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Monday, September 17, 2007

The devil is truly in the details

I've riffed in the past on my love of eggs and on our very good fortune to live in a place where we can get farm fresh eggs delivered to our door each week, still warm from the chicken's butt.

Well, for all of the many wonderful things I can do with an egg (poach, scramble, fry, coddle, etc.), no method of preparation is dearer to my heart (not to mention to my commuting habits) than the humble hard-boiled egg.  Yet, for all its simple wonderfulness, I have managed to completely botch this culinary task for years. 

I have breakfasted, picnicked and commuted with hard-boiled eggs since I can't remember when (with a little paper twist filled with salt, of course), but for some reason I always manage to either over- or under-cook them.

I've tried timing them and adjusting the cooking period... but in the end I either get soft-boiled eggs (a treat in its own right, but not recommended for one-handed eating in the car), or an egg with a yolk roughly the consistency of yellow tempera powder.

Then along came Jesse.

I'm sure I've mentioned on more than one occasion that my brother-in-law is a world renowned lexicographer.  Giants of the written word seek him out for his sage advice on usage and slang... and he is a fixture on the TV and radio interview circuit whenever something to do with words becomes hot.

But what I should also point out is that Jesse is a chef.  No... scratch that.  He is a chef's chef.  His dining-room is a cathedral to eating, with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves filled with cookbooks and tomes related to the preparation and consumption of food.  His kitchen is a shrine of fine copper-bottomed cookware, heavy iron cooking surfaces, finely honed steel cutlery and every herb and spice known to man. 

Having eaten many a memorable meal at his table (which, as an aside, was crafted from wood salvaged from an 18th century barn), I can assure you he's not one of those Sunday-afternoon-buy-everthing-in-sight-upstairs-at-Zabar's sorta cooks who is all hat and no cattle.  Jesse has the tools AND knows how to use them.

Towards the end of our stay in America this summer, my sister and brother-in-law magnanimously invited us out to stay with them at their summer place on Fire Island for a few days.  Much advance preparation was graciously done to accommodate our crazy religious dietary requirements, and they assembled an admirable kosher menu for each of the meals we'd be sharing with them.

For all that, I'm embarrassed to say that despite the gourmet quality food served at every sitting, the one item that made me nearly weep with happiness was a simple, perfectly boiled egg that Jesse tossed off one morning. 

The white was unscarred, soft and supple... bearing no sign that it had ever known a shell.  The yolk oh my, I need a moment... they yolk was so perfectly jelled - just past the cusp dividing soft and hard-boiled - that it was like a translucent golden pearl, softly glowing on the half shell in the clear morning light.  Each bite was a sonnet... every nibble, a delight to the senses.

After I'd finished my egg and re-composed myself, I mustered as much casualness as I could and asked Jesse how he managed to prepare such a perfect egg. 

He looked at me as though I'd asked him how to pour cereal into a bowl.   

To his credit, he didn't laugh out loud... he just explained that you need to time it carefully for ten minutes... no more and no less.

Something didn't add up.  I'd timed my eggs in the past with dismal results, so I redirected my line of questioning a bit, determined to get to bottom of this mystery:

"Is that 'ten minutes' from when you place the pot of water on the stove or ten minutes from when it starts to boil?"

"Do you put the eggs in the cold water and heat them or add them only after the water is hot?"

"Do you let the eggs sit in the water after removing the pot from the heat or dump them out immediately?"

"Do you rinse them in warm or cold water after they are removed from the water?"

By the time I'd finished my interrogation, I could see Jesse looking for a polite way to extricate himself, but to his credit he managed to keep most of the derision off his face.

When we got back to Israel, Zahava and I reviewed our trip... mentioning the parts we'd enjoyed the most and those we'd be wise not to repeat.  Oddly, among the high-points for both of us had been Jesse's perfect hard-boiled eggs that morning on Fire Island.

I made one feeble attempt to explain to Zahava how I understood Jesse's answers to my questions before she stopped me with a shake of her head.  She smugly told me that I'd ignored one crucial word in Jesse's explanation:  'Simmer'.

It seems Zahava had also been paying attention while I humbled myself, and had caught this pivotal word that I had, apparently, repeatedly overlooked.  She explained that the water should be just below the boiling point (with little bubbles forming) when the eggs were added... and care should be taken to keep the water at this 'simmer' level for the full ten minutes without allowing it to come to a rolling boil.

As if to show me how simple it was, she quickly whipped up a batch of perfectly boiled eggs, every bit as good as those that Jesse had made us.  I guess this is why magicians rarely share their secrets.  Once you know how it's done, it seems childishly simple.

Of course, If I'd tried to implement what I had gleaned from Jesse's tutorial without the benefit of Zahava's help, I would have boiled the eggs into unhappy oblivion.  Good thing my lovely wife was taking notes.

I guess it's true what they say... the devil is in the details. 

Speaking of which, I bet these would make wicked good deviled eggs!


Posted by David Bogner on September 17, 2007 | Permalink


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I guess you're fully recovered from your 3-day chag food orge, huh???

Posted by: Baila | Sep 17, 2007 12:55:47 PM

My wife and I are having this problem, so to make sure I have it straight... bring the water to just under a boil, and for 10 minutes, make sure the water stays that way (simmering). After that, what? Cool the eggs off with cold water? Turn the stove off and leave them to cool on their own? Need to finish the details here! :-) Hmmmm.... deviled eggs...

Posted by: JDMDad | Sep 17, 2007 1:09:02 PM

I am with JDMDad. I got the simmer part. I, also, need all the questions you asked Jeff to be answered.
Eggs into cold or hot water, rinse/leave? (hot/cold?) etc. Everything.
Up until now my eggs have been exactly like yours for the last 30 someodd years.
Thanks! Carol

Posted by: Carol Feldman | Sep 17, 2007 2:21:22 PM

1) uhhhh... it's "yolk" of an egg, and "yoke" of Heaven. One of those situations that even spell-check doesn't help.

2) Here's another way (published years ago by the NYTimes in an article about Pesach-seder prep):

- Single layer of eggs in the pan, covered with 1 inch (3cm) of lightly salted water.

- bring to boil, uncovered. Then shut off the heat, cover and let sit 10-15 minutes. For firmer eggs, just leave the pan to cool.

- drain and run cool water over the eggs.

Posted by: Ben-David | Sep 17, 2007 2:43:18 PM

Oh my gosh, did you ever imagine that you would be using these words in a sentence? "still warm from the chicken's butt"

Why am I still giggling?

Posted by: orieyenta | Sep 17, 2007 3:08:07 PM

Ditto above. Give us the whole algorithm, please.

Here's how I do cereal:
- open box
- open bag inside box
- procure clean bowl
- tilt box over bowl so that cereal falls out of bag into bowl
- when an adequate ammount of cereal is in bowl, restore box to upright (lest too much is poured, leading to spillage)
- roll or crinkle down inside bag, to preserve freshness

Posted by: Doctor Bean | Sep 17, 2007 3:23:26 PM

Ben-David beat me to it, but I would strongly recommend his method over any fancy timing technique, as it prevents the possibility of not hearing the timer due to child-related activity.

I should note, by the way, that "simmering" and "boiling" water have exactly the same temperature, and should not cook food any faster or slower. Simmering water will, however, take less time to evaporate, thus ensuring that your eggs stay submerged during the entire cooking process.

Posted by: efrex | Sep 17, 2007 3:55:20 PM

Your "paper twist" of salt reminds me of a funny tale: my mom once sent me back to boarding school with some hard boiled eggs. I didn't have any salt in my dorm room, so I poured some into a paper napkin at the dining hall and took it to my room (I mean really, eggs w/o salt?). Afterward, I packed the remaining salt in my desk for future needs and it managed to find its way home with me that summer. One day my mom had a cleaning lady in to help. She discovered the paper twist amongst my desky items and took it to my mom, convinced she had found evidence that I was using drugs. Luckily my mom caught on quickly that it was just salt for my hard-boiled egg habit!

Posted by: Kayla | Sep 17, 2007 3:59:54 PM

While this wasn't written by Jesse, here's an article explaining the origin of the term "deviled eggs":


But here's his old column on the origin of "to egg on":


Posted by: Dave (Balashon) | Sep 17, 2007 4:12:09 PM

still warm from the chicken's butt

I have a friend who says that he likes his steak still mooing. I'll have to ask him if the whole egg and ass thing does it for him too.

On a side note I ran a post about eggs last December. I was surprised to find that it is one of the highest trafficked on my blog. It continues to get new hits.

And I also know that Planck's Constant ran a similar post too. I never would have guessed that this was such an eggciting topic.

Posted by: Jack | Sep 17, 2007 4:37:22 PM

Funny you wrote about this David. I made hard boiled eggs for egg salad yesterday and thought of you.

A long time ago you wrote an entry about less than satisfactory hard boiled eggs. I don't recall if I commented back then, but the root of the problem lies in the fact that you have super fresh eggs (you were getting them from the farm as I recall). Eggs hard boil best when they're a little "old".

And...for those who are baffled by the "simmer" I offer Julia Child's method for hard boiling. The eggs come out perfectly every single time.

1. Place eggs in a pot with cold water to cover.

2. Put pot on stove and bring to a boil over a medium to high-ish flame. (Note: I put my kitchen timer's temperature probe in the water with the eggs set to 212F so it beeps when the water reaches a boil.)

3. As soon as the water boils turn off the flame and put a cover on the pot. Leave it on the stove for 10 minutes (again, the kitchen timer comes in handy here).

4. After 10 minutes dump out the water and run the eggs under cold water.

Poof, voila. Perfect hard boiled eggs.

Posted by: beth | Sep 17, 2007 4:42:34 PM

"... farm fresh eggs delivered to our door each week, still warm from the chicken's butt."

I don't think that's where eggs come from.

Posted by: Jonah | Sep 17, 2007 4:54:45 PM

Birds only have one orifice, called a vent. In female birds, the vent is used for fertilizing and laying eggs, along with defecation (both #1 and #2). So chickens do lay eggs from their butts.

Posted by: Karl Newman | Sep 17, 2007 5:40:11 PM

Great, now when my boss says he's just "venting" I'm going to have a whole different interpretation!

Posted by: JDMDad | Sep 17, 2007 7:40:37 PM

I'm not sure why 10 minutes is mentioned unless you are cooking below sea-level. I like my eggs to simmer for 17 minutes. See my post How to Make the Perfect Hardboiled Egg at http://plancksconstant.org/blog1/2007/08/how_to_make_the_perfect_hardboiled_egg.html

The problem with 10 minute eggs is that you cannot cool the eggs right away with ice water, the yolk is too soft for my liking.

You also left out that you must not use eggs straight from the chicken's butt since this will make peeling impossible. Two week old eggs is optimal.

Posted by: bernie | Sep 17, 2007 9:25:10 PM

So simple yet I too, manage to get egg on my face everytime I try boiling them. Who knew that others also had difficulty with making hard boiled eggs and even have the same questions in mind.

My family will now be in your debt (as well as your wife's)for teaching me the secret of boiling eggs.

And on the topic of eggs, on our recent trip to SF, we took a tour through Chinatown and learned what 100 year old eggs are. YUCK! It's safe to say that my husband and I plan to avoid them for the rest of our lives.

Posted by: Jaime | Sep 17, 2007 9:39:35 PM

Great Post! Its always important that you get your beitzim just right.

Posted by: Nudnick Ben Letz | Sep 18, 2007 1:00:15 AM

Alton Brown of 'Good Eats' says the way to do hard-cooked eggs is forget the water. Bake 'em for 20 minutes in a medium oven (350F).

Haven't tried that method, but I respect Alton's knowledge and skills.

What I wanna know is does anyone have a sure-fire method for cooking perfect SOFT-cooked eggs? White firm, yolk not runny but not hard.

Posted by: antares | Sep 18, 2007 2:25:25 AM

I like the hard boiled with crumbly yolk thing b/c that's what I was raised with, but how do you get an over-easy or sunny-side up egg to have the yolk still runny but the white all cooked? Uncooked whites (in my book) are gross, but I've got to have runny yolk for my toast ;-).

Posted by: Annie D | Sep 18, 2007 2:49:29 AM

Baila... What eating orgy? [~woof~]

JDMDad... OK, for the record... put them in only when the water has come to a simmer. After exactly 10 minutes drain the pan and add ice water. Let sit for a few minutes in the cold water and then peel immediately. Don't thank me, I'm a giver. :-)

Carol Feldman... See my reply above. Let me know how it works out. If you fail you can still use the dry, tempera-like yolks as a new medium for your artwork. :-)

Ben-David... OK, just bite me. :-) I mean seriously. at 5:50 AM when I hear Yonah wandering around alone upstairs looking for breakfast and my spell checker says the post is good-to-go, you really expect me to reread/edit it??? Puleeze! Seriously, thanks for the good catch.

orieyenta... The eggs sometimes still have feathers and, um, slight discolorations on the shell when we get them. So yeah, this phrase actually occurs to me quite frequently. :-)

Doctor Bean... You skipped the step where you root around in the box up to your elbow looking for the prize (did I just date myself?). :-)

efrex... Yeah, it might work... but so would putting it on the hood of my car in august. The point is that this is a method I KNOW works... so why mess with it?

Kayla... The proper response would have been, "OK, if you think it's drugs... I'll give you $100 bucks to snort it!" :-)

Dave (Balashon)... Thanks. BTW, when we were in the states I mentioned your site to Jesse as I know he is sometimes looking for additional citations/references for words that originated in our part of the world.

Jack... I guess people take their eggs seriously.

beth... Wow, it never occurred to me that the freshness could be a negative. Anyway, thanks for the new method. If I'm ever feeling adventurous I'll try it, but for now I'll stick with the one I know.

Jonah... OK, from where then?

Knewman... Thank you. Uh Jonah? Quod Erat Demonstratum

JDMDad... But probably a more accurate one. :-)

bernie... 17 minutes? Yikes. I guess you like to use yours to play Jai Alai. :-)

Jaime... Did I ever tell you about Baloot? (sp?)

Nudnick Ben Letz... I had lunch with your niece and sister over Yom Tov. How is it that everyone else in your family sounds like they were Ivy League educated and you sound like an old European letch? :-)

antares... the problem here is if you forget them in the oven a little too long you gen an explosion so messy that you may as well just sell the oven. If you forget them for a few extra minutes in the water you just get bad eggs. :-)

Annie D... That's much easier to do since you can actually see/control what's going on in the pan. You can even give the yolk a light prod with the spatula to make sure it still has plenty of give.

Posted by: treppenwitz | Sep 18, 2007 9:53:09 AM

Also, In norway we have a little contraption that makes a pin-prick sized whole in the egg. Prevents them from cracking if the simmer should make it all the way to boil before you catch it! It also works wonderfully for soft boiled eggs. Every house has one. I've not seen them in the states... Now... fresh duck eggs are really good!

Posted by: nrg | Sep 18, 2007 10:06:46 AM

It's not often that I comment, less often that I comment thus: David, this post changed my life! I can cook many things quite well, but never was told, nor did I investigate, the proper way to boil an egg. Made hard-boiled eggs this morning as per Trep-in-law's instructions... PERFECT!


Posted by: Shlomo Argamon | Sep 18, 2007 2:42:49 PM

nrg... Very cool. Does this little device have a name (in English or Norwegian)? I'd love to google it and see where I can get one.

Shlomo Argamon... As always, don't thank me... I'm a giver. :-)

Posted by: treppenwitz | Sep 18, 2007 3:31:21 PM

ok... so far it seems to be the little thing that punches holes in eggs... that's the best name I can come up with...
Everyone knows what I'm talking about, everyone has one, noone has a name... will get back to you!
oh, and salt in water also hinders the egg cracking...

Posted by: nrg | Sep 18, 2007 4:40:32 PM

Finally found it!!


Posted by: nrg | Sep 18, 2007 4:59:46 PM

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