- Publish Date
- Friday, 11 August 2023, 8:51AM
“Go to work on an egg,” the old adverts insisted in the 1950s and 1960s. But they never specified what kind of egg. Or how it should be cooked. Or for how long. Or what might be the best utensil to eat it with. Or, in fact, anything.
Well, judging by our letters page over the past week, it’s just as well they didn’t go any further. So soon after two world wars, Britain might have cracked under the ensuing egg-based civil unrest. How could a meal so simple that it’s used to illustrate the very lowest bar of cooking ability (“I couldn’t boil an egg, me…”) inspire such division, derision and indecision? Soft-boiled was the topic, and if anybody started it, Malcolm Allen, a dear reader from Berkhamsted, Herts, did.
“Holiday observation has shown that the British decline in standards has now reached the soft-boiled breakfast egg,” he wrote to the editor last Saturday.
“We have not quite descended to the Alpine farmers’ level of inserting a thumb into the yolk and sucking it, but the residual egg and shell mess on some plates is unacceptable.”
Helpfully, Mr Allen then volunteered what he believes is the correct ritual for soft-boiled eggs. “The top of the egg should be removed with a precise knife stroke, leaving the yolk undamaged. A half-slice of buttered toast should be cut into six soldiers, the first two at an angle to achieve a point that can break through the vitelline membrane of the yolk.”
Care must be taken, he added, to avoid a mess. Finally, when the soldiers have hollowed the egg of its delicious innards, “the lid should be replaced on the empty shell, and the other half of toast consumed with a large spread of marmalade. Somebody has to make a stand.”
Malcolm, you are an agent of chaos. Heat had been applied, and within a few days, the Letters page was at full rolling boil. Helen Cann in Poundbury, Dorset, agreed with “almost everything” he said, “but never use a knife to open it.” Her preferred method was the old tap-tap-decapitate with a teaspoon.
She wasn’t sure about the soldiers, either, and nor was Kate Forrester in Malvern, Worcs. Dipping a platoon of the things into a yolk “is asking for trouble and should only be done by children”.
And so it went on. People offered their egg-opening gadgets, explained that they preferred asparagus soldiers to bread, warned that America has yet to discover the egg cup, and told tales of witches stealing the shells. “But nobody has mentioned the spoon,” Rosemary Morton Jack of Oddington, Oxon, wrote, somehow without an exclamation mark: “Only a spoon made of bone can truly convey the subtleties of taste within the yolk.”
Is it possible to discover a definitive method of either cooking or eating it? Will Telegraph readers ever see eye to eye on this, of all issues? Here are some basic tenets of the soft-boiled egg.
Everybody, but everybody, agrees you need the following:
- Eggs, the fresher, the better (the jury’s out on whether you keep them in the fridge or not)
- A pan of water
- Some heat
After that, opinions fork. Wildly.
The cooking method
Jamie Oliver drops his eggs into boiling water for five minutes. Nigella Lawson prefers starting in cold, bringing the pan to a boil for a minute, then switching the heat off. She also follows her great-aunt’s advice of putting a matchstick in the water, to prevent any white escaping if the shell is cracked. (Something to do with the phosphorus on the match head.) Gordon Ramsay is another straight-to-boiling man, but he has eccentricities later in the process.
Closer to home, even the Telegraph’s experts are split like a badly cracked yolk. Recipe columnist and author Eleanor Steafel likes “six and a half minutes in just boiling water for a jammy yolk. I want a small amount of run, a lot of spreadable yolk, and completely cooked white. Then run under cold water for 30 seconds to stop it cooking and make it peelable”. But Lisa Markwell, editor of the Telegraph Magazine and a trained chef, is Team Start From Cold. Then, “as a rule for all eggs, low and slow”. She starts “with cold water and large, fresh St Ewe eggs”, but admits – and this may colour your view of her expertise for the rest of this article – that “despite knowing how to make a nine-layer gateau opera and Beef Wellington for 30, I’ve never quite mastered the boiled egg.”
Instead, she cheats “with an Egg-Perfect gadget which sits in the pan with the eggs and changes colour as the eggs cook from soft to medium to hard”.
And the British Egg Industry Council (BEIC), the authority on all things eggy?
“Place the egg in a small pan and cover with at least 2.5cm of cold water and place the pan on a high heat. When the water is almost boiling, gently stir the egg and set a kitchen timer for one of the timings: 3 minutes for a really soft-boiled yolk and set white, 4 minutes for a slightly set yolk and set
But they have a secret trick, too: “To check whether your boiled egg is ready, spinning it can tell you. If it wobbles while spinning, the yolk and white are still somewhat liquefied. If it spins evenly in place, it means it’s fully cooked.”
Of course, all timings vary according to taste, desired texture, pan size and water temperature. In all my research, the mean recommended boil was three and a half minutes. The longest I came across was 11 minutes – which I’m fairly sure would result in an egg you could play 18 holes with. And the shortest, by some distance, came from the legendary Italian essayist and cook Aldo Buzzi.
“Put fresh eggs into cold water and allow them to boil for the duration of a Paternoster, or a little longer,” Buzzi wrote in The Perfect Egg: And Other Secrets. I said the Lord’s Prayer at my desk and, given I clocked in at 22 seconds speaking slowly, I think that may be a touch underdoing it. We’ll go with “a little longer”.
How do you eat yours?
Soldiers have been mentioned, so we’ll get right to that. Our readers were divided on whether it was childish to cut toast into thin, three-bite strips and name them after Armed Forces personnel, and so are the experts.
Steafel’s philosophy is: “Smush the whole thing on toast which has been buttered very thickly with salty butter (toast should be buttered when it is not piping hot so that it doesn’t completely melt). Occasionally, a slick of Marmite. Or: put it straight in an egg cup, take the bottom of the teaspoon and tap the side, four-fifths of the way up, leaving a dent. Turn the spoon 90 degrees and use the dent to lop off the top. Then eat the white in the little shell hat, before scooping out the rest and smushing on to the toast bite by bite.” She adds, with venom: “NB: Always toast, never soldiers. For I am not a child.”
Some don’t even bother with bread. Nigella has a fine asparagus soldiers recipe, but do they count as soldiers, if they’re not being cut to size? A debate for another day.
BEIC? “Absolutely soldiers. Runny, soft-boiled eggs are perfect for dipping toast soldiers into – try spreading them with butter and Marmite.”
Many recommend replacing the decapitated top of the egg (the hat, or Symonds Yat, according to some) for neatness after all has been consumed.
Others care not for such neatness. That is, at least, declarative. Markwell, once her Lakeland gadget has told her she’s cooked the egg perfectly and she’s plunged said egg in water, would be more likely to deploy her soft-boiled in an egg mayonnaise sandwich than in a cup. “Smush in a bowl with good mayonnaise and a lot of salt and black pepper. Place a very large amount between two thickly buttered slices of white bread.” Never, she makes clear, sourdough. The verb “smush” has never seen quite so much action.
Now, who’s hungry?
- Daily Telegraph UK
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