I love poached eggs. I am starting a diet this week, to cut into the layers of excess that have coagulated around my waist this past couple of years, and eggs are very prominent (it's essentially a fusion of GI and Mediterranean eating - portion-controlled, wholegrain, but with lots of dairy, vegetables, and lean protein). That's good - I love eggs, especially for breakfast. My favourite way of cooking them nowadays is poaching - which is luckily a very healthy way to cook them, alongside boiling, as no extra fat is added.
A lot of people seem to have trouble poaching eggs, my mother among them. I have never found it difficult, so I thought I'd share my technique, which is pretty standard, and observations built up over the past few years (I must have poached a couple of hundred eggs in that time). I must admit, this is unscientific - I followed advice, and it worked, and now I do it every time. Maybe there are other ways, or even better ways, but I can tell you with confidence that this way works.
The most important thing, if you want neat, compact, self-contained poached eggs, with no strings of white floating off in the water, is use the freshest eggs you can get. I buy mine from the local greengrocer, and they are perfect for a couple of days. Some uses of eggs, such as meringue, are better done with old ones, but here, freshness is key - since the whites become weaker and runnier as they age, and this leads to them breaking up when you poach them.
Cooking the eggs
Take a pan, fill it with water, and bring to the boil. Turn down the heat, add a dash of vinegar (white wine or cider is best, and not too much - maybe a tablespoon per litre). Take a slotted spoon, and stir the water into a vortex. Break your eggs, one at a time, into a cup or bowl, and ease into the swirling water (i.e., add one egg, then break another - don't break more than one into the cup or bowl at once). Cook for two or three minutes - timing isn't critical so much as checking the eggs visually. The white needs to be fully set (if the water isn't hot enough, or you cook them for too little time, the centre of the white tends to stay gelatinous), but the yolk should be runny inside. Once done, remove from the water with the slotted spoon - leave them too long and the yolk will set firm, which misses the point of poaching.
I always serve poached eggs on toast, or toasted pitta (whatever I have in), although English muffins are more classic, I suppose - but what you serve with them is endlessly flexible. Generally, the accompaniment goes between the toast and the eggs. Here are a few favourites:
- smoked salmon/smoked trout: you can quickly microwave the fish (for just a few seconds) to par-cook it, or if the toast and egg are piping hot, the effect can be the same (although raw is fine too if you prefer).
- spinach: wilt this if you like - an easy way is to put some in a sieve, and dip it into the boiling water as the eggs poach. Make sure it's well drained before putting on the toast. Asparagus can be treated the same way.
- cheese: you could make cheese on toast, and top it with the eggs, or crumble goat cheese over the top before serving.
- vegetable purée, e.g. broccoli: steam broccoli, and blitz with crème fraîche, salt, pepper, and parmesan; alternatively, try cauliflower blended with a little cream, salt and nutmeg, or peas blended with softened shallots and a little stock.
- ham: prosciutto, Serrano, or equivalent, either raw or cooked until crispy, or English-style.
- tomatoes/mushrooms: grill or fry, as you would for a fried breakfast.
- Hollandaise: this is rather classic, especially combined with, say, salmon or ham. Spoon a little over the eggs.
- spices: try a pinch of garam masala, smoked paprika, or ground cumin on top.
However you serve them, if you like soft-boiled or fried eggs, I urge you to have a go at poaching them instead - don't expect perfect results the first time, maybe, but trust me, they are delicious, and feel a lot more special.