A few days ago, we had some friends over for brunch and I decided to serve poached eggs on rice. “Is this going to be raw?” they asked in surprise, as I blithely started to crack eggs over the cooked rice in their bowls.
Fortunately, the eggs were actually poached but it made me realize that this method of poaching eggs in their shells is quite unexpected and delightful to many people. It’s also incredibly convenient, since you can make the eggs ahead of time and store them in their shells in the fridge.
In Malaysia, a favourite breakfast item is a soft-boiled egg served in a bowl with soy sauce and white pepper. Thick Hainanese toast, grilled over charcoal and lavishly smeared with butter and kaya, a caramelized custard spread, is the traditional coffee shop accompaniment together with piping hot coffee (or more scandalously, the subversive drink called chum, which is coffee and tea mixed together with condensed milk).
The eggs are soft set and I’ve adapted a way to cook them from traditional Japanese onsen tamago, where they are held at a low temperature so that the yolks and whites are just cooked. Egg whites and yolks cook at different temperatures, so the textures will be slightly different – the white will be very soft while the yolk will be set like a jelly. I heard that the local kopi tiams (coffee shops) also cook their eggs sous-vide style nowadays in large batches, although theirs seem a bit runnier. I prefer my eggs a little firmer but still tender, and it’s a great party trick to crack open an eggshell and slip out a perfectly poached egg!
These are delicious with a dash of soy sauce and freshly ground pepper, or wherever you need a poached egg. Best of all, they can be kept in the fridge and reheated in their shells in a bowl of warm water whenever you need them.
Poached Eggs in Their Shells (onsen tamago)
- 4 eggs
- 1 quart water to be boiled
- 1 cup of cold tap water
- A small pot deep enough to cover the eggs in water
- Bring the eggs to room temperature by letting them sit out on the kitchen counter for a few hours. If I’m making this in the morning, I’ll just leave them out overnight.
- Put 1 quart (4 cups) of water into a small pot and bring to a boil. When it comes to a full boil, turn OFF the heat and stir in 1 cup of cold tap water.
- Add the eggs – I like to use a pasta scoop to add them gently – and quickly cover the pot with a lid.
- Let the eggs sit in the covered pot for about 15 minutes with the heat OFF. If your ambient room temperature is very cold or warm, adjust the cooking time accordingly by a few minutes.
- After 15 minutes, take out an egg and crack it into a bowl. A perfectly poached egg should slip out. Enjoy plain, serve on top of a bowl of hot rice, or any other way you like! If you aren’t going to eat them right away, put the eggs into cold or ice water to stop the cooking process. This recipe is easily doubled as long as you have a pot that’s deep enough to completely cover the eggs in water. If your pot is too big/has too much surface area, too much residual heat will be lost and the eggs won’t cook as well.
There are lots of other ways to cook onsen tamago, most of which involve fiddling around with thermometers in an attempt to keep the water at 140 F for 45 minutes (David Chang’s Momofuku recipe), but my mum has been making soft eggs like this for years without measuring anything, and it’s a lot easier.
I shared this recipe in an upcoming fundraiser cookbook for the Friends of the Otis Library, Norwich CT. They will have lots of recipes from other authors as well, and it’s a great way to support a library!
- How to Wrap 5 More Eggs – I received this book as a child and it consists of examples of traditional Japanese packaging. It sounds bizarre, but it’s actually a very beautiful book that showcases wrapping styles that are now almost extinct. A great coffee table book.
- Dress up your soft poached egg by making a fast version of Eggs Benedict – try serving it on a piece of buttered toast, with a slice of smoked salmon and a drizzle of Kewpie mayonnaise with lemon juice. If you have wafer thin sliced onions and a sprig of dill, it will be even better!
What’s your favourite way to eat poached eggs?