With the Easter season once again upon us, I feel obliged to offer my expert advice on how to cook a hard-boiled egg.
There are two basic steps although the order is in some dispute: Do you boil water then insert the eggs? Or insert the eggs and boil the water. Most culinary websites––where, let’s face it, we get most of our recipes these days––now fall on the side of the latter. They advise putting the eggs in cold water, bringing the water to a boil, then turning the heat off (or to a low simmer) to let the eggs slow cook in it for a while.
How long? Old school chefs say 17 (Julia Child) or 18 (Betty Crocker) minutes. Martha Stewart prefers 12. L.V. Anderson, who writes the Brow Beat recipe column for Slate, sets her timer at 10 minutes. Any longer and “your whites would have the texture of a foam yoga mat,” she advises.
It’s All About The Peel
But it’s what happens after you extract the eggs from the boiling water that makes the difference between a good egg and a bad one. A good hard-boiled egg goes immediately under a cold stream of water that stuns the membrane surrounding the embryo into contracting to protect its contents. A bad one languishes in the pot until someone wants to eat it.
The difference is its peel-ability. A hard-boiled egg suddenly doused in water on all sides creates a gap between the egg and its shell that you can exploit to remove the egg from its shell. The water can never be too cold. (Some people even suggest laying the eggs on ice while you rinse them.) And this is not a step you want to rush through.
Without the shock of cold water on a boiled egg, the membrane adheres to the shell, so when you go to peel it your fingernail has no space to break off the shell in large chunks. If the membrane doesn’t detach, you will likely find yourself picking the shell off in little bits that make the peeled egg look like the surface of the moon.
On Easter Day, all hard-boiled eggs look the same. They are colored in dye, pasted over in decals and hidden in obvious places for little children to find. Most never get eaten. But if dinner happens to be running late, and you decide to rob your children’s basket for a quick snack, you’ll appreciate the well-rinsed egg.
Start by cracking the egg at its tip. This is where, under cold water, the largest air pocket will develop. Gently nudge your thumb under the membrane. If the first piece of shell comes off in a chunk, the rest of the egg will open up to you like a soft tumbler in the experienced hands of a professional safecracker.
There are ways to enhance the egg with a variety of condiments. Mashing the yolks into a fine crumble, you can then scoop them back into the split whites adding a mix of mayonnaise, vinegar and mustard, topped with a sprinkling of paprika, to make “deviled eggs.” But that is so not in the Easter spirit. My preference is a dab of simple salt.
Whether you boil the water before or after inserting the eggs, and whether you devil them or not, just remember one thing: It’s all about the peel.