The Great Egg Debate, or How to Boil an Egg

One of the first recipes I posted on Cookooree was for boiled eggs. I called it something like “Perfectly Boiled Egg.” I don’t remember because I have since changed the name to something less…controversial.

Yes, my recipe was controversial. Turns out people have strong feelings when it comes to boiled eggs–so strong that they can have a difficult time focusing. You see, the site had just launched and this recipe was one among many. I wanted to conduct some user testing to see how people interacted with the site. However, every time people laid eyes on Cookooree for the first time, that darn Perfectly Boiled Egg recipe caught their eye. I wanted to gather first impressions of the overall experience, but initial reactions would inevitably be a pointed finger aimed squarely at my poor little egg and an indignant exclamation, such as “That is NOT a perfectly boiled egg!”

For the sake of my tests, I changed the name of the recipe. And testing resumed more seamlessly after that. I guess it was the word “perfect” that fanned the flames, but the whole egg thing made me realize that the topic of boiled eggs is an emotional one. Almost religious, actually. And very confusing to boot.

At the most basic level, boiled eggs are eggs that have been boiled in water. (However, there is a offshoot of believers that steam their eggs, insisting that the taste is far superior. We’ll get to that…) Seems straightforward enough. Yet this simple thing quickly becomes complex, vexing, and the object of passionate debate. That’s because “perfect” can be measured by several factors: crack-resistance, peelability, color, texture, and of course taste. These 5 areas are covered in Julia Child’s definition of a perfect hard-boiled egg as having “a tender white, and a yolk properly set. There is not the faintest darkening of yolk where the white encircles it…”

How do we achieve this great, well-rounded egg?

Crack-resistance

Eggs can crack when submerged in boiling water. That’s why a number of recipes, including one offered by Martha Stewart, suggests allowing the egg to heat up with the water rather than simply dropping them into already boiling water.

Simply Recipes also suggests that a little vinegar and salt in the water can help reduce the impact of an egg if it should explode. While this addition is not unique, the vinegar remains somewhat controversial. (Some complain that it alters the taste of the eggs.)

Salt, however, has very convincing defenders. An article in the New York Times entitled “How to Boil an Egg: So Simple, but Not Easy” suggests that “if the eggs crack, the escaping whites will coagulate more quickly and seal off the hole.” Nerds at the Exploratorium elaborate: “Egg white solidifies more quickly in hot, salty water than it does in fresh. So a little salt in your water can minimize the mess if your egg springs a leak while cooking. The egg white solidifies when it hits the salt water, sealing up the crack so that the egg doesn’t shoot out a streamer of white.”

Personally, I do it “wrong.” I like to let my eggs warm to room temperature and then drop them into already boiling water. I believe this method provides more control over cooking time, although as far as cracking goes it causes the air in the egg to heat quickly, thus raising the chance of an explosion. To counteract this, I prick the blunt end of the egg to allow air to escape. (Pricking also supposedly helps eggs to keep a round bottom.) Even Julia Child pricks! (Belinda has posted what J. C. would do when it comes to eggs.) While critics argue that the prick may actually weaken the shell and make cracks more likely, most prickers stand by the method.

Peelability

Sometimes eggs are harder to peel, and a number of methods promise to ensure easy peeling. The prick method is one, assuming (as many do) that the tiny hole that allows air to escape also allows water to enter. It’s believed that the water works its way between the shell and the egg making it easier to peel.

Many claim that ice baths are the way to go, allowing the hot egg to quickly shrink away from the shell. In fact, Julia Child recommends a second boil and ice bath to intensify this process. Margo True at Sunset Magazine shows a double ice bath method in this video on Chow.

Finally, old eggs are supposedly easier to peel. By “old,” I mean a few days old (not months). J. Kenji López-Alt at Serious Eats notes that while (as the saying goes) “old eggs are for boiling, fresh eggs are for frying,” odds are that supermarket-bought eggs are already old enough.

Color

Egg yolks are yellow and egg whites are…well, white. But are your yolks surrounded by a bluish-green or grey ring? Yuck. The ring is an iron-sulfur reaction that suggests your eggs were cooked too long or at a temperature too high. If your eggs look great when they’re still warm but not when they’re saved, odds are you need to add an ice bath to your regimen to keep them from continuing to cook as they cool.

Texture

By texture, I mean are the yolks runny or chalky? Are the whites tender or rubbery? While it’s clear that runny yolks indicate eggs that haven’t finished cooking (unless you like them runny, then they’re prefect), rubbery whites mean that the egg is too done. One way to combate this is to cook eggs at a lower temperature. Why? Once again, to quote Serious Eats: “the middle of your food is going to cook more slowly than the exterior, and the hotter the heat source, the bigger the temperature differential will be between the center and the exterior.” One way to even out the cooking this is to let your eggs heat up slowly with the water.

Taste

Ultimately, boiled eggs are to be eaten, and taste is key. Even Easter eggs should eventually find their way into someone’s mouth. Optimizing the texture will optimize the taste, and according to The American Egg Board both would benefit if hard-boiled eggs weren’t boiled at all.

Enter the steam folks. They’re the vocal minority who steam their eggs in vegetable baskets or rice cookers. (Lifehacker describes the rice cooker method: “The heat of the rice cooker and the water at the bottom will steam the eggs, and by the time the rice cooker cycle is complete, you’ll have perfectly hard boiled eggs. You’ll still want to run them under cold water to make them easier to peel. It’s unorthodox, but it works and it’s repeatable.”)

Denouement

To recap, here’s what most people know for sure and agree upon:

1. old eggs are easier to peel
2. pricking the end may make eggs more peelable and less likely to crack
3. ice baths may make eggs more peelable and less likely to overcook
4. salted water can help mitigate the effects of a cracked egg

There are many ways to boil an egg. As Lifehacker rightly notes, “Cooking the perfect hard boiled egg is part art and part science.” No two eggs are alike, and pot sizes vary along with the number of eggs we intend to boil at any one time. Our altitude matters, as does our water. Like most recipes, variation happens and we’re left winging it.

And we do what we do, meaning we take short-cuts and stick with methods that work for us, even if they don’t make sense or work for others. It’s half superstitious, half habit. In fact, that is what’s so great with boiled egg recipes: they are individual.

At the end of the day, we boil eggs in ways that reflect our beliefs, goals, and priorities. In other words, how we boil our eggs probably says more about who we are and what we care most about than anything else.

What’s your method for achieving a perfectly boiled egg?

-joanie