perfectly soft-boiled eggs // working my way back to center

If I were a food, I would be an egg. Times are I like to think I’d be the strawberry of the food world, perky and bright and coveted, the first fruit everyone grabs off the ubiquitous tray at a party. Strawberries are celebration food. I know strawberry people. In my more reflective moments, I aspire to be a still-warm-slice-of-crusty-whole-grain-bread kind of person, gently softening and melting whatever topping comes along for the ride, nurturing, dependable and hospitable and wholesome. I’d like the bold confidence of a roasted poblano, the cool ease of a wedge of summer melon, or the innocence of a freshly shelled spring pea. But when it comes down to it, I am an egg person.

Like an egg, I’m rather compact, hard-shelled, what some might call reclusive. (I prefer to think of it as private.) I get the impression people think of me as having a tough exterior—maybe it’s that introverted vibe I send out like a radio signal—but as much as I wish they were right, truth is my skin is fairly thin, my shell’s brittle, and it doesn’t take much to crack me open and watch all the soft parts of me come sloshing out. Sometimes that’s a good thing, vulnerability. There’s intimacy in being broken, and admitting to being broken has forged some of my most meaningful friendships.

Case in point: eggs cracked into a brownie mix can be a very, very good thing. My best friend’s aunt once forgot to put eggs in a brownie mix and realized only after she stuck the pan in the oven that brownies without eggs just aren’t brownies. In that instance, eggs were essential, or more specifically: broken eggs. But a cracked egg can also make a frustrating mess. One thoughtless slip-up can leave a shattered, slimy disaster in its wake. I’ve been both kinds of eggs, the indispensable companion to a few choice ingredients, and the mess left behind when I’ve overestimated the thickness of my shell.

There’s another thing about eggs: they are extremely—one might argue endlessly—versatile. Just when I think I’ve nailed them down, I discover something new to do with them. In that vein, I definitely resemble an egg. I’m pretty sure my life to date could be mapped out in parabolas, a roller coaster ride of thinking I am totally grounded in my identity, trucking along confidently, only to crest a hill and go plummeting down with the realization that there’s a whole other side of me I’d never discovered. I don’t know, maybe everybody feels that way. It’s not a bad thing, per se; it makes what could be boring an awful lot of fun, always something new to explore, to discover, to learn, another way to grow. It keeps me honest with myself.

I’ve always thought of eggs as an honest sort of food. Even when it’s all dolled up, spotted with sour cream, and capped with caviar, it’s still a good ol’ egg underneath. I love eggs in a lot of forms. I love to bake with them, of course. I like them fried in hot, hot oil, sizzling and hissing, a barely-set yolk bursting over crispy laced edges. I adore poached eggs, smooth and glossy with a liquid gold center, served on beds of spinach and shallots sautéed with a spicy hit of mustard. For holiday breakfasts, I use them as the crowning glory of a classic Benedict with a salty slice of honey ham, a perfectly toasted English muffin, a generous slathering of creamy hollandaise, a cheeky dusting of paprika. I’ll take my eggs scrambled, cooked quickly with a grating of sharp white cheddar, or cooked infuriatingly slowly so the luscious curds stay meltingly tender, eschewing any adornment but the merest sprinkling of delicately flaked salt.

In all their many guises, eggs have been good to me. On a soggy Seattle morning, they’re a cheery burst of sunshine on my breakfast plate. When I’m sick, the comfort food I always crave is eggs, soft-boiled in a little ramekin with a bit of salt, the way my mom made them when I was a kid. I remember, after giving birth to both Pumpkin and Honey, my husband asked if there was anything he could make for me to eat (they were home-births, so he had the whole kitchen at his disposal). Naturally, I answered, “Eggs.”

Eggs excite me, and they nourish me. They can be coquettish and demanding, or they can be completely unfussy. Eggs are elegant, and they are perfectly simple. They are essentially wholesome, and they are alluringly extravagant. Eggs can be all those things and more. From time to time, I’ve been all those things, too. But for all their incarnations, at their core, eggs remain unchanged. They’re still that messy, delicious bundle in a deceptively delicate shell, just waiting to shatter or scramble or sizzle, to mix and mingle and make magic with chocolate or flour or zest, or to simply sit sunny-side up and smiling on a cloudy Monday morning.

When it comes to recipes, soft-boiled eggs may seem basic—it is basic—but it’s how I think of eggs at their core. It’s good to come back to center from time to time. Every now and then, I need to remind myself of the part of me that’s unchangeable. To reconnect with my soul. It’s fine to be crazy or flirty occasionally, to delve deep into creativity for a season, or to float along blissfully aloof for a few hours, even days. When all that’s done, though, and the swooping plummet of discovery and exploration is over, I like to make the slow ascent back to the basic essence of who I am at my innermost. This recipe does the same sort of thing with eggs. This recipe captures the essence of an egg, that unadorned nourishing flavor, and just the right mouthfeel to comfort and, simultaneously, to enchant.

For me, making a perfect soft-boiled egg—with a thoroughly cooked white and a rich, jammy yolk—has an almost spiritual significance. An egg is a symbol of beginning, but it’s also symbolic of being. Of life at its core. It’s a little bit of eternity all wrapped up in a compact, fragile package. A soft-boiled egg is like a soul that knows itself utterly, that has stared its many incarnations in the face and said, sure, I’ve done all of those things, but this is who I am. Just listen to those words. Soft. The sensitive heart beating beneath the brittle exterior. Boiled. Something distilled down to its essence, elemental. Liquid gold melted in the crucible, all the dross expelled. Done right, when you break that shell, there’s no mess, no mishap. That little egg stands all on its own, vulnerable but confident, sunny, tender, and whole.

perfectly soft-boiled eggs

adapted slightly from Bon Appetit, April 2017

Originally called “Jammy Soft-Boiled Eggs,” this recipe can be executed with eggs straight from the fridge, which is how I like it, especially in the morning. When I’m hungry, I don’t want to wait for my eggs to warm up. You do have to be patient while the water boils, however once that’s bubbling, it’s a quick 10 minutes until food is on your plate, or in your egg cup, or cradled on a glossy, golden slice of buttered toast. P.S. Don’t skip the cooling step. It’s essential for getting just the right consistency—and you won’t burn your fingers!

GATHER

4-8 large eggs

CREATE

Bring a large saucepan of water to the boil. While you’re waiting, prepare an ice bath by filling a large bowl with ice water; set aside. When the water is boiling, carefully lower the eggs into the saucepan, one at a time, until they are all submerged. Cook for 6 ½ minutes at a gentle boil, adjusting the heat as necessary. (I’m not kidding on the time. 6 ½ minutes. Not 6, not 7. 6 ½ minutes, capiche?) Using a slotted spoon, transfer the eggs to the ice water bath and chill until just slightly warm, about 2 minutes. Tap the eggs gently all over to crack and release the shell, then peel, starting at the wider end, which contains the air pocket.

Eggs can be cooked and peeled 3 days ahead. Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator. You can serve them cool, bring them to room temperature, or rewarm them by placing them in a bowl of hot (not boiling) water for 2 minutes. This is a great technique when you’re cooking for a crowd, which in my family of seven is pretty much any day of the week!

2 comments

  1. Shirlee Carlberg says:

    Looks sooooo goood! So question, although I should know the answer, if you want to eat soft boiled immediately, do you dispense with the ice bath? Does this time work for both gas stoves and electric stoves (why, you ask, do I ask? Because I make them on gas stove by starting in the pan, bringing it to a boil, turning off gas and let them sit for 4 minutes. This does NOT work on an electric stove at all. so I am eager to try your method. And how about the perfect poached egg recipe? Thanks!!

    • Bethany says:

      You need to put them into already boiling water (I have a gas stove, too, and I do this). Every stove is different, so it’s really the only way to make a standard recipe time. I just use the same slotted spoon to put them in and take them out. Do NOT skip the ice bath phase. It really doesn’t cool down the egg, but it stops it cooking further and it cools the shell of which makes it easier to handle for eating. I’ll have to get working on the poached egg!

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