The weird thing about soft-boiled eggs is the widespread misconception that they're so much trickier to make than their hard-boiled brethren. Done right, they're really not much trickier at all. Easier than stuffing 1,200 words of padding into an instructional blog post about making them, that's for damn sure!
The thing is, cooking a shitty hard-boiled egg, a boiled-to-death hard-boiled egg, is super easy, and this is where the misconception comes from. You just drop some eggs into a pot of water and boil them until you remember that, oh shit, wasn't I boiling some eggs? And then you peel one and bite into it, and it tastes like a compressed wad of powdered urine, and you go, "Well, this is the saddest moment of my life, but at least it was easy." Making a good hard-boiled egg is much trickier and more annoying: You have to cook it enough for the yolk to set, but not the tiny bit more that would cause iron sulfide to form around the yolk and make the damn thing smell like a gym sock full of brimstone. It's a small needle to thread!
Whereas, by contrast, with a soft-boiled egg, if you're paying attention and following instructions, the very worst-case scenario is just you and your home being vaporized by a wayward de-orbiting telecommunications satellite—but, the next-worse-case scenario is that you might mistime things and end up with a slightly undercooked egg-white, or a more firmly set yolk than you were hoping for. That is to say, you might end up with a sunny-side-up egg in a shell, or a hard-boiled egg. Neither is really much of a big deal.
And, if you get it right, a good soft-boiled egg is just goddamn delightful: the set-but-not-rubbery whites, clean and perfect, unadulterated by contact with any cooking medium, and inside them that tantalizing core of rich, warm, fluid yolk. Not to get all Gollum about it, but cutting into a good soft-boiled egg is like opening some impossibly luxurious little treasure box; the same whites and yolks that, beat to shit and cooked haphazardly on a flattop, form the anonymous and unsung pale yellow casing around your Screamin' Southwest Chipotle Beef 'N' Taters Omelet down at your local nightmarish 24-hour chain breakfast madhouse, seem suddenly precious, filled with mystery, indulgent beyond all reason. Like eating the raw stuff of life. A good soft-boiled egg is miraculous.
It's a lot easier to produce than a miracle, though. Watch. We'll do it together.
(First let's take a moment to forestall any you can sous-vide eggs to take all the uncertainty out of it! nonsense. False. No sane person wants to wait 40 goddamn minutes for some damn eggs for breakfast. Plus, sous-vide eggs come out with a weird-as-hell uncanny-valley yolk texture that is deeply inferior to the fluid smoothness of a properly soft-boiled yolk. So, cram it, ya dorks! Go cook a sad bagged steak in your creepy food-bathtub.)
First, acquire some large eggs. By "large," here, I'm not just saying for you to get the biggest eggs you can find. Eggs have sizes: large, extra large, jumbo, maybe some ones that are smaller than that, but I don't care, because why would anybody want tiny chicken eggs. The timing of soft-boiled eggs is pretty sensitive, and bigger eggs might take longer, or might even need some whole other method to ensure their whites cook evenly. So, for these soft-boiled eggs, get some large eggs. You'll need, oh, two per person.
Also, if doing so is at all practical for you, track down some eggs that come with at least a handful of good egg-words like "farm," "fresh," "free," "range," "organic," and "not from miserable chicken prison." If the humane reasons for supporting chicken-farming enterprises that do not model themselves after actual Hell don't move you one way or another, do it for yourself: Fresh eggs from healthy, well-cared-for chickens are so much more rich and flavorful, particularly in their yolks, than those of their sad industry-farm counterparts that they may as well be a whole other foodstuff altogether. And since, in a soft-boiled egg, there's no other bullshit in there to cover for a shitty egg, you'll like yours a lot better if they start out as really good eggs.
Next, refrigerate your eggs for a couple of days. Many weenies will pop out of the e-woodwork below to point out that well, actually, farm-fresh eggs that have never been refrigerated don't need to be refrigerated at all, douche, and this is true in a general sense. However, like almost all things that begin with well, actually, it is also irrelevant. In the specific case of soft-boiling, refrigerating your eggs will do kind of a neat and surprising thing to them, a weird physics trick that will make them easier to cook just right. It will make them cold.
Making an egg cold makes soft-boiling easier, because it makes the heat from the very hot water around the egg take longer to warm the innermost part of the egg. This is important, because the whites of your eggs set at a much higher temperature (180 degrees) than the yolk (159 degrees), and you're trying to set the whites without setting the yolk. If the yolk is good and cold when you begin soft-boiling an egg, then the whites around it, which will be exposed to the heat earlier and for longer than the yolk, will set properly long before the yolk approaches that dreaded 159-degree threshold. In short (too late!), you want your egg to cook unevenly.
(Also, and this might not matter depending on how you decide to eat your soft-boiled eggs, but giving your eggs a couple of days to hang out in the fridge before you cook them will allow the egg-whites to detach somewhat from the shell around them, which will make peeling them a bit easier, if you do end up peeling them.)
So, now you are ready to soft-boil some damn eggs. There are so few steps left! Gently place a single layer of eggs in the bottom of a small pot or saucepan. Don't get cute and try to cram as many eggs as possible into your pot, here; just a loose-fitting single layer, please, so that the eggs have room to lay on their sides. Likely this will mean not more than three or four eggs in the pot at a time, unless you ignored the bit about a "small saucepan" because you are some kind of maverick and/or cannot read.
Now, add enough cold tap water to submerge the eggs an inch beneath the surface. You probably don't need the tape-measure, here; if it looks like there's an inch of water above the eggs, that's probably fine. Gently, so as not to crack any eggshells, move this pot to the stovetop and set it over high heat.
Keep an eye on the proceedings, here. What you don't want is to look up from, like, Doodle Jump or whatever (is "Doodle Jump" a real thing? is it something the youths are into these days?) 15 minutes from now and discover that, while you were distracted, your eggs sat in full-on boiling water for seven minutes, because that will mean they are ruined. Truth be told, despite their name, full-bore boiling is pretty bad for soft-boiled eggs. (In fact, it's bad for hard-boiled eggs, too! Hard-boiled eggs don't get boiled at all.) It makes the whites rubbery and tough, and unappealing.
So what you do is, as soon as the water in your pot reaches a boil—the moment you've got energetic bubble-breaking action on the surface of the water—turn the heat off, clamp a lid on the pot, and set a timer for two minutes.
Why did you bring the water to a boil, and why did you turn the heat off when it got there, and why did you start the timer then, and not, say, when you started heating the pot? Because, unless you were tracking the temperature of the water the whole time like some kind of a lunatic, the moment it broke into a boil was the first time you knew, with a pretty high degree of precision, its exact temperature: 212 degrees Fahrenheit. How could you know, before that? You don't know how warm the water was to begin with; you don't know exactly how the size or thickness or composition of your pot might affect the time it takes to heat the water; you don't know how you are going to tell your boss that you are banned from riding the city bus again. What you know is, when the water starts boiling, it's 212 degrees Fahrenheit. And you know that, once it gets to 212 degrees Fahrenheit, if you turn the heat off under it, it'll take about two minutes to soft-boil some large eggs.
And how do you know that? An internet food person goddamn said so.
When the timer goes off, remove the eggs from the water and serve them immediately. About that.
Okay, here's the annoying bit. No, not the fact that this article is not over yet. Not only that.
The traditional vessel for serving a soft-boiled egg is a cute, specialized little thing called an egg cup; the optimal tool for opening a soft-boiled egg is a specialized doohickey called an egg topper. You certainly will never own or see or even be able to envision these without feeling yourself fill with a sudden, inexplicable urge to burn down a wealthy person's house.
An egg cup holds the soft-boiled egg upright—pointy end up, that is—and then the egg topper cuts a neat little cap off the thing, exposing a little white-shored lake of fluid yolk, and you dip strips of buttered bread (toasted or not) into that little lake. They're handy little items! Unfortunately, they only make sense in the home of a non-silly person if you plan on eating soft-boiled eggs, like, a lot, all the time, often enough maybe even to undermine the whole "non-silly" thing, because these items have no other uses.
So, how does a person eat a soft-boiled egg without an egg cup and egg topper? You're certainly welcome to try peeling it; the white is fragile, compared to a hard-boiled egg, so this might amount to just shrapnelizing your egg, if you're not the most dexterous of people. If you can pull this off, lay the peeled egg on a slice of buttered toast and puncture its yolk, like you would with a poached egg, and feast.
Or! Hold the damn soft-boiled egg in your non-dominant hand, firmly but not tightly enough to crush it, with the egg's pointy end up. With a knife (held in your other hand, or, if that's one more hand than you've got, held in your teeth) give the shell a sharp thwack horizontally, maybe half an inch below the top of the egg, to create a crack. Then, pressing the knife into that crack, gently cut the top off of the egg. Don't do it roughly, or saw back and forth a bunch, or you might end up with a mangled egg with bits of shell in it.
Look down in there. Hey presto! A little lake of warm, fluid yolk, ringed by a shoreline of firm but velvety egg white. A portable egg snack! You don't need a stupid egg cup for this. You just need some bacon, or a slice of buttered toast cut into strips that'll fit down in there when you put the knife down and use that hand for dipping. Hell, if it came right down to it, you could tilt your head back and fire this thing down like an eggshell shotglass full of warm yolk—that's not gross or creepy or "probably not a good idea in this setting" at all, no matter what your court-appointed defender says.
In any case, however you eat your it, your soft-boiled egg will be delicate and smooth and satisfying, with a clean, distinct egg flavor that strikes you right away as somehow more special and exotic than when you encounter it in scrambled form. Take your time with it: It's small, and it'll be gone soon, and—yeah, okay, goddammit, I'll admit it—it was kind of a pain in the ass to make.
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Albert Burneko is an eating enthusiast and father of two. His writing appeared in Best Food Writing 2014 by DaCapo Press. Peevishly correct his foolishness on Twitter @albertburneko, or send him your creepy longform hate-missives at firstname.lastname@example.org. Image by Sam Woolley.