Cracking on poached goodness

Light, delicious, super healthy and a technique worth mastering – just a few of the reasons that make this version of egg one of the favourites for chefs and wellness experts alike.

Ask any seasoned chef what is that one egg dish that they found toughest to master, and the list, more often than not, would have poached egg taking the top spot. And yet, it would be the one dish that they would have cooked the most in their career in white. This includes culinary specialists such as Italian specialist Chef Anirban Dasgupta and Executive Chef Mandar Madav of Conrad Centennial Singapore. Masters of the fine art of egg poaching today, these culinary heads still make a poached egg or two every other day in the kitchen, be it for a dish, to teach a young chef or just as part of their hands-on leadership.

“The thing,” says Chef Dasgupta, “about poached egg is that while it might not be as popular in India as say the boiled egg or the omelette, it is one of the integral elements of many a dish including the brunch-favourite Eggs Benedict. And once you’ve had a taste of these soft, silky yolk delicacies, it is hard to go back to the boiled version.” The reason for this shift in habit is, of course, the luxuriant taste of an egg that has been poached perfectly — “there is no other benchmark of a poached egg,” says the Italian specialist who uses it in most of his pasta dishes to give the dish its amazing creaminess, especially Spaghetti Carbonara where the egg works almost like this rich sauce that gives the pasta its velvety texture and taste and cranks up the flavour quotient of the classic.  

The versatility of a poached egg is a virtue that Chef Mandar endorses completely. “Unlike its other peers that bring in their own flavour and texture dimensions to a dish, a poached egg’s role is that of a character artist. Even if its part in the entire dish is rather small, it is significant, as it not only creates texture but also the taste,” says Chef Mandar, who views poaching as one of the most fascinating techniques to extract the maximum flavours of a dish and considers poached eggs as one of the most delicious ways to enjoy an egg (and its nourishing side), since it is cooked on low heat and in the shortest time possible. A style of cooking which medical experts also rate among the healthiest since it helps preserve the necessary nutrients of an egg while breaking down the protein for quick digestion.

Chef Mandar, who, over the years, has developed his own sure-shot technique of making multiple poached eggs at a time, says, “For the culinary world, a poached egg is this ace that often comes into play when you are creating a dish that needs the richness of fat but none of the heaviness. That is where poached egg works like a charm, giving it that sauce and richness.”

That perhaps explains why poached egg – a dish that often needs no investment in equipment or expensive ingredients – was always reserved for the tables of the rich and famous. In fact, the earliest mention of the poached egg was in 1893 when Chef Charles Ranhofer of the famous New York restaurant Delmonico’s, published The Epicurean. Among its various aspirational recipes were that of poached egg, seafood, and chicken dishes that were seen as essential for a sophisticated menu offering.

By this time, the poached egg, which as food lore would have it, had moved from Catherine De Medicci’s table to adorn the fine dining spaces in clubs and invitation-only restaurants. The poached wonder was by then a popular brunch treat. Its popularity among the affluent was further proved when ten years later, celebrated culinary trendsetter Georges-Auguste Escoffier, in his book, Ma Cuisine, listed 141 variations for oeufs pochés (poached egg) along with fifteen more recipes for preparations including en gelée (in jelly) and chaud-froid (hot-cold) dishes.

Such was Escoffier’s fondness of the poached wonder that when Prosper Montagné published Larousse Gastronomique in 1938, he willingly shared the secret to several of his poached egg dishes, including the oeufs Aladin (poached eggs on a mound of saffron risotto, garnished with sweet peppers, and napped with tomato sauce) and oeufs à la zingara (poached eggs placed on oval fried croutons covered with thin slices of ham, and coated with zingara sauce, a tomato-flavored demi-glace with a julienne of ham, tongue, and mushrooms). Thus, setting a trend, say chefs, and the long association of poached dishes especially the egg with fine dining. Since then, every culinary mind has found fascinating ways of celebrating the brilliance of the poached egg in one way or another, one of the finest being Eggs Benedict that was created by Lemuel Benedict in 1942 at the Waldorf Hotel brunch.

History has it that Benedict, a retired stockbroker, wanted to have something different from the menu and insisted on creating his own dish and used author Isabella Beeton’s suggestion of serving poached eggs on toasted bread with slices of ham or bacon. And then slathered it with luscious hollandaise sauce. However, others credit Chef Ranhofer for creating the original Eggs Benedict, also called Eggs a la Benedict, for one of his patrons, LeGrand Benedict as a chefs’ special in 1860 – a recipe that was later made part of the book.

Anecdotal or otherwise, these stories have given poached egg the repute of being the la-di-da of fine dining, a standing that reality TV shows such as MasterChef have only added feathers to, by making poached egg a part of their pressure test time and again.

But what is it about a poached egg that makes it so difficult to make? After all, in appearance, it is just about getting the egg into water that is boiling hot and after 3 minutes, removing a delicate pillow-like egg that gives way to the point of a knife, revealing this bright yellow yolk. “The trick,” says Chef Madav, “is the timing and getting each and every element of this seemingly simple dish on point and that includes the eggs which need to be fresh.”

“The next step is to get the water to the right temperature, which is around 60-63 degree Celsius. Anything beyond and the egg yolk will start to cook. Add the vinegar – a drop is fine. The addition of vinegar creates an acidic pH level in the water that aids the ovalbumin, which is the main protein component in the white, to denature and start cooking. A change that is often noticed when the translucent egg white turns opaque and starts making a bubble around the egg yolk. From here, it is about another one minute or so before you can move the poached egg out into cold water or room temperature, depending on the weather. Cold water often helps stop the cooking process, ensuring that the yolk remains runny. In Sous Vide, which cooks it at an even lower temperature, it takes a longer time but has better results because the temperature is kept much below the 60-degree mark.”

Eggs benedict
While the history of the creation of Eggs Benedict remains a matter of debate, it continues to be a brunch-favourite.

For Chef Dasgupta, however, the key to a good poached egg is to not disturb it while it is cooking and allow the water to do the job. “Many would prefer creating a whirlpool before dunking the egg or even douse it with water to hasten the process. In either case, there is a good chance that the egg would either break or turn into a soft boil. The best way is to allow the water to do its work and keep patience and use a chilled egg, especially if you are cooking in a high humidity place. This little trick keeps the white coagulated and the results are faster.” The one thing that both agree on is the use of this little bowl to drop the egg, much like you would do when making an egg-drop soup.

Fascinatingly, it is this process of denaturation of the egg which happens as soon as heat is applied to it that not only gives it that brilliant taste, and soft mouthfeel, but also ensures that the egg is cooked just enough to be quickly assimilated by the body. A response that usually manifests itself as this feeling of instant satiation and energy. “At 71Kcal (calories) a piece, a poached egg,” says nutritional therapist Sveta Bhassin, “is not only this filling breakfast but also gives you that extra leeway to become indulgent and pair it with food groups that are calorie and nutrient dense for a meal that can keep you satiated and alert through the day. Aside from soluble protein, it also gives you a good dose of lutein and zeaxanthin that are known to boost eyesight and put your brain in a happy mood.”

“Apart from being a great source of amino acids,” adds Bhassin, “the Vitamin D along with other minerals present in the yolk is essential during summers to enable the body to function better – especially when it comes to the muscles that tend to lose water and minerals regularly – and also for digesting Vitamin C that works as armour for the respiratory system against any weather changes. In fact, Vitamin D is necessary to make Vitamin C work and an egg that has been minimally cooked offers it in abundance.” Yet, cautions the health expert, “while poached egg is a better choice than hard boiled, moderation is the key to effectiveness – and this is also in case of what you pair the egg with.”

So next time you have egg, try poached!

Madhulika dash
Known for her columns on food anthropology, Chefs’ Retreat and wellness-based experiential tables, Madhulika Dash has also been on the food panel of Masterchef India Season 4, a guest lecturer at IHM, and is currently part of the Odisha government’s culinary council.

Read now:

8 mango-special recipes to sweeten your summer

5 immunity boosting recipes for summer

The sweeter side of bitter food