Normally, seasonality is an agricultural fact. But for How to Eat (HTE), the series identifying how to best enjoy Britain’s favorite foods, there’s something unmistakably autumnal about the poached egg.
It’s in October, when temperatures plummet, energy levels drop, noses runny, boilers rattling, and on humid Wednesday nights you find yourself unable to cook anything more substantial, that the poached egg comes true. . It’s hibernation food. bad food. Smashed food. Food that feels slightly like giving up, which in that lack of ambition offers a delicious release.
There are days when you want to stretch out in the kitchen and days when you make poached eggs. Days when, instead of cleverly filming your meals for multiple social media channels, you want to turn off your phone, withdraw from the bewildering outside world, and imagine yourself as a character in a lost monologue by Alan Bennett (working title: An Egg poached for Richard Whiteley) or as the independent heroine in a particularly slow novel by Anita Brookner. A woman who, after a life of quietly devastating disappointments, eats her poached egg with the stony acceptance of someone who has learned to modestly enjoy the fringes of life. She lets others dream up fancy tortillas. You know where you are with the poached eggs.
That reputation may explain the poor performance of the poached egg during the lockdown. While the extraordinarily well-known press office, the British Egg Information Service, reports that scrambled, fried and boiled eggs enjoyed an almost 50% increase in consumption, poached eggs hardly deserve a mention.
But with this week being British Egg Week, maybe it’s time to reconsider the role the poached egg plays in your life. Purists know that a poached egg doesn’t have to be a paltry act of self-sacrifice. True, only monastics or masochists would eat a natural poached egg. Unlike its eggy brethren, to truly shine, the poached egg requires a garnish, a dance partner, some kind of sauce or stimulating seasoning. But that pairing opens up, if not a world, then certainly a bucolic town of possibilities, from baked beans to shaved Alba truffles.
Excited yet? hte knew you would be. Let’s proceed…
The food is wrapped in a lot of woo and guff. There are plenty of gullible people out there who pay big bucks for handmade artisan hype. However, the more you can spend on eggs, the better they will be overall and within the price parameters that make it an affordable luxury. Freshness is also vital. Older eggs tend to have watery whites (quiz: a truly fresh egg will sink in a glass of water and lie flat), so if you have a connection (a local market, farm store, mate with chickens) for the good stuff, touch up.
There are few advantages to Covid. But one ray of hope is that in the general social reboot/collapse, we will learn to regard chefs as obsessive foodie eccentrics rather than secular gurus. Historians will look back to the early 2000s and laugh in bewilderment at our slavish devotion to celebrity chefs, much as we now pity our stupid ancestors for hanging on to every word of monarchs.
One thing those would-be historians won’t do is waste time perfecting their vortex poaching, a chef’s technique that in highly-skilled restaurant kitchens makes sense (we pay professionals for such perfection), but in a home setting is untenably complicated and , due to how infrequently it is practiced, probably results in something closer to ectoplasm than food. You create the vortex, sift the egg, add vinegar or salt, dry each egg with the attention you would give a newborn baby, and to what ugly, soggy, overcooked extremes?
Get over yourself and get yourself a casserole for poaching. Photography: Purestock/Alamy
There are other methods, of course (no heat and set, cling film, etc.), but even if you go beyond the vortex, details as arcane as even the behavior of the water are still crucial. As food scientist Harold McGee points out in his powerful book Food & Cooking, unless you place the egg in still water boiling below the exact point of boiling at exactly the right time to cause instant coagulation of proteins on the top outside of the egg, you will get a terribly disheveled egg. , cracked egg. You can mitigate that with salt or vinegar, but too much will alter the texture of the egg in unappealing ways. And on and on the process, life slipping inexorably through your fingers as you try to turn a poached egg into something half presentable.
Why don’t you use a pan to poach you ridiculous prima donnas? Yes, the buttered or oiled exterior takes on a slightly firmer quality—let’s call it an interesting texture variation—but with practice, vigilance (use a knife near the yolk to test for doneness), and the right nonstick cups, it’s possible. producing satisfyingly soft poached eggs, producing poached eggs from a poaching pan, while inducing a pearl-clinging horror in a certain type of foodie. Consider that extra fun.
Classically, poached eggs are described as being served on toast. This is misleading. They should be served on toast, close to toast, adjacent toast, but never on toast, where a mixture of steam or residual cooking water will create an unsightly wet ring on your slice.
That toast (never unroasted bread, it needs that contrast of solidity and crunch) should not be more than 1 cm thick (this is not the place for a doorstop of huge sourdough) and using commercial bagged bread as the unit of measure standard, it should be served in a ratio of 0.75:1 toast to medium egg, that is, 1½ slices for two medium eggs, or 1:1 for large eggs.
This ensures that, once you pierce the poached bag, you have exactly enough toast to eat with the white and dry out the yolk, in a way that moistens the toast without making it a mess and without leaving excess toast. No dipping in the yolk please, this is not a boiled egg. The joy here is in releasing that lava-like flow and working quickly to contain it, collect it, and… oh my gosh, have you ever felt more alive?
Have you ever felt more alive? Photograph: Vitaliy Krivosheev/Alamy
HTE is optimistic about the choice of bread. Except to say that the brown seeded breads bring a bit of extra flavor frisson to what can be a very bland dish, but anything darker than whole wheat can taste painfully dignified.
Toast isn’t the only platform. Texturally, the buns become woolly drenched in yolk, and the potato cakes feel jarringly heavy. But a Birds Eye potato waffle or a fried slice of Simon Hopkinson bring a greasy touch of indulgence to proceedings that the poached egg is conspicuously lacking.
poached egg partners
Interestingly, even though the components are the same, a poached egg and toast is a less complete meal than a boiled egg and toast. The latter has active engagement going for it (all that dipping and scooping), but also that buttered toast plays just as prominent a role as the hard-boiled egg, in a way that it can’t when trapped under a poached egg. Comparatively, the poached egg can feel flat and parsimonious, which may explain why it’s so often used as part of a dish (see below), rather than the star itself.
It’s almost as if the meek and twitchy poached egg needed a louder, giddy ingredient at its side to break it out of its shell. To get the third round. Turn up the music volume. That relaxation is easily achieved as a poached egg is a blank canvas for just about any condiment you want to drizzle or spread on toast (Tommy K, Branston, caramelized onion chutney, hot sauce drops, soy or fresh pesto). As she once told Russell Harty, after a hard day destroying people’s lives, Margaret Thatcher indulged in Bovril’s poached eggs on toast, but please don’t let that ruin the yeast extracts for you. Avoid pungent astringents (ie mustard, vinegars), but otherwise, as far as poached eggs go, the world is your oyster sauce.
Similarly, a poached egg on toast comes to life in the presence of baked beans or spaghetti rings. It is encouraged scattered with chorizo or bacon fried in very fine cubes. Get zen satisfaction under a thick layer of grated Parmesan or very mature cheddar cheese. The poached egg has an extraordinary affinity with smoked haddock, wilted spinach, smashed avocado, and especially mushrooms. There’s something elementally good about meaty, earthy fried mushrooms doused in rich yolk. As Ottolenghi calls it: “Mushroom breakfast”.
Poached egg as an ingredient
HTE does not have space to explore all occasions (eggs Benedict, shakshuka, etc.), when the poached egg is used as a component of a dish. But a quick tour of some golden rules is in order. Self-dressing leaf salads topped with a poached egg (mmmm, cold, soon slimy leaves topped with warm yolk!) are almost universally terrible. Instead, poached egg works best over a dense mass of food that can hold and absorb its yolk: fish cake, rösti, hash.
Shakshuka. Photography: Brent Hofacker/Alamy
Generally speaking, the same is true when poached eggs interact with what, for brevity, we’ll call “grains.” From a texture standpoint, there’s something off-putting: The grains get gritty in the mouth or clump together sticky, where the yolk unfurls into what should be a loose bowl of rice, lentils, or quinoa. An egg on top of a well-packaged plump arborio risotto works well. It amalgamates. But, for example, looser, long-grained kedgeree is always better when pulled with hard-boiled eggs. In 2016, UK Egg Week promoted the (donk-inspired?) hashtag #putaneggonit, but please proceed with caution.
At any time, literally. Just as easy to make at 4am as it is at 4pm, and if seasoned sensibly, it’s guaranteed to hit that hungry spot with minimal fuss.
The flat white is a naturally creamy fit with eggs, or go for a cup of tea the color of a disastrous fake tan accident. Save the drink for later.
So, poached eggs, how do you eat yours?