How to boil an egg – classic techniques and quirky tips

Boiling an egg is one of those basic kitchen skills that most chefs assume everybody knows.

Unfortunately, many of us are not “most chefs”, and may have skipped over cooking fundamentals in favour of getting straight into the more exciting recipes.

There is no One True Way for boiling an egg, with every chef having a different opinion on how it should be done.  Every technique can work – it’s just a matter of finding the way that’s best for you.

Here are a few tried-and-true methods for boiling an egg, some tips for making sure you get great results, and some slightly more unusual tricks to try out:

Back to basics – Three simple methods

There are three main techniques for soft-boiling or hard-boiling an egg:

1. Place an egg boiling water and simmer until cooked.

2. Place an egg in cold water, bring to the boil, then simmer until cooked.

3. Place an egg in boiling water, then remove the pot from the heat, allowing the egg to cook as the water cools.

These techniques, with some twists and variations, are used for most boiled egg recipes, ranging from those found in the funky cookbooks of the 1970s, right through to those on the blogs of today’s top chefs.

Soft-boiled or hard-boiled?

Different people prefer their eggs done in different ways.  A soft boiled egg can be a part of a delicious breakfast when combined with toast soldiers, while hard-boiled eggs can be cut into quarters and added to salads.

Cooking a soft-boiled egg is just like cooking a hard-boiled egg, with the only real difference being the cooking time, which can vary greatly depending on your cooking technique and kitchen equipment.

As a guideline only, an egg is generally soft-boiled after anywhere between 1-4 minutes of simmering, while a hard-boiled egg tends to take 6-10 minutes.  With fast-boiling water, it will take even less time, though there are risks of cooking the eggs unevenly or cracking the shells.

Lean towards cooking for shorter times if simmering your eggs directly over a high heat, and longer times if placing eggs in boiling water then removing it from the heat.  Actively boiling eggs on your cooktop tends to get results faster, while taking boiling water off the heat and allowing the egg to cook as the water cools is gentler on the eggs, so they’re less likely to crack.

More modern tips

How to boil multiple eggs at once

If you’re boiling more than one egg, arrange them in a single layer at the bottom of your saucepan – do not pile or stack them atop one another.  This reduces the chances of them bumping into each other and cracking, and keeps them easy to manage.

Don’t use too much water

When covering eggs with water, use only enough water to cover the eggs by about a centimetre.  Any more and you’ll be waiting a long time for the water to boil.

Plus, more water means more space for the eggs to move around in, increasing the risk of breakage.

In the same vein, try to use a small saucepan when boiling eggs, as bigger saucepans leave more room for the eggs to move around and potentially crack.

Don’t over-boil hard-boiled eggs

Even if you’re aiming for hard boiled eggs, err on the side of shorter cooking times where possible, as overcooking your eggs can make them rubbery and turn the yolks grey.

How to pick a fresh egg

Fresh eggs tend to be better to eat, though older eggs tend to be easier to peel.  Check the expiry date on your egg carton.

If any of your eggs float in water rather than sinking, it means that they’ve gone bad and filled with gas – get rid of them!

On salt

Tradition tells us to add salt to the boiling water when boiling eggs, with the reasoning that this can help the water boil hotter and faster, flavour the eggs, make the shells easier to peel, and prevent egg from leaking if the shell is cracked.

Some of these myths have a degree truth behind them: salt can encourage egg proteins to coagulate and firm up, rendering the white easier to separate from the shell.  Similarly, if cracks occur, this coagulation can prevent too much egg white leaking into your boiling water.

However, if an egg’s shell is doing its job, salt shouldn’t be able to penetrate an unbroken shell, so your egg shouldn’t taste appreciably different when cooked in salty water.  If you really want some salty eggs, crack a small hole in the shell before cooking.

And while salt does alter the chemical makeup of water and thus its boiling temperature, you’d need to use a LOT to make an appreciable change in your cooking time.  According to Dr Karl, if you add 20 grams of salt to five litres of water, instead of boiling at 100° C, it’ll boil at 100.04° C – which will only cook your eggs a few milliseconds faster.

Mind the temperature

Cold eggs that come straight out of the fridge shouldn’t go straight into hot water – the sudden, extreme change in temperature can crack the shells.

If you prefer to place your eggs directly into simmering or boiling water, use eggs that are room temperature.

Cool after boiling

After boiling, carefully place your eggs in cold water (be careful; they will be hot).  This will not only cool them down to make them easier to handle, but the change in temperature should help to separate the egg whites from the shells and make your eggs easier to peel.

Time carefully

When boiling eggs, use a stopwatch or kitchen alarm timer to make sure that your time measurements are precise.

A cooking egg goes through a series of complex chemical reactions, so to achieve repeatable perfect results, you’ll need to turn the boiling process into an exact science.

How to tell if an egg is done

You can tell how well-boiled an egg is through a simple test: Just place the egg on the kitchen bench, turn it on its side and spin it.

If the egg spins fast, it is a solid mass and therefore hard boiled.  It may even spin standing up on its end.

If it spins slowly, it is filled with liquid that’s sloshing around inside, meaning that it’s soft-boiled.

In a similar vein, spinning an egg, stopping it with your finger, then letting it go again can be a good test.  If the egg stays still, it is hard-boiled, but if it continues to move, it is soft-boiled, as the liquid inside is still spinning.

Alternative ways to boil eggs

Don’t boil – steam!

Image source: Fresh Eggs Daily

Just as is the case with vegetables, steaming eggs is a perfectly viable alternative to boiling that can help to preserve the nutrients of your food.  What’s more, steaming your eggs rather than boiling them can make your eggshells even easier to peel away, as steam molecules are smaller than water molecules, and can thus permeate through the eggshell.

Just set up your steamer (an electric steamer can work just as well as a bamboo or metal steamer over a pot of boiling water), put your eggs in place, and let the steam do its work.  As for times, it should take approximately 10 minutes to steam soft-boiled eggs, and 20 minutes for hard-boiled eggs, depending on your equipment.

Use the rice cooker

A rice cooker can be used in place of a saucepan on the cooktop or a steamer, and once you find the settings that produce perfect eggs, you should be able to easily repeat the performance in the future.

You can fill your rice cooker with water and heat it like a saucepan on a stove, cooking for similar times.  Alternatively, you can use just a small amount of water to steam the eggs in a manner similar to cooking in a steamer.  For an alternative way to steam, some rice cooker owners have found placing some damp cloths in the bottom of the rice cooker with the eggs sitting on top can garner good results.

For a slightly more “out there” method, you can put a couple of eggs in the rice cooker along with your rice, allowing them to cook alongside one another so you can prepare two parts of your meal at once.

In the microwave… with foil?

Eggs don’t do very well in microwaves, as they are basically tiny containers filled with liquid, which the microwave energy can start boiling, causing the egg to, well, explode.

This boiling method (which we found at spatulaspoonandsaturday.com) is not for the faint-hearted, as it’s well-known that putting foil in the microwave can be extremely dangerous for you, your loved ones, and your appliance.

First, take your egg and wrap it in a layer of foil.  Make sure it fits snugly, and that no surface area of your egg is exposed.

Next, place the foil-wrapped egg in a microwave safe mug or bowl and completely cover with water.  Make sure that none of the foil is exposed to the air, and that the egg is entirely submerged.

Put the whole lot in the microwave for 5 minutes for soft-boiled and 10 minutes for hard boiled.

The science goes that the foil should keep the microwave energy out of the egg, allowing it to be cooked by the water surrounding it rather than the microwave itself.  If the foil-wrapped egg is entirely submerged in the water (use plenty of water to account for evaporation), it should prevent the foil from absorbing the microwave energy and starting a fire.

If all goes well, you should end up with a nicely boiled egg and a microwave that’s still in one piece!  You may now exhale.

Un-boil an egg

And now for something completely different.

Armed with nothing but the power of science, a French chef has unlocked the secret of reversing the chemical process that takes place when boiling an egg, allowing a dedicated chemist to “un-boil” an egg.

According to Hervé This, boiling an egg causes its protein molecules to unroll themselves, link up and enclose the water molecules. In order to ‘uncook’ the egg, you need to detach the protein molecules from each other, which can be accomplished by injecting it with a chemical such as sodium borohydride, or simple vitamin C.

We’re not completely sure of the practical applications of this technique, but we now definitely appreciate why Hervé This has been described as an inspiration to Heston Blumenthal.

Mark Bristow
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Mark Bristow

Mark is the proud owner of an impractically large paella pan, and enjoys putting strange new twists on classic recipes. Google+

Leave a Comment

  • Awesome post Mark! Will definitely be trying out these techniques tomorrow morning!

    Reply

    by Cameron Bryant on 22/11/2012, 10:33
    Cameron Bryant
  • Hello interesting post but you have stolen my image of the bamboo steamer/eggs from my blog. It’s a copyrighted photo so please remove it or link back to my blog for photo credit http://www.fresh-eggs-daily.com. Thank you.

    Reply

    by Lisa Steele on 25/03/2014, 11:54
    Lisa Steele
    • Thanks for letting us know Lisa – I’ve added a linkback to the image now (it is an excellent photo). Apologies for our mistake.

      Reply

      by Mark Bristow on 26/03/2014, 08:40
      Mark Bristow
  • Hello Mark.I like it your article,but did not recommended cooking the eggs in microwave oven at all,because it is really dangerous.When I cook eggs,I put them stray away into boiling water,leave in tablespoon and cook for about 8 minutes,they never crack and come very yellow.Only ones I forget and cook that 14 or 15 minutes and the eggs was around the edges grey.It was my lessons.

    PS.I have 4 hens,so we have free rang eggs,nice and fresh.I like it your techniques and we are still learning all life.Have a nice day.

    Reply

    by ANNA LINHART on 26/03/2014, 11:08
    ANNA LINHART
  • my girls are laying 112gm eggs … and Daisy Duck will be laying soon … any tips for monster eggs? Usually I very soft boil duck eggs and scotch them …. or make mayo, but a simple soft boiled egg might be a lazy day treat

    Reply

    by Helen Minns on 26/03/2014, 21:25
    Helen Minns
    • Helen what sort of hens you have please?

      Reply

      by ANNA LINHART on 27/03/2014, 13:41
      ANNA LINHART
      • I have 3 Isa Browns and 2 Australorp … and the delightful Daisy Duck who is a Pekin and loves to boss the girls around much to their profound lack of compliance :D

        Reply

        by Helen Minns on 27/03/2014, 21:34
        Helen Minns
        • Thank you Helen for answer.Have a nice day

          Reply

          by ANNA LINHART on 28/03/2014, 14:08
          ANNA LINHART