I know I do, so here goes:
Q: Why did the French chef use only one egg in the soufflé?
A: Because it was an oeuf.
Now that that’s out of the way, let me, in all earnest, introduce what might be appropriately titled “ Egg Rhapsody, Pt. 2.” In this article, I will cover the fine art of boiling an egg—not only how to cook it to the correct stage of doneness and best texture, but also some tips on how to shell it easily and store it in the fridge (since you’re not really going to boil just one). As I made clear in my previous article, I consider the egg to be a food best enjoyed with minimal tampering, and there’s no preparation that showcases the best aspects of a fresh egg better than boiling until the yolk is just set and adding only good sea salt and perhaps a piece of sourdough toast. Without further ado:
To repeat the obvious (but let’s be honest, what else needs to be repeated so often?), the make-or-break step is the very first one, choosing a great egg. Most people who dig eggs as they deserve to be dug already have a favorite, but the salient points are the diet and treatment of the hens and the age of the egg. It can be tough to ascertain detail on the first two factors without visiting the farm, but a lot can be told by looking at the egg once it’s cracked open. Both yolk and white should look, for lack of a better word, “lively”—that is to say, elastic, resilient and possessing good color and sheen. A common test of the quality of the yolk is to crack the egg onto a flat plate so that the white spreads out and you can see how “proud” the yolk stands in relation to it. It should stand up and not run across the plate or sink to the level of the white. Needless to say, old and inferior yolks tend to break quite a bit more often than good quality eggs, but this cannot be viewed as an iron-clad benchmark—good yolks break, too. Eggshells are porous, so age will show up in the consistency of the interior; loss of water causes the structure of the whole to degrade and become viscous and clammy rather than shiny and supple. Before I start feeling any more like a dime-store romance novelist, let me sum up by saying you want an egg a week old or less with a good deep color in the yolk and a white that will not spread too far or run around a plate when cracked open. Once you’ve found a farmer you trust, stick with them.
The world of culinary lore is full of cheap tricks to make things foolproof—ignore them. A basic understanding of fire, water and flesh nestled in the medium of time isn’t too much to ask of someone who wants to eat well and that’s you. Get a good pot off the shelf and fill it with cold water. Fail to add vinegar, salt or any other snake oil. Bring to a rolling boil (meaning that the bubbles generated are large and are constantly rolling to the surface of the water, creating a turbulent surface—little air bubbles breaking the surface now and then won’t do it) and add your eggs with a sieve or “spider” (an offset perforated tool used for this very purpose or to retrieve the hot eggs from the water). This is, in my opinion, an important point, so I’ll pause: Some cookbooks advise putting the eggs in cold water and bringing it to the boil. I do not because adding the eggs to boiling water has the effect of making the white and the membrane that surrounds it pull away sharply from the shell, making peeling much easier and lessening the chances that your white will have to be pulled into pieces to get it out.
From here, it’s a matter of setting a timer and remembering not to walk away from it. Three minutes gets you a soft-boiled egg. Five minutes gets you an “oeuf mollet,” with a yolk that is not runny but is just this side of set firm. Seven to eight minutes gets you hard-boiled—but let me offer a word of clarification here: most of us grew up thinking that a hard-boiled egg is really a green and white egg-shaped piece of chalk and if that’s what you want you need to leave it in the water for 15 minutes or so then leave it in the fridge, unpeeled, for a couple of days. What you will get using this time lapse is a yolk that is firmly set but still bright yellow and with no sulphurous ring around the outside. Slice thickly and eat on toasted rye with radish slices and good French mustard if the world has bruised you today. A top-shelf pickle won’t hurt you, either.
The last step: as soon as your timer goes off (do not hesitate), either remove the eggs and plunge into very cold water or put the whole pot in the sink and run cold water into it for two or three minutes. Now turn the water down to a trickle and crack the shells, either by hand or by shaking the pot (Jacques Pepin’s labor saver). Peel the eggs under the running water to help wash away the membrane and keep shell fragments from adhering to the white. If you have done everything I said, this should be a breeze and you should be left with beautiful, whole, gleaming white eggs. The smart thing to do is eat them now, all of them, while the warmth still clings to the yolks. If you can’t do it, you need to immerse them in cold water and store them in the fridge for no more than 48 hours. As I said, sea salt and perhaps sourdough bread should be your only guides on this journey, but if you tire of a purist’s life there are lots of options for various salads made with this essential nutritional and culinary building block. And remember, a chicken is an egg’s way of making another egg.