Get cracking: broken, but not stirred

Categories: Expert guidance

In an ongoing series, cookery writer and Borough Market regular Jenny Chandler explores eggs in all their various forms. This month: poaching, frying and baking

Words: Jenny Chandler
Image: Paul Thompson 

The golden rule: keep your yolks still creamy and runny and the whites just set.

The simple fried egg, a bright yellow yolk rising above a sea of snowy set white, is a wonder of the kitchen and still seems an absolute treat when I get around to cooking a weekend fry up.

The quality of the egg is absolutely key. It really doesn’t take rocket science to work out why a chicken with a fabulously varied diet gathered from foraging expeditions around the farmyard will produce a tastier egg than one fed solely upon grain (all the welfare issues tied up with mass egg production are another discussion altogether). A fresh farm egg tastes sublime; it’s sometimes worth savouring one alone on some sour dough toast with a pinch of salt to really appreciate the flavour.

Freshness is important when preparing your eggs in the ‘broken, but not stirred’ fashion. A very fresh egg will have a firmer texture than an older egg—the yolk is much less likely to break when the egg is cracked open and the white is thicker and less likely to run across the pan.

Tidy frame of white
When frying, your bright-domed yolk will stand proud above a thick, tidy frame of white; when poaching, the whites will encase the yolk more neatly and evenly. The trick is to always protect and wrap the still-liquid yolk.

One of my earliest kitchen memories was preparing poached eggs. It all sounds rather impressive, until I admit that we had one of those extraordinary little pans (didn’t everyone?) with the separate tin inserts for each egg suspended over the simmering water. I was terribly proud of my rubbery little offerings—apart from the time that I forgot to butter the tins and the whites welded to the metal.

But a perfectly poached egg carefully swirled into a barely bubbling pan of water is a delight and not tricky at all, as long as your egg is perfectly fresh. Poached egg sitting atop a pile of wilted spinach really is a marriage made in heaven and a fabulously healthy lunch—until we go and spoil it all by adding that cholesterol hit and a half: hollandaise sauce.

Egg on egg (with rather a lot of butter thrown in) just happens to taste extraordinarily good, justifying eggs benedict and eggs florentine’s place on any self-respecting brunch menu.

Delicately decorated porcelain
The egg coddler is another bit of kitchen gadgetry that has largely gone by the wayside. Back at home we had half a dozen delicately decorated porcelain cups with screw on lids, which were lowered into a pot of boiling water.

The idea was to flavour some butter or cream with herbs or spices, pop it in the cup and then break in the egg and on went the lid with its convenient little ring (ready for hoiking out of the hot water later like hooking the rubber duck at the fairground). The eggs were good, but there was always a drama getting the hot, tightly-screwed lids off.

The coddled egg seems to have been replaced today by the oven-baked egg. There’s nothing easier than breaking an egg into a greased ramekin with a few herbs, spices and a blob of cheese or cream and popping it into a hot oven. But why stop there?

The Basques bake their eggs in a dish of piperade (similar to a ratatouille), while in north Africa and the Middle East, cooks sit their eggs in the fabulously spicy tomato-based shakshuka. A hearty breakfast or simple supper dish can be thrown together in minutes with any good selection of seasonal vegetables simply sautéed and then flung into the oven with a few eggs on the top. Be sure to catch the yolks before they’re set, providing a rich and creamy sauce.  

Read Jenny’s recipe for baked eggs with wild mushrooms here