Cook's Illustrated (February 2013)
There's always a better way to cook something.
That could pretty much be the mantra of Cook's Illustrated, which is always on the hunt for the absolute best, most replicable, most consistent kitchen techniques.
Take a soft-boiled egg. We all know how to make one, right? Drop a cold egg into boiling water for five minutes, remove it, wash under cold water, and crack open.
Cook's wasn't satisfied. That method is inconsistent at best, and if you want to cook two eggs, or four, or six, forget it. That method doesn't work anymore.
So Cook's set out to find a better way.
The quest for the Perfect Soft-Boiled Egg is a perfect illustration of the exacting standards of Cook's Illustrated and America's Test Kitchen. In fact, developing a new method for the P.S.B.E. was a big part on a fascinating feature in the New York Times Sunday magazine last fall. Here's an excerpt:
I was at the meeting for the unveiling of the Perfect Soft-Boiled Egg. It’s one of those recipes that isolate the weird, wayward essence of the Cook’s Illustrated project, a seemingly boner-proof preparation that, when fixed with [Editor Christopher] Kimball’s unsparing eye, reveals itself to be fundamentally broken. And therein lies the narrative arc of the C.I. recipe — invariably it begins with the insuperable flaw, that through toil and experimentation is resolved in a sudden, improbable revelation that, in-house, is known as the aha moment. ...
The P.S.B.E. is slated for the January/February issue and falls to Andrea Geary, from the magazine’s stable of overeducated, underpaid editor/cooks who research, test and write the stories. While the 20ish editors around the table resemble bright children at a model U.N. convocation, Geary, a hale, wiry 46, is the one you want beside you aboard the helicopter when smoke begins to billow from the controls. Her mien expresses unfussy competence; before coming to the magazine, Geary cooked at an inn on the Scottish Highlands, roasting venison in a coal-burning stove for hunting parties of drunk Italians. Even among the high-strung editorial ranks at C.I., Geary is considered a little intense.
If you’re wondering what could be especially difficult about boiling an egg, you should have heard her. The Flaw — the unappetizing probability of either a chalky yolk or a runny white — occurs because the yolk gets cooked before the white, and the desired temperature window turns out to be harrowingly small, so the ideal preparation must set the white while leaving the yolk custardy, and not do it too rapidly. Oh, and tossing a fridge-temperature egg into boiling water will cause the air inside to expand and sometimes crack it, and apparently no two cooks can agree on exactly what simmering means, and third, the number of eggs must be compensated for by adjusting the amount of boiling water to keep cooking time constant. Geary recited further facts imperiling the P.S.B.E., and after a while the difficulty of boiling an egg at home with anything like success sounded to be on the order of a bone-marrow transplant. This appeared to please everyone, particularly Kimball, and the meeting moved on to Dressing Up Meatloaf.
“Most magazines don’t write about failure, but we do,” Kimball told me later. “Disaster in the kitchen puts the reader at ease, and that’s why we start our recipes with it.”
We were sucked in by that story (you should read all of it!), and we couldn't wait to try the P.S.B.E. for ourselves when the issue finally arrived.