There were numerous Mother’s Days in my childhood where my sister and I would make stacks of toast, pancakes and scrambled eggs to surprise my mom with breakfast in bed.
Boy, did we go over the top.
All we really needed to do was make her a poached egg, the perfect culinary symbol of the purity of the mother-child relationship.
Short of eating them raw — not endorsed here, especially for mothers-to-be — poaching is the simplest preparation of an egg. It’s just an egg, cooked in near-boiling water.
Don’t be fooled by the simplicity of the preparation, though. Getting it right is a matter of science and practice. Done well, it’s like watching a butterfly fluttering in a light breeze. Made hastily, you get a spider’s web mangled by a vicious wind.
To find the best method — a subject hotly debated online — I tried a variety of techniques, including dropping the egg into simmering water, into simmering water with vinegar, into plastic wrap and then into simmering water.
I also tried something called a “whirlpool” method and a ladle technique reputed to help preserve the egg’s shape.
But in the end, simplicity won out. After trying each method several times, I found gently submerging the egg into unadorned simmering water to be the most effective way to get a pretty oval, yet still freeform poached egg.
Here’s what I learned along the way:
Youth culture: The age of the eggs matters. Large, fresh eggs have the thickest whites.
It’s no yolk: Broken yolks don’t work because the whites can’t encase the runny yolk and the result just looks messy. If you break the yolk while cracking the egg, save it for an omelet.
Cool and calm: Water temperature matters greatly. Ideally, it should be simmering with few tiny bubbles breaking the surface. Fiercely boiling water will agitate the eggs, which will end up looking ghastly.
No dressing: Adding vinegar to the water helps the egg firm up. But it also created odd striations on the whites, making for a ragged presentation. Plus, if you don’t wipe them well, you taste the vinegar.
Vortex: The whirlpool method involves stirring the simmering water to create a funnel, then pouring in the egg. The whites spin tightly and create a compact poached egg.
It’s a nice theory (and it’s fun to watch), but each of the six times I tried this the egg came out with a smaller-looking yolk, and had visible motion lines in the white from the twisting. Ugly.
Cling wrap: Pouring the egg into plastic wrap to keep it contained sounded inspired, but it proved the worst option. First, it was impossible to get the cooked egg to release smoothly from the wrap, even when using cooking spray.
Second, the egg formed its shape in the wrinkly plastic. It looked silly.
Oval track: Using a soup ladle is a great technique if you want perfectly rounded, restaurant-style poached eggs. The egg assumes the shape of the ladle. It would look lovely on an English muffin.
But I was hoping for something a little more rustic.
To get that, I found that the best method is to gently pour an egg into faintly simmering water and let it cook for about 3 minutes (more than 4 minutes and it’s hard-boiled). That’s it.
To poach more than one egg at a time you’ll need to use a pot large enough for the eggs to have room to float without crowding.
There are all sorts of recipes that call for poached eggs, such as eggs Benedict or eggs Florentine. But to honor the simplicity of the egg, I serve two on a thick slab of toasted and buttered country bread and topped with freshly ground black pepper and fleur de sel. Kosher salt is fine, too.
Fill a 4-quart saucepan with about 2 to 3 inches of water, enough to cover the egg completely and leave it enough room to float freely. Bring the water to a boil, then reduce the heat to a simmer.
Crack the egg into a small cup or bowl with rounded sides. Gently, but without stopping, tilt the bowl or cup, letting the lip break the surface of the simmering water, and pour in the egg. The whites will begin to coagulate around the yolk.
Cook for about 3 minutes for a medium-done egg. The white will be firm, but the yolk will still be runny.
Using a slotted spoon, lift the egg out of the water and pat softly with a paper towel. If you are not going to use the egg immediately, skip the towel and plunge the egg into a cold-water bath to stop it from cooking.
The eggs can be covered and refrigerated for a day. To reheat, drop the egg into simmering water for 20 seconds.