In retrospect, I can see why some stages of my quest for the perfect soft-cooked egg caused my coworkers to think I had gone off the deep end. I can understand why they were surprised and even alarmed to see me furtively slipping into a darkened restroom armed with a high-powered flashlight, an empty toilet paper roll, a permanent marker, and two cartons of U.S. grade A eggs, size large. (For the record, I was trying to determine the precise location of the yolk within each egg, because I was convinced that it influenced the way the egg cooked.) And I concede that it was a mistake to spend five weeks vigorously shaking raw eggs in their shells in an effort to encourage even cooking; the fact that 25 percent of the shaken eggs exploded in the saucepan probably should have tipped me off.
But I figured that achieving my goal would be worth a little embarrassment along the way. A soft-cooked egg—its smoothly gelled white encasing a sphere of warm liquid yolk—is every bit as satisfying to eat as a poached egg, but it looks tidier, and preparing it requires less equipment. It’s a one-ingredient recipe; how hard could it be to get it right?
Turns out that soft-cooked eggs are a bit of a crapshoot because you can’t rely on any visual cues to monitor the eggs’ progress. You don’t know if you’ve succeeded or failed until you’re already seated at the breakfast table.
Granted, many people successfully make soft-cooked eggs every day, but here’s the thing: Those folks have precisely tailored their individual methods to suit their kitchens. They use the same saucepan, the same amount of water, the same burner, and the same number of eggs every time. If any one of these variables changes, all bets are off.
That wasn’t good enough for me. I wanted a method that would produce consistent results for any cook, in any kitchen, using any equipment, whether he or she was cooking one egg, four eggs, or even a half-dozen.
Taking Their Temp
The problem with eggs is that they aren’t just one ingredient. Tucked within that porous shell are really two very distinct ingredients: the white and the yolk. Each is composed of different types and ratios of proteins, fats, and water, which means that they react differently to heat. Most important: The white and the yolk begin to coagulate, or solidify, at very different temperatures. The egg white begins to coagulate at 142 degrees and is fully solid at around 180 degrees, while the yolk solidifies at about 158 degrees. What does this mean? When cooking an egg that we want to be ultimately both solid (the white) and liquid (the yolk) at once, we have to bring the whites up to a much higher temperature—and do so carefully.
To begin, I figured that I had two choices for cooking: aggressively high heat or low-and-slow heat. The test kitchen’s go-to method for making hard-cooked eggs is the epitome of a low-heat cooking method: Place the cold eggs in a saucepan, cover them with cold water, bring them to a boil, and then turn off the heat. Cover the saucepan and let the eggs finish cooking in the cooling water for 10 minutes. A quick chill in ice water, and voilà! Eggs with fully set whites and firm yolks. Could the key to soft-cooked eggs be as simple as halting the process a little earlier, before the heat penetrates to the center and sets the yolk? No such luck. I followed our hard-cooked egg method, but to monitor the progress of the eggs, I cracked one open as soon as the water came to a boil and then another at each 1-minute interval after that. Sure, that first egg boasted a beautifully fluid yolk, but it was accompanied by a lot of slippery, transparent white. After 1 minute, part of the yolk of the next egg had started to solidify, but there was still a lot of undercooked white. By the time the white was fully set at the 3-minute mark, about half of the yolk had already coagulated and was beginning to turn chalky. High heat it was. So I would simply take cold eggs from the fridge, drop them into boiling water, and then remove them as soon as the whites were cooked but before the heat penetrated all the way to the yolks.
Admittedly, this is your basic soft-cooked egg recipe, and folks have been doing it this way for millennia. It took a bit of testing to find the timings and quantities that worked for me in the test kitchen, but after some trial and error, I landed on the following method: I placed two large, cold eggs in 4 cups of boiling water in a small, heavy saucepan and fished them out after 6 1/2 minutes. After running cold water over them for 30 seconds, I peeled them and sliced them open to reveal set whites and warm, liquid yolks.
However, this was not a flexible method. When I added extra eggs, there were still some watery whites in evidence after 6 1/2 minutes. That’s because adding the cold eggs to the saucepan temporarily lowers the temperature of the water. With more eggs, the water’s temperature dipped lower and took longer to return to 212 degrees; with fewer eggs, the water recovered more quickly. So changing the number of eggs changed the amount of time that it took for the eggs to cook perfectly.
Full Steam Ahead
If only I could somehow use boiling water to cook the eggs without actually submerging them in it, I thought. That seemed like an absurd idea—until it occurred to me to try a steamer basket. I brought 1 inch of water to a boil in a large saucepan while I loaded the steamer basket with two large, fridge-cold eggs. I lowered the steamer into the saucepan, covered it, and let the eggs steam for 6 1/2 minutes, after which I transferred the steamer to the sink and ran cold water over the eggs before breaking them open. They were perfect. Eggs cooked in steam took exactly the same amount of time as eggs that were submerged in an ample amount of boiling water.
When I tested batches of one to six eggs with exactly the same cook time and got exactly the same results, I was sure I had cracked the case: The key to a perfect yet still flexible recipe for soft-cooked eggs was not to boil them but to steam them. But could I simplify it even more?
I wondered about steamerless steaming. If an egg cooked in steam takes the same amount of time to cook as an egg that is submerged in boiling water, doesn’t it follow that if you cook the same egg partially in water and partially in steam, it will still cook evenly?
This time I brought a mere 1/2 inch of water to a boil in my saucepan, and then I placed two cold eggs directly on the bottom of the pot, covered it, and steamed/boiled them. Because of the curved exterior of the eggs, I reasoned, they wouldn’t make enough contact with the water to lower the temperature significantly, so the cook time would remain the same as it did with the steamer. At the end of 6 1/2 minutes, I cooled the eggs by transferring the whole pot to the sink and running cold water into it for 30 seconds. I peeled the eggs and cut each one in half, revealing two beautifully tender yet fully set whites cradling warm, fluid yolks.
Subsequent tests with different-size batches (from one to six eggs) worked equally well using exactly the same timing. And with only 1/2 inch of water to heat, this recipe was not only the surest and most flexible but also the quickest. Just in time, my reputation as a serious and sane test cook was restored. Never again would I stress about producing perfect soft-cooked eggs for breakfast anytime, anywhere, under any conditions.