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Food: The Perfect Egg

4 minute read
Joel Stein

I’ve never made poached eggs. Which is weird because I love them, and I’m obsessed with breakfast items to the point that I once spent three weeks trying to invent new ones. (For my bold, if ultimately unsuccessful, breakfast brûlée, go to time.com/recipe.

I think I haven’t tried to poach eggs because I want to keep them special. As a kid, I’d wake up excited whenever my grandmother was in town, knowing she’d prepare two perfectly poached eggs for me–dark yolk oozing across shiny soft whites, soaking into lightly toasted bread–something my mom never got right. This was Jewish suburbia in the ’70s; a decent poached egg was as close as we ever got to a madeleine.

So I’ve been pretty happy to discover, on at least half the dinner menus I’ve scanned in the past year, entrées topped with a poached egg: halibut, salmon, pasta, chorizo, ratatouille, tuna tartare, mushrooms, chicken, crab cakes, asparagus, salad. And it always works, adding a richness and silkiness to everything, a protein-on-protein, Atkins-era overindulgence that makes me psyched to be an American. “Hey, this is delicious, but wouldn’t it be better if we plopped some bird ovum on it?”

In Europe and Asia they have always sneaked an egg onto dinner stuff–a frisée salad with lardon, spaghetti carbonara, ramen, pizza, bibimbap. Because Spain is having a huge impact on American chefs, eggs are now appearing outside of breakfast menus. “In Spain, if you have eggs with coffee, they’ll look at you like you’re crazy,” says Seamus Mullen, who poaches eggs from his parents’ Vermont farm at New York City’s Boqueria restaurant. But in Frank Perdue’s America, it’s only recently that there have been eggs good enough (local, organic, free-range) to add real flavor and make you feel safer playing salmonella roulette.

The current ubiquity of the runny egg, however, isn’t just due to Spanish influences and the greenmarket movement, which fetishizes purity and simplicity. It benefited from the other major 21st century food trend: high-tech cooking equipment. There is a quiet tug-of-war going on in restaurant kitchens between Luddites and chemists, with chefs pretending to be both–pumping locally grown organic raspberries into foam with a canister of nitrous oxide. But I think you need to pick sides. Either you want to mess with stuff, or you don’t. And the egg–in its wimpy little shell and its I’ll-be-whatever-texture-you-choose- to-cook-me-into submissiveness–wants to be messed with.

When chefs started hauling lab equipment into their kitchens, one item they found they couldn’t live without was a $1,300 immersion circulator, which allowed them to find and maintain the exact temperature at which egg whites and yolks begin to set. A slow-poached egg– say, at 143°F for 90 minutes– is that rare, perfect synthesis of greenmarket and high tech. When cracked open, the thing spills out ludicrously egg-shaped and ridiculously soft, the yolk suspended between raw and cooked, the cloudy white freed from that slight rubberiness I never knew bothered me until I had an egg without it. David Chang, who drops one in his ramen at New York City’s Momofuku, says one of his regulars calls it “a sexy egg.” There are apparently a lot of ways to hit on a chef.

Now that I’ve had so many perfect eggs and unfrozen my past so happily, I’m thinking about doing some poaching myself. Not with a thermometer but with the old swirl-the-vinegared-water technique my grandmother used. Then I’ll pop the eggs on some asparagus, or a piece of salmon, and think about her. Or pretend to, while I really think about the salmon.

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