once and For All

I poach eggs cold, right from the fridge. Practice poaching 2 to 4 eggs at a time and you’ll gain confidence enough to handle a dozen! If you do not feel confident about cracking and slipping eggs into the pan quickly, break each one into a ramekin before you start. Then simply slide eggs from the ramekins into the water one or even two at a time.

Blot out the excess water. Photo by Alice Medrich

Heat a skillet with about 1-1/2 inches of water to a simmer. One by one, working close to the water rather from a height, either crack and slip each egg into the water or slip them in from ramekins. Add eggs starting at 12 o’clock and working clockwise around the pan so you can identify and remove the first egg first and the second egg second, etc. When all of the eggs are all in, turn off the heat and cover the pan. You can start the toaster during this time, if you didn’t start it earlier.

Eggs are done in 3-5 minutes, depending on how you like them and on how many eggs are in the pan. Slip the slotted spoon under the first egg and lift it slightly. Assuming it looks done to your liking—if not, cover the pan and wait a little longer—trim any raggedy edges hanging over the spoon by pressing the edge of the spoon again the side of the skillet, or by running a knife around the edges of the spoon. Nestle the spoon in the folded dish towel or paper towel, tilting it as necessary to blot excess liquid from the egg before depositing it on toast or a plate.

Let guests salt and pepper their own eggs a table. If anyone misses vinegar, let them drizzle some over their eggs now—when it won’t do any harm! Bon appétit.

How do you poach your eggs? Let us know in the comments!


Dawn M. April 8, 2019
Yes!!!I am a cook in a restaurant and we make a lot of poached eggs and Eggs Benedict and I have never poached them in anything but water!
Traci S. January 6, 2019
Thank you! Why do. He’d make it so complicated??? And why do they never put the lid on the pan! Turns something simple into a nightmare impossibility!! I use your method except I do not turn the heat off. I’ll have to try that....
Sarah H. December 12, 2018
PLEASE HELP!!! I really do not know what I am doing so very wrong. My poached eggs taste absolutely beautiful BUT I cannot get the whites to fold around the yolk. Mine have a look of a fried egg. The method I use is very simple. I use a saucepan boil the water then turn it down and let it simmer. Crack a very fresh free range egg into a ramekin. Then I use a spoon and stir the water to get a swirl & I slowly drop the egg in. I then press my timer on my phone and I’ve got the perfect yolk down to a tee. For the perfect runny yolk I leave it in for 2 minutes. I remove the egg with a big silver spoon that has holes in it. I use kitchen roll to blot the excess water off & then slide the egg onto my toast. Like I said tastes beautiful. But looks more like a fried egg rather than a poached egg. What am I doing wrong? And how do I get the white to wrap around the yolk and get that beautiful shaped egg. Many thanks 😊
judy October 3, 2018
Well, I've tried a few of the variations on how to cook poached eggs recommended over the years by the "top" chefs. None of them work for me. And I do not agree with the author about vinegar. I use apple cider vinegar. My withes are gently firm and shiny, not rubbery. There are no strings and the yolk is perfect (unless, of course, I leave it is too long.) I use vinegar because I like the flavor it gives to my egg. And I love to serve it over gently cooked green with sourdough toast. THAT is the way to cook. poached egg--in my book. Now I think I will go and do so....Great article.
Matt S. September 9, 2018
These are some great tips. I've mostly used the vinegar-and-swirl method, but have found that most of the white tends to solid away from the yolk, instead of around it. I'll try shallower water and no vortex.
Margaret K. April 29, 2018
The rings are for fried eggs and mostly not tall enough for poaching, and some are also too wide. Pennsylvania Dutchman mushroom cans are 2.5 inches in diameter, which is a good size for a poached egg imho, and because they're 2.75 inches tall, they're easier to manage than the rings. You can put even pressure on them against the bottom of the skillet when you're sliding in the egg, which you can't do with the handles that come on rings. You have to use the handle because the ring is low and close to the hot pan, but when you press down on a handle, the other end of the ring comes up off the bottom of the skillet. Plus, cans are cheaper (if you like mushrooms).
Margaret K. April 28, 2018
Sadly, this did not work for me. Even though I worked very close to the skillet, the egg whites spread out too much. But it got me thinking. Here's what I tried and was pleased with:

Cut top and bottom off two or more 4oz cans of mushrooms, using a no-sharp-edges can opener. You need the kind of can that is made with a crimp-sealed top and bottom, not rounded on the bottom for stacking. Relocate the mushrooms for another use. Remove the labels and then the label residue with GooGone, etc. Wash well and dry.

Fill a flat bottomed skillet with water to about half an inch deep. Cover and bring water to a boil; reduce to a simmer. Meanwhile, crack your eggs into ramekins, or crack all your eggs into a measuring cup, as suggested in a previous comment. Either way, you need to crack all your eggs first, because you'll need both hands to deposit the eggs into the pan.

Lightly oil the insides of the cans and place them in the skillet. With the water simmering, hold one can firmly down against the bottom of the skillet and pour an egg into it. Keep holding the can down for a few moments until the egg is well settled in. Only a very little egg white should escape. Repeat with the other cans and eggs.

Spoon some of the water over the tops of the eggs if they aren't already covered. Put the lid on the skillet, turn off the heat and leave for 3-5 minutes. I got tired of waiting after I turned off the heat, so I turned it back on again. That didn't seem to hurt the eggs any.

When eggs are done, take a flat, slotted pancake turner and slide it under one can, steadying the can with your other hand. It shouldn't be too hot to grab with your fingers. Gently drain off the water into the skillet and deposit your egg at its final destination. Repeat with remaining eggs.

These poached eggs looked pretty good, were actually poached in water (vs. being steamed), and were pronounced excellent by my fussy DH. Once you have your cans on hand, it's very easy, and several cans will fit in an average skillet if you're feeding a crowd.
Casey April 29, 2018
Nor for me.......after 5 minutes, egg whites were still raw.
I turned the heat back on, but they had been sitting too long & stuck to the pan, & burned.
Had to throw the whites & finished up with a couple of overcooked yolks!
I have used Margaret's method, but you can buy metal egg rings & don't have to resort to opening cans.
Casey April 21, 2018
I love poached eggs so certainly intend to try this!
My current method was taught to me by a French chef - similarly using nothing but plain water.
When the water comes to a boil., drop the egg directly into the stream of bubbles.
The action from the bubbles causes the white to wrap around the yolk & gives a nice compact shape.
Jo April 20, 2018
Thank you - I usually do the whole 'drop of vinegar and dash of salt' thing, but this is much better.
While on holiday with a friend, I experienced the opposite ends of softly cooked eggs.
I ordered a poached egg for breakfast one day. It was terrible - tasted like they'd poached it in a pan of vinegar, and it looked like the yolk had been bleached by the process!
On the same trip, we also had steamed eggs. They were just wonderful! Soft, silky and everything I want an egg to be.
Gman April 18, 2018
There is not an article on egg cooking I haven't read. It might be time for intervention. FWIW, I've also poached in advance and parked them in cold water for later use when I don't want to be fiddling at the last minute. I then gently transfer to a bowl of hot tap water for 1-2 minutes to bring them back to proper temp, and still have a runny yoke. Feel like I read this or heard this from Julia Child somewhere... Thanks for this.
Luci April 14, 2018
I feel like the final picture looks more like a a steamed egg than a poached egg. I’m going to try this method see if it’s equal to my standard cook school method .. seems less fussy. I will miss the light vinegar taste.
cutthecarrot April 11, 2018
Game changer. I did two eggs in a 2 quart Le Creuset (enameled cast iron) saucepan with 1.5” water. Done after 3 min. Will never go back, to vinegar either. Thanks.
catharina April 9, 2018
I will try this immediately as I LOVE poached eggs but so far have been unable to pull it off. Fingers crossed!
Anke T. April 9, 2018
Question: why a skillet rather than a saucepan? Does it have to be nonstick or something?
Elaine W. April 14, 2018
Being shallow, a skillet allows easier access to sliding in the raw egg and lifting out the cooked eggs. Also, it gives a wider surface area for cooking more eggs at the same time. If only making one or two eggs, a saucepan would be fine.
Elaine W. April 14, 2018
And no, nonstick is not necessary (ever, for anything, really).
Smufty April 8, 2018
Even easier - silicon poaching cups. Rub a little EVOO in each cup and crack an egg into it. Float them on simmering water and place on lid. Practice will tell you how long to simmer covered. No mess, perfect every time, no waste.
Author Comment
Alice M. April 8, 2018
Those are great, but I would call them steamed eggs (or a variation of oeufs en cocotte or coddled or shirred eggs) rather than poached because they are not cooked directly in the water. However, if you do them in the little cups (I use ramekins) you can put a spoon full of something flavorful in each cup: left over pasta sauce, pesto, even juices from roasted chicken or beef, or herbs and butter or cream, a bit of cheese, sautéed mushrooms, etc. Yummy.
Gammy April 8, 2018
I was given a set of the silicone cups and don't like the final result. Wrong shape to the egg when done: not a nice little flatish oval plus you have to wash the darn things with soap and hot water to get them clean. I crack my eggs into ramekins and lower the side of the ramekin halfway into the hot water and slowly pour the egg into the water. It will start setting immediately. I have also found using a strainer really does help to eliminate those stringy whites of older eggs. Some day I will have to try Alice's idea of adding flavorful bits to the silicone cups and steam the eggs.
Patricia April 8, 2018
confession: I not only use this method with great success, but if I'm making four or six eggs at a time, I just break them all into a large measuring cup and then slowly pour them all into the water. The first time I tried this, I was afraid they'd all stick together, but nope, they all separated, turned out nicely shaped and cooked to the same firmness because no time lag in putting them each separately into the water. Ms Medrich, you and your recipes are the best!
Author Comment
Alice M. April 8, 2018
Ha! Thanks for sharing that! I've done the same with a bowl full of eggs. I was going to mention it, but I thought it would freak out the folks who are having such a hard time or are scared of the whole process! Pouring them all in at once cooks them to the same degree in the same time, but they are still removed one by one, so some will be firmer. But that's just a little nitpicking! I love that you do this.
Anthony April 5, 2018
I tried the minimalist method here once after reading, and am back to my vinegar and salt adding, water swirling ways. I prefer the rate at which the vinegar and salt firm my whites, and I like the shape better after a swirl. Also, I’m at sea level, but find it takes at least six minutes to cook, regardless of method.
Author Comment
Alice M. April 8, 2018
We all have our preferences! I like my yolks runny and whites tender and just set—it's consistently 3-3.5 minutes chez moi!
Martie W. April 4, 2018
Game Changer……The best EGG ever!!! I used a jumbo egg and timed it for six minutes and it was still not too done, very tender. It did stick slightly to the bottom but was easily retrieved with little damage to the yoke. I will crack them into a bowl and lower into the water next time and cook for four to five minutes, though.
Author Comment
Alice M. April 4, 2018
Love to hear this! Thanks.
Lynn D. April 4, 2018
This worked great for me!
LuCooks April 4, 2018
I just made myself a poached egg using this method. It was quite easy. For me, it wasn't cooked enough at 3 minutes. But I call that "user" error not recipe error. I love different approaches to add to my repertoire.
Author Comment
Alice M. April 4, 2018
Not an error at all! Remember you can check by lifting the egg up and taking a took or even touching it with a finger to see how squishy it might be inside. Lower it back in fo 30 seconds or more with id on, if you thinks it's too gooey for you! You'll soon know exactly how it should look for your doneness preference!
LuCooks April 4, 2018
Thank you, Alice!