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.
I know you’re thinking that I forgot to mention putting vinegar in the water to firm up the egg whites, or custard cups, 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.
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.
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…)
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.
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.)
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.
Heat a skillet with about 1-1/2 inches of water until it's simmering gently.
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.