Get cracking: the boiled egg

Categories: Expert guidance

In an ongoing series, cookery writer and Borough Market regular Jenny Chandler explores eggs in all their various forms. This week: boiled eggs

Words: Jenny Chandler
Images: Paul Thompson (top); Jenny Chandler (below)

When we speak of eggs in recipes, we are almost certainly talking about hen’s eggs—although quail, duck and goose eggs are less common options too. The wild red jungle fowl that we know as a chicken is believed to have been domesticated around 10,000 years ago in northern China, owing to its prolific egg laying. Today, there are almost five billion egg-laying hens globally.

In their simplest form, eggs can provide a meal in a matter of minutes. Once we begin to play around with them, they’re key to the pinnacles of culinary alchemy, creating batters, emulsions, soufflés and cakes. Over the next few weeks I’m going to delve into the whys, hows and wherefores of one of our most widely used ingredients: today we’ll begin with the egg in its original, most symbolic form, cooked in the shell.

Eggs have symbolised strength and fertility for millennia; the Ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans all ritualised the egg long before the Christians adopted it as part of their Easter celebrations. Nowadays we’ve almost abandoned the boiled egg in favour of its more commercial (and admittedly rather tasty) chocolate cousin, but many traditional eastern and central European cultures do still celebrate the spring and The Resurrection with dozens of gloriously decorated boiled eggs.

Boiled egg

Enthroned in its egg cup
On a more day-to-day note, a whole boiled egg, shell intact, enthroned in its egg cup, is still a nursery/breakfast favourite, with the requisite soldiers of toast to dip into the yolk—which MUST still be liquid (asparagus tips are delicious too).

Slightly firmer, longer cooked eggs are ideal for quartering and serving in classic salads such as nicoise or on top of a kedgeree. Here the secret is to keep the yolk bright and creamy and just about sliceable. When it comes to chopping up the yolk of a boiled egg, a slightly drier texture is ideal.

There is nothing more delicious than a simple egg salad made with diced white and yolk, homemade mayonnaise and a few herbs such as parsley, chives, chervil or tarragon. The addition of some crisp celery and finely diced shallot can make this an absolute treat served on crostini or in a simple sandwich.

Fanny Craddock retro fest
Devilled eggs may seem a little seventies—I can see them now arranged amid the sprigs of curly parsley and carefully crafted tomato roses—however, they definitely deserve a re-visit. It’s worth adding a few capers, a pinch of English mustard powder and a sprinkling of smoked paprika along with the mayonnaise to the cooked yolk, before spooning the mixture carefully back into the whites. Pipe if you must, but do avoid the star-shaped nozzle unless you’re going for a Fanny Craddock retro fest.

Talking of food fashions, what about the classic oeufs mimosa where the bright yellow, rather powdery yolk is pushed through a sieve and sprinkled over the whites, resembling the blossom of the Provencal shrub? I’d forgotten all about them until I ate a leek vinaigrette in a French backstreet bistro a couple of weeks ago, where the texture and richness of the egg simply made the dish.

Double egg does really seem to work; a freshly made Russian salad where boiled eggs, diced potatoes and a selection of other vegetables brought together with a homemade egg mayonnaise can be divine. It’s a recipe as at home in a Spanish tapas bar (perhaps with the addition of tinned tuna) as it is back in its homeland, where it’s top of the menu at New Year (usually with the addition of tart apples, dill pickles and boiled beef). The Poles add herrings, the Turks throw in some beets, and when I worked in Italy it was a favourite accompaniment for cold lobster.

Economical, nutritious and very tasty
Shelled, boiled eggs make a fabulous and common addition to curries right the way from The Horn of Africa to south-east Asia. An Ethiopian parent at my daughter’s school brought in a curry called zighny to the annual picnic; the eggs sat in a feisty tomato sauce and the whole thing was scooped up with flat bread. It disappeared in seconds. It was a fairly close relative of the southern Indian egg and lentil curry I used to cook up as a student; economical, nutritious and very tasty indeed.

Cold, whole eggs make great picnic or fast food fare. There are traditional pickled eggs in jars and scotch eggs, which have enjoyed a recent revival in Britain with some pretty ingenious flavour combinations in, or instead of, their pork meat crust.

Other parts of the world love their boiled eggs too. The famous hamine eggs of Egyptian-Jewish tradition are simmered, rather than boiled, with onion skins for eight hours or more, giving a surprisingly creamy texture, delicate flavour and pale golden hue.

In China ‘tea eggs’, with their beautiful marbled whites, are sold as snacks and are especially enjoyed at New Year when they are said to bring luck and prosperity—excuse enough to experiment, most of us could do with plenty of both. I’ve researched, played and tested and here’s my recipe.

How to boil an egg
I always use eggs at room temperature and put them into boiling water. For medium eggs at a good boil:
Four minutes for hot, runny ‘soldier’ eggs
Five minutes for hot, medium yolks

For cold eggs (always plunge into cold water to stop them cooking and prevent the grey ring around the yolk):
Seven minutes for just set, hard boiled but still slightly sticky eggs for salads
Nine minutes for chalkier yolks for devilled eggs, mimosa and egg mayonnaise