I am just as guilty as the next person when it comes to fretting about how my food looks when I post it on Instagram. Multiple shots. Contorting myself to avoid casting shadows. Of course, when it comes to the food you see here, I have the assistance of a professional stylist and photographer.
Still, I’m going to say it: Stop stressing about getting the perfect-looking poached egg. We’ve all seen the images. Smooth, oblong, neatly contained egg whites that, when pierced, spill out an enticing cascade of golden yolk. Yes, you’re going to bust it open anyway!
That’s what I was going for when I started diving into poached eggs for my better breakfast goal that was part of our collection of food resolutions for the new year. Safe to say, especially on a harried weekday morning, perfection was elusive. Creating a whirlpool in the water before sliding in the egg, designed to help keep the shape and prevent flyaway strands of white, was a disaster. All I ended up with was an even bigger cloud of white. Vinegar didn’t seem to make a difference, either.
To see whether this was just morning ineptitude or something more insidious, I grabbed a carton of eggs in our Food Lab and starting poaching away, using a variety of methods. Again, the whirlpool only amplified the spread of egg white in the pot, leaving most of it in the water and very little still actually attached to the egg. Vinegar didn’t help. A test of an off-heat method—bring the water to a boil, remove the pot from the stove top and drop in the eggs—resulted in eggs that stuck to the bottom and did not set enough.
I do really love it when the simplest solution is also the best. My favorite method could basically be summarized as “just poach the dang egg.” It worked pretty well on my better breakfast run, and it worked again in the Food Lab. My inspiration was none other than the American Egg Board (they of “the incredible egg”). Bring a few inches of water to a boil, reduce the heat so it’s just simmering (gently bubbling) and slip in the egg, letting it cook for 3 to 5 minutes. The site even warns, in italics, “do not stir.” Okay, sounds great! Tasters and I were very happy with the result.
I’m not alone in my inclination to do as little as possible. I wanted to pump my fist and shout “Preach, sister!” when I came across this piece by cookbook author Alice Medrich on Food52. Medrich has found no benefit to salting, adding vinegar to or swirling the water. She much prefers her simpler method, which is about the same as the egg board’s. There’s just one addition: “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.” I tried it, and of course it works.
Medrich pooh-poohs another method, which involves straining the whites to remove the more watery bits that tend to feather out. Nonetheless, I took it upon myself to try J. Kenji López–Alt’s “foolproof” method, which, did in fact succeed. López–Alt does have you strain the whites before poaching, and swirl the water—but only after the eggs go into the barely bubbling water for about 4 minutes. This I found was a much more reliable method for gently shaping the remaining white around the egg rather than dumping it into a petering-out vortex. For very little extra work, they came out a little neater.