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.
Not to spoil you on how the story ends, but the secret here is steaming. By steaming the eggs in very shallow water, you don't cool the water down too much when you add the eggs (which becomes a problem when you want to cook, say, four eggs instead of one).
We followed the recipe's optional suggestion and used a steamer basket for the eggs, just to make life that much easier.
The result? Each egg was absolutely perfect. The whites were set, the yolks were soft and runny. Over a simple salad of greens, with a scatter of salt and fresh-ground pepper, it was the perfect weekend lunch.
Check on that Times story on Cook's, and pick up this issue for yourself. The visual of Andrea Geary crouched in a dark bathroom, holding eggs up in front of a flashlight, is worth the cost of the issue alone.
Be sure to use large eggs that have no cracks and are cold from the refrigerator. Because precise timing is vital to the success of this recipe, we strongly recommend using a digital timer. You can use this method for one to six large, extra-large, or jumbo eggs without altering the timing. If you have one, a steamer basket does make the lowering the eggs into the boiling water easier.
4 large eggs
Salt and pepper
Bring 1/2 inch water to boil in medium saucepan over medium-high heat. Using tongs, gently place eggs in boiling water (eggs will not be submerged). Cover saucepan and cook eggs for 6 1/2 minutes.
Remove cover, transfer saucepan to sink, and place under cold running water for 30 seconds. Remove eggs from pan and serve, seasoning with salt and pepper to taste.