The Secret to the Perfect Soft-Boiled Egg - Modernist Cuisine

The Secret to the Perfect Soft-Boiled Egg

MCMarch 29, 2013

A perfect soft-boiled egg is a thing of beauty: a yolk with the texture of sweet condensed milk surrounded by a white that is tender but not runny. But for generations, great cooks have differed on how to achieve this state of perfection reliably.

Some authorities say you should drop a whole egg into boiling water for about three minutes — a bit longer if the egg is extra-large — and then gently peel away the shell. That can leave the yolk too runny, however. And when the egg is peeled, it’s all too easy to tear the tender white into a mess.

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The legendary Julia Child advocated a six-minute boil (for large eggs starting at room temperature, or a minute longer if chilled), followed by a rinse with cold water before and also during peeling. That certainly works for the white, but often overcooks the center.

The French food scientist Hervé This argued some years ago that temperature, not time, is all that matters to the egg—cook it to 65 °C / 149 °F, and the result will be heavenly no matter how long it sits in the water. Or so it was thought. For a while, the “65°C egg” was all the rage at high-end restaurants.

But more recent research by the food chemist Cesar Vega , an editor and coauthor of the 2012 book The Kitchen as Laboratory, conclusively showed that both time and temperature matter. Moreover, the white and the yolk contain different blends of proteins, so the white gels at a higher temperature and a different rate than the yolk does. Vega’s rigorous experiments have armed scientifically inclined chefs with the information they need to cook eggs to whatever texture they like.

When the chefs in our research kitchen make soft-boiled eggs, they use a four step process that involves a blowtorch or liquid nitrogen. Here is a simpler version better suited to the home kitchen. You’ll need a pot of boiling water, a bowl of ice water, a temperature-controlled water bath, and, if you plan on peeling the eggs, a toaster oven.

The first step is to set the egg whites quickly by submerging them completely in a pot of rapidly boiling water for three minutes and 30 seconds, 15-30 seconds less if you like the whites quite loose, as our research chefs do, or 15—30 seconds longer if you prefer the whites fully set. When the time is up, plunge the eggs into the ice water to cool them completely.

Next, cook the yolks to a syrup-like thickness by submerging the eggs in a 64 °C / 147 °F water bath for 35 minutes; it’s important that the water temperature doesn’t change more than a degree or two during cooking. Dry the eggs thoroughly with paper towels. They are now ready to place in egg holders, top, and eat with a spoon. (If you have a Dremel or similar handheld rotary tool, use a thin grinder bit to top the eggs like a pro.)

Alternatively, you can make the eggs easier to peel by drying the shells in a toaster oven. Use a medium-dark toaster setting, and let the eggs heat for two to three minutes to make the shell hot and brittle. It will then readily flake away to reveal a flawless white beneath. Remember to remove the thin skin around the white if it doesn’t come off with the shell.

You can make these eggs in advance and later reheat them in a 60 °C / 140 °F bath for 30 minutes.

By adjusting the temperature of the cooking bath or the time the eggs are in it, you can achieve all kinds of delicious results and reproduce them flawlessly time after time. Prefer a yolk that is more like honey? Let the egg sit in a 65 °C bath for 45 minutes. For a runnier center, try our recipe for Liquid Center Eggs.

Or try cooking them in a 72 °C / 162 °F bath for 35 minutes (you can skip the boiling step). The yolk will then set just firmly enough that you can peel away the white to obtain a perfect yellow sphere, which makes a striking garnish or dumpling-like addition to a soup.

It’s remarkable how advances in science and precision cooking have given new life to this versatile food.

16 Responses to “The Secret to the Perfect Soft-Boiled Egg”

  1. Oh, what fun. I tried portions of these methods a few days a go, while “Playing with Food.” They are effective. That said, the are far from functional methods and a waste of time; when I’m preparing soft eggs, I don’t have the necessary 30-45 minutes. Except in the lab, I don’t think anyone else does either – and for just the eggs! A far more functional workaround is Tea-strainer poaching: Crack single eggs into a fine tea strainer, drain for 20-30 seconds to remove excess white and gently tip into 200F water. A fun method folks, but no cigar.

  2. huh? what! surely you jest? room-temp egg in cool water brought to v gentle boil for three and one quarter minutes perfect! with a stack of hot buttered toast – abs belissimo! australian farm fresh eggs, though!

  3. I just tried a method I found online, and it worked Perfectly! Bring 1/2″ water to a boil on med-high heat. Drop in the eggs, cover and ‘steam’ for 6 minutes. I went 6.5 min for my extra large eggs. Perfectly set tender whites and creamy yolks : )

  4. First,let me explain; I am a bachelor. What works for me is whatever is quick. Large brown eggs go straight from the frige to be broken in pyrex custard cups; one per cup. THEN add the water up to the lines usually found on the cups.
    Nuke the cups, one at a time, for 55 seconds. If you put the toast down when you start nuking the first egg, it will pop up after you remove the second egg from the microwave.
    Sometimes an egg needs 5 to 8 seconds more to finish the whites, but then the yolk will be cooked hard too. I fetch the eggs from cups with a large slotted spoon which leaves the water behind. Best eaten standing up at the kitchen counter.

  5. Le Coq fou

    As I have no sous vide circulator, I pour boiling water over the eggs and put a thermometer in the pot. I try to keep the temperature between 70 – 60 C for at lest 15 minutes. Usually it works just fine with a lid on the pot. The outer white gets runny. The inne white falls apart in chunks and the yolk is creamy. This I serve with gravad lax and Japanese soy.

  6. I just take eggs cold from the fridge, poke a little hole in the wide end where the air cell is and gently put them into enough simmering water to cover them for 6 min 45 sec large and about 7 min for extra large… Then into some cold tap water for a minute or so and peel…. Always gives me perfectly tender but set whites, nice runny yolks and easy peeling.

    As an aside, I find smacking a boiled egg just to the side of the narrow tip with a spoon then cracking the rest of the shell by tapping with said spoon makes for the easiest peeling. It breaks through the shell and membrane at the tip with the first hit that way which makes it fairly easy to peel without marring the white.