There’s something poetic about an egg. One of the cheapest, most nutritious and easily cooked of foodstuffs, they are nevertheless taken for granted, have been libelled with health misinformation and tainted with fears about animal welfare, salmonella and allergens. But eggs are not so easily broken: in 2015 we still ate 12.2 billion of them – averaging 189 each – proving our appreciation for hens’ handiwork.
Of the eggs we bought from shops, 53% were free-range, something that is a hugely positive step in the right direction for the welfare of all those hard-working birds. Unfortunately, 44% were still bought from hens laying in ‘enriched cages’. Barren battery cages were banned in 2012; they must legally now provide some facilities for perching, nesting and scratching, but with a footprint smaller than the size of an A4 piece of paper (600 square cm of usable space per bird) the new kind aren’t a luxury hotel.
A dozen free range medium eggs from Waitrose (the most expensive supermarket with the highest welfare requirements) cost £2.92 (correct 06.03.16). At two eggs per person that’s 48.6p for a meal. That is around the cheapest, healthiest, quickest, happiest meal you can get: please buy free range, and organic if you can.
What’s in it for you? An egg is a neatly packaged nutrient powerhouse: high in protein, it contains all nine amino acids necessary for growth and repair, making them particularly valuable to vegetarians. They’re rich in vitamin D, a common deficiency, and also vitamin B12 – in fact they contain almost all the recognised vitamins bar C, and many of the necessary minerals. And at only 65 calories each (a medium egg), eating two with a piece of wholegrain toast makes a filling and nutritious meal for under 300 calories.
Lastly, you no longer need to worry about the cholesterol in eggs: we now know they don’t have the same effect on blood cholesterol as eating lots of saturated fat, so there’s no longer a recommended limit on how many you can eat. Unless you’re one of the unlucky few with an egg allergy, the only danger now comes from forgetting to crack the bottom of an empty boiled egg shell, which everyone knows stops the witches from getting you.
How to cook them perfectly
Now you’re totally convinced you should eat them, let’s get on to how. Eggs are endlessly versatile: frittata, meringue, quiche, custard and chocolate mousse all rely on them. But you’re not going to make any of those at short notice for a quick meal: you’re going to make poached, scrambled or boiled eggs (or fried: heat some butter and oil in a hot frying pan, crack your eggs in and leave until the white is cooked through). Here’s how.
When cooking eggs, it’s always best to bring them up to room temperature before starting. This is most important with boiled eggs as it prevents them cracking on contact with the hot water. It is safe to store eggs at room temperature, provided that is less than 20 degrees, for several weeks, but you shouldn’t keep them in the fridge door – they need a constant temperature.
Choose a saucepan that will comfortably house your eggs, and fill it with enough water to cover the eggs by 1cm. Bring the water to the boil (when big bubbles rapidly break the surface) and then reduce the temperature to a simmer (when small bubbles gently break the surface). Lower your eggs in on a tablespoon, and set a timer for five minutes. For a medium yolk, give them six minutes, and for a hard-boiled yolk seven minutes. If you are cooking more than two eggs at a time, you’ll need to add another minute on to those cooking times. Serve with soldiers: toast bread, butter it and then cut up into slices to dip into that runny yolk.
For two people: crack four eggs into a small saucepan (the less surface-area-to-egg, the easier it is to stop them catching on the bottom). Add a teaspoon of butter, a tablespoon of milk, grind in lots of black pepper and a little pinch of salt. Turn the heat on low, and break up the yolks with a wooden spoon. Stir the eggs regularly the whole time they cook, this will keep them creamy. Cook them slowly until they are almost set, then turn off the heat – they will keep cooking when the heat is turned off, so keep stirring them every now and then while you butter the toast. Try spreading your toast with butter and Marmite before loading your eggs on top.
There’s something luxurious about a poached egg: maybe it’s because they’re often eaten with rich hollandaise sauce and asparagus, or perhaps it’s their reputation for being tricky to get right. Don’t worry, that reputation is overdone: the trick is to use shallow water and fresh eggs. Fill a large saucepan, a frying pan or ideally a flat-bottomed sauté pan with 4cm of water. Bring it to the boil, then reduce the heat so bubbles are just very gently rising to the surface.
Crack an egg into a little bowl, ramekin or saucer – you can crack directly into the water but your poached egg probably won’t be as neat. Gently tip the egg into the water, and then leave. With shallow water you don’t need to make a whirlpool, as you may have seen in other methods. Timings for poached eggs are easier than for boiled as you can see what’s happening: use a slotted spoon to gently lift your egg after two minutes, and you’ll be able to check whether the white isn’t set enough or the yolk is still too runny for your tastes. Crack in as many eggs as you need, making sure they fit comfortably in the pan; don’t crowd them; and keep an eye on the water temperature to ensure it stays just on the edge of simmering.
When they’re done, lift them from the water with your slotted spoon. You can drain them on kitchen roll, but they can get bits of paper stuck to them or be hard to transfer to your toast if you like a very runny yolk. Keeping them on the spoon and touching that to the paper can work better to dry them, then transfer to buttered toast or an English muffin topped with lightly wilted spinach.
Poached eggs can be made in advance: once cooked store them in cold water for up to eight hours, then re-heat in hot (not boiling) water. Not a bad idea for a weekday breakfast?