Poaching an egg takes nerve. The first time I attempted it, I thought I was following all the rules: I had an egg and a pot of boiling water spiked with vinegar. But after sliding the egg into the water, I watched, horrified, as the whites dissolved in a web of veins, leaving the yolk alone amid vinegar swill.
I tried it a second time. And a third. Then I abandoned the project completely for years to avoid more culinary failure. In college, my egg-poaching was limited to a small pot obtained at a garage sale. It came with an insert fitted with four removable cups. You filled the bottom of the pot with water, covered it with the insert lightly coated in cooking spray, slipped the eggs into the cups, put the lid on, and cooked eggs until the whites were white. The results were more pucked than poached, but at least they were predictable.
A few years ago over after-shift beers, my friend Emily began relaying stories from her life a cook at a large hotel in south Florida. When she started on the subject of poached eggs, I sharpened my focus. It was her job to poach 50 eggs at a time. These eggs would be reheated later for the hotel’s endless eggs Benedict orders. In Emily, I had found a poaching expert.
To start the job, she brought a large, wide rondeau filled with water to a simmer. Meanwhile, she cracked 50 eggs into a large pitcher. Right before cooking the eggs, she stirred the water with a large, slotted spoon until a brisk whirlpool formed. As she poured the eggs into the swirling water, they separated on their own, the whites curling gently around the yolks.
As she walked me through the steps, I found the holes in my earlier approach. She used simmering—not boiling—water. Boiling is too harsh on eggs. Also, vinegar wasn’t much of a contributor. It won’t save an egg from dissolving in boiling water, and it’s not great for flavor. Pouring the eggs gently from the pitcher was much better than cracking eggs directly over the water. But the real revelation was the circular water current. That part was pure magic.
At home, I wanted to see how the whirlpool effect would work on a smaller order: one solitary poached egg. I pulled out the smallest, widest pot I had, the kind that’s good for two servings of hot cereal, tops. I filled it with water, brought it to a boil, then lowered it to simmer. Then I cracked an egg into a teacup. I gave the pot a stir until the water formed a small whirlpool. Then, sucking in my breath, I gently slid the egg into the abyss.
At first, it looked like another disaster. The spidery whites danced around the pot far from the yolk. Gradually, though, the whites began circling the yoke. I gave the water another stir and let the egg cook for a minute or so more, then lifted it out of the pot with a spoon. Out came a soft slipper with a small tale of white, which I trimmed off with a paring knife. I blotted the egg on a clean kitchen towel and placed it beside a hearty piece of toast. A small but satisfying culinary triumph, just in time for breakfast.