How to cook an egg

2 poached eggs on sourdough – cooked by Madame

I wish – I really do wish that cooking eggs were that simple. Do it this way – do it another way – so many cookery books declare from on high, and you try it; book propped open next to the cooker, or in my case last week – laptop getting grease spattered while the whole attempt falls apart. In reality, eggs are quite difficult because there are so many rarely mentioned variables; how fresh they are; what temperature they’re at and so on. And then there’s the subjective issue of what exactly constitutes a properly cooked egg. Madame likes her boiled eggs well cooked with the yolks firm. I like mine with runny yolks and if they come out with snotty whites then that’s a price I’m prepared to pay, and even with a timer counting in seconds we regularly get it wrong.

Half of the problem with eggs is that the whites and the yolks set at different temperatures. Sous vide users have worked out a way to make perfect boiled eggs but my sous vide cooker gave up years ago and I never replaced it; I’m a cook not a biophysicist. As is always the case, the answer to questions about the way to cook an egg would need to be “well it depends”. I’m innately suspicious of terms like “perfect” and “authentic” which often hinge on entirely subjective criteria – I prefer to say “well I like it this way” and leave it to the questioner to figure out whether I’m a moron; [yes!].

Raw eggs are apparently a sovereign cure for hangovers – an idea I tried out just once when I swallowed a whole egg and immediately puked it back into the sink without even breaking the yolk. Of course the real problem with them is that they change state – ie from liquid to solid- extremely quickly, which is why your hollandaise will split if you take your eye off the ball for a second when it’s on the heat. Mayonnaise too will split at the drop of a hat; in fact the easiest egg emulsion to make is aioli which is almost bombproof or even better allioli in which the excessive garlic makes it impossible to get wrong. Greek chefs whisk an egg into bechamel which transforms it into an altogether lighter and more elegant sauce.

The fresher the eggs and the more natural the life of the hens, the better they’ll taste – except the very freshest eggs (laid this morning) are better left for a day before you cook them because they often won’t set. It’s a bit of a mystery how hens manage to make such beautiful things from slugs and snails and puppy dog’s tails but they do; and however much we puff up the idea of saving the earth by eating insects, I’d rather break the process into two stages – that way we all get to enjoy ourselves.

Even getting the egg out of the shell is a matter of controversy. Some chefs show off by breaking them on the edge of the pan and shelling them one handed. Others tap the shell with a knife to get the process going (NB bits of shell are inclined to drop into the bowl and such is the viscosity of whites you’ll waste ten fruitless minutes chasing them with the tip of your knife. Finally there are those that prefer the sharp tap on a table – which works well until you get a thin shelled egg which bursts all over the floor. This hazard is much more prevalent in battery eggs. Organic and free range hens eat calcium containing dirt with their normal diet, and thoughtful owners give them grit too. Worms have an innovative process of digestion which is aided by grit – hence passing calcium to the lucky hens that eat them. One broken egg from a pack increases the price of the rest by 16%, and in times of inflation that’s not a price you want to pay.

I’m not suggesting for a moment that we should all get our eggs by Deliveroo from some ghastly factory run by Mac-Cock-a-Doodle. Eating less but better is always the way to go.

Eating together is an inherently communitarian and democratic act – never ever allow an expert to tell you what to cook and how to cook it. Experience, a good memory and a willingness to learn from your mistakes will make you a better cook than a dozen makeup artists, food stylists and dieticians will ever do.

Author: Dave Pole

I've spent my life doing a lot of things, all of them interesting and many of them great fun. When most people see my CV they probably think I'm making things up because it includes being a rather bad welder and engineering dogsbody, a potter, a groundsman and bus driver. I taught in a prison and in one of those ghastly old mental institutions as an art therapist and I spent ten years as a community artist. I was one of the founding members of Spike Island, which began life as Artspace Bristol. ! wrote a column for Bristol Evening Post (I got sacked three times, in which I take some pride) and I worked in local and network radio and then finally became an Anglican parish priest for 25 years, retiring at 68 when I realised that the institutional church and me were on different paths. What interests me? It would be easier to list what doesn't, but I love cooking and baking with our home grown ingredients. I'm fascinated by botany and wildlife in general, and botanical illustration. We have a camper van that takes us to the wild places, we love walking, especially in the hills, and we take too many photographs. But what really animates me is the question "what does it mean to be human?". I've spent my life exploring it in every possible way and the answer is ..... well, today it's sitting in the van in the rain and looking across Ramsey Sound towards Ramsey Island. But it might as easily be digging potatoes or making pickle, singing or finding an orchid or just sitting. But it sure as hell doesn't mean getting a promotion, beasting your co-workers or being obsequious to power, which ensured that my rise to greatness in the Church of England flatlined 30 years ago after about 2 days. But I'm still here and still searching for that elusive sweet spot, and I don't have to please anyone any more. Over the last 50 or so years we've had a succession of gardens, some more like wildernesses when we were both working full-time, but now we're back in the game with our two allotments in Bath.

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