Perfect Poached Eggs

The most vexing problem with poached eggs is keeping the whites neat and tidy. Gimmicky methods abound, but a few simple tricks and tools are all you need.

Published Jan. 31, 2017.

My Goals

  • Tender, tidy whites
  • Creamy, fluid yolks
  • Reliable method

You could argue that poaching eggs is an ambitious goal from the start. Drop a delicate raw egg, without its protective shell, into a pot of simmering water in the hope that it will emerge perfectly cooked. That means a tender, fully set white—no ring of gelatinous, translucent goo surrounding the yolk—and a yolk that's fluid but thickened, almost saucy. Equally important: The white must not be raggedy or wispy at the edges and must boast a plump, ovoid flying-saucer shape that's ideal for nestling atop an English muffin or a bed of salad greens.

Since a raw egg cooked in simmering water wants to spread out in all directions before it sets, it’s this latter issue that’s the trickiest to overcome. I was determined to figure out a solution, and I would have plenty of help: There are dozens of recipes, essays, and videos claiming to produce perfect results. I would try them all and see where I landed.

There are dozens of techniques claiming to produce perfectly poached eggs, so we gathered dozens of eggs and set out to try them all.

Down the Drain

First I experimented with the more novel suggestions I found. These ranged from poaching eggs in a muffin tin in the oven to microwaving each egg individually in a small bowl of shallow water to parcooking them in the shell before releasing them directly into the simmering water. I wasn’t too surprised when most of these ideas proved to be dead ends. Conventional methods worked better, but they also had their limitations. The most common trick was to swirl the water around the eggs to create a vortex that kept the white from spreading, all the while folding any loose stragglers back on the yolk. The whirlpool worked, but it meant I could only poach one or two eggs a time. Another approach involved lowering an egg into the water in a large metal spoon and keeping it there while using a second spoon to block the loose white from straying too far. The results were perfect—but who wants to juggle spoons like that to cook a single egg?

It took a fair amount of experimentation to find the perfect formula for achieving fully cooked egg whites and a runny yolk.

The most useful trick I found didn’t try to corral the white during cooking but instead started by draining the raw eggs in a colander. At first I found this step counterintuitive—wouldn’t all the white just drain off through the holes? It turns out that every egg contains two kinds of white, thick and thin. The thicker portion clings more tightly to the yolk, while the thinner portion is looser and can break away and slip through the colander holes. It is this thinner white that is most prone to spreading out into wispy tendrils in the water, so eliminating it went a long way toward fixing this issue. I also found that starting with the freshest eggs possible increased the chance that more of the white was thick, so less of it would drain away, leaving me with a plumper poached egg.

Fresh Eggs = Thick Whites

A raw egg white (albumen) has two consistencies, thick and thin. The ratio of the two consistencies depends on the egg’s age: In the freshest eggs, 60 percent of the white is thick, but as the egg ages, it drops to 50 percent and below. In most cooked egg applications, the albumen ratio won’t be noticeable because the white is either scrambledbrowned in a pan, or cooked in the confines of the shell. A poached egg is the exception since the thin white is able to freely flow away from the thick white and cooks up ragged and wispy, not plump and tidy.

Our recipe gets around the issue of egg freshness by calling for draining off the loose, watery white in a colander before poaching. But for the plumpest results, it’s best to use the freshest eggs you can find.

Acid Test

I next tried a common method targeted at a different issue: ensuring that the yolks stay runny while the whites, which solidify at a much higher temperature, reach the right degree of tender firmness. This approach calls for adding a few splashes of vinegar to the simmering water before slipping in the eggs. Acid lowers the water’s pH, which makes the proteins in the white set faster. The only issue? For the vinegar to be effective, you have to add so much that it gives the eggs a sour taste. I found that the upper limit was ½ teaspoon per cup of water, which wasn’t enough to be much help. But there was something else I could add that also makes egg proteins bond faster: salt. Using vinegar and salt together meant I didn’t need much of either one. After a few tests, I worked out my formula: 1 tablespoon vinegar and 1 teaspoon salt to 6 cups water.

Tools For Success

Besides adding salt and vinegar to the poaching water, which helps the whites set at a lower temperature off the heat before the faster-cooking yolks get too thick, we use these tools to achieve perfect results.


Draining the eggs before cooking removes the loose whites, preventing messy, wispy tendrils.


Pouring the eggs from a measuring cup allows us to add them to the water gently, minimizing jostling.


Covering the pot allows residual heat to finish cooking the eggs, even the gooey white at the top.

Testing the Waters

But there was still more I could do to keep the whites tidy—I could get the eggs into the water as gently as possible. Gingerly sliding them into the water from bowls held close to the water’s surface, as many recipes suggest, kept the white contained, but pouring multiple bowls at once—I was poaching four eggs to serve two people—was awkward. Cracking all the eggs into a 2-cup liquid measuring cup and pouring them in one by one at different spots in the water was easier. Plus, I could retrieve them in the order they were added, so they cooked to the same degree. It made sense at this point to switch from a large saucepan to a broader Dutch oven, which made bringing the measuring cup close to the water easier.

Senior editor Andrew Janjigian describes his method for poaching eggs to members of the Cook’s Illustrated team during a tasting.

After bringing the water to a boil, I added the vinegar and salt, deposited the drained eggs around the water’s surface, and then considered whether to lower the heat to a bare simmer or shut it off completely and cover the pot, allowing residual heat to do the cooking. I’d seen recipes calling for both methods, and after a quick test, I settled on the latter for two reasons: First, even though it was very gentle, the residual heat was still enough to allow the egg whites to set and provided extra insurance that the yolk would stay beautifully runny. Second, in the covered environment, steam could cook the white at the very top of the eggs, which can be the most stubborn to set, without constantly turning the egg over in the water. Though timing varied slightly depending on the size of the eggs, I found that it took about 3 minutes for the white, including the top, to become nicely opaque. Plus, one advantage of poaching eggs as opposed to cooking them in their shells is that you can actually see the results and return the eggs to the pot if necessary.

And with that, I really had it: a foolproof recipe for perfect poached eggs. As ambitious as it had seemed at first, poaching eggs now felt like a quick, simple way to add protein to any meal, from eggs Benedict and corned beef hash to a salad or pasta to fried rice to polenta.

Poaching Approaches That Didn't Pan Out


Method: Poach eggs in 350-degree oven in muffin tin with 1 tablespoon water added to each muffin cup.

Results: Whites stayed neat but eggs cooked unevenly, setting faster in the outside cups.


Method: Place each egg in small glass bowl with ¼ cup water. Microwave for 1 to 2 minutes.

Results: Whites stayed contained but cooking time and heat level would need tinkering for every microwave.


Method: Briefly boil eggs in shells, then scoop each parcooked egg out of shell into water.

Results: Too involved; eggs must be cool before removing from shells, which was messy and tended to break up white.


Method: Swirl water vigorously around eggs to create whirlpool.

Results: Effective at keeping whites neat but too fussy and only works for one or two eggs at a time.


Method: Lower 1 egg at a time into boiling water in large metal spoon, using smaller second spoon to keep loose white from straying too far.

Results: Effective but fussy and only works for one egg at a time.

Keys to Success

Tender, tidy whites

Draining the eggs in a colander allows the thin, loose whites that would cook up wispy and ragged to slip away before cooking. Cracking the eggs into a liquid measuring cup and depositing them in the water one by one prevents them from being jostled. Poaching the eggs in a Dutch oven filled with just 6 cups of water leaves plenty of headspace above the eggs so that steam fully cooks the notoriously gooey portion of the white nearest the yolk.

Creamy, fluid yolks

Adding salt and vinegar to the water helps the whites set up quickly, ensuring that the faster-cooking yolks will still be liquid by the time the whites are cooked through.

Reliable method

Fresher eggs tend to have thicker, firmer whites that look nice and compact when cooked, but draining the eggs in a colander ensures that any loose white is discarded before cooking. Gently poaching the eggs off the heat makes it possible to check the eggs’ doneness individually; if they’re not done after 3 minutes, it’s easy to put them back in the water.


Perfect Poached Eggs

The most vexing problem with poached eggs is keeping the whites neat and tidy. Gimmicky methods abound, but a few simple tricks and tools are all you need.
Get the Recipe

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