Hard-cooked eggs: Simple, yes, but they can elevate a dish without overpowering it.

Washington Post Food and Travel Editor Joe Yonan walks you through four handy ways to prepare eggs—from separating the yolks to slow scrambling. (Jason Aldag/The Washington Post)
April 15

Put an egg on it. It’s such a compelling last-dash move that there’s even a quirky food and literary quarterly named for the idea. But that egg, topping a bowl of rice or grits, toast or greens, is usually soft-cooked or fried, its yolk running, all the better for mingling and sopping.

That’s fine — if you like show-offs.

I suggest we apply the put-an-egg-on-it mantra to the hard-cooked variety, champion of egg hunts, picnic baskets, brown-bag lunches, afternoon snacks and deviled egg platters. The thought is timely, on account of a certain egg-dying tradition that leaves leftovers in its wake. But hard-cooked eggs are worth making year-round, because they add value to a dish without stealing the show. They’re not only nature’s perfect snack; they’re a fantastic team player.

Consider a recipe from the late Judy Rodgers’s wonderful “The Zuni Cafe Cookbook” for a slivered radicchio salad showered in browned bread crumbs and a dusting of hard-boiled egg yolks pushed across a sieve. The salad would be wonderful without the egg, but it is exceptional with it, the yolk’s creamy texture and buttery flavor contrasting with the bitter greens and the crunchy crumbs, and its gorgeous color creating a sunny confetti.

In pursuit of similar drama, I’ve added a chopped egg to mounds of kale glossed with a sharp mustard dressing and to piles of shimmery braised leeks on toast, and I’ve layered slices of egg onto pieces of crusty bread along with pickles and aioli.

Soft-cooked eggs are luxurious, sure, but these preparations show the hard-cooked egg’s fuller flavor and varied textures.

“We tend to forget about hard-cooked eggs because they’re so easy and so simple, and we kind of take them for granted. But we shouldn’t,” said food writer Michael Ruhlman, whose most recent book, “Egg,” commits the better part of a chapter to the hard-cooked variety. What hard-cooking eggs delineates, he says, is “the distinctiveness and different-ness of the yolk and white . . . how distinctive the richness of the yolk is when used as a garnish, along with a vinaigrette, say.”

That Rodgers salad comes to mind.

And yet for such a simple food, the number of published words guiding best practices for cooking them suggests we’re not totally comfortable preparing them. Are we, perhaps, overthinking it?

Hard-cooking is indeed one of the easiest forms of egg cookery to master and the least dependent on technique. But it requires attention and a respect for timing — and, as Ruhlman notes, common sense. He related an exchange with a cook who was getting inconsistent results. It turned out the flops usually coincided with the times when the eggs weren’t submerged in water.

There are so many ways to effectively hard-cook eggs that your choice of methods can depend largely on your definition of inconvenience.

Hervé This, a French chemist and molecular gastronomy researcher, told me that when his schedule is pinched, he occasionally cooks eggs in the dishwasher, which keeps relatively close to 67 degrees Celsius (about 152 Fahrenheit), producing an effect a bit like an immersion circulator and tender, evenly cooked eggs. “This way I can go out in the morning for a walk, and when I come back, the eggs are ready,” he said.

Food-science author Harold McGee, who wrote “On Food and Cooking,” adds his eggs to boiling water to avoid needing to watch them for cracks as the water heats. But rather than continuing to boil them, McGee reduces the heat and cooks the eggs over a very low temperature for 10 minutes. “Eggs coagulate between 140 and 160 [degrees], so 212 is major overkill,” he wrote in an e-mail, referring to the boiling point of water. Extended cooking at high heat is what’s largely responsible for tough, rubbery whites.

Ruhlman advocates using a pressure cooker, particularly when prepping large batches of eggs. It makes them easier to peel, and the yolks come out nicely centered, making the eggs ideal for, say, deviling.

The rest of the time he uses a method most cooks are probably familiar with: bringing eggs to a rolling boil and then removing them from heat, covered, to steep. The method ensures that the egg’s temperature increases slowly, but it also allows the cook to set the timer after the water has come to a boil and walk away. As long as you can confidently identify the boiling point (it’s when the water can’t boil any harder, Ruhlman says) and you’re using the same pot size each time, it’s a relatively consistent method, too.

Using standard large eggs (allowing for longer cooking times if you are using jumbo or extra-large eggs), you can adjust the steeping time for use and preference. Five to 9 minutes produces set whites and a yolk that ranges from semi-solid to fully set but creamy. For yolks that are thoroughly dry — important when you’re making egg salad, deviled eggs, sauce gribiche or a mimosa garnish — steep for 12 to 13 minutes.

Regardless of how long you cook the eggs, always transfer them to a bowl of ice water immediately upon removing them from the pot, and cool them for 10 to 15 minutes. Eggs continue to cook after they’re removed from hot water; the longer they cook, This explained, the more hydrogen sulfide is produced in the whites. That reacts with the iron in the yolk to create ferrous sulfide, producing the gray-green ring around the yolk and the sulfuric odor characteristic of overcooking. The ice water plunge halts that process.

The ice bath assists with peeling, too, McGee says, by firming the white so that it can take more manipulation without giving way and tearing.

Last, there is the freshness factor. In “French Provincial Cooking,” Elizabeth David writes that “few people will quarrel with the rule that an egg more than three days old had better be cooked some other way” than boiled.

Anyone who has tried peeling very fresh eggs, the shell clinging stubbornly to the white and breaking into flinty pieces, might assume that David either was not serving her eggs peeled or possessed an untold degree of patience.

Fresh eggs are undeniably difficult to peel. The phenomenon isn’t fully understood, McGee says, but it involves “the white proteins binding to the inner of two membranes that contain the liquid egg as a whole. Somehow, alkaline conditions weaken or prevent that binding, so that older, more alkaline eggs are easier to peel.”

In my own experience, eggs bought from the farmers market take more kindly to peeling after about five days or so, while eggs purchased from the supermarket will be more cooperative in even less time.

Or you could turn to the pressure cooker, which, Ruhlman writes in “Egg,” seems to alleviate the challenges of peeling even very fresh eggs by creating a moisture barrier between the shell and egg white. If you have one collecting dust, some very fresh eggs and a hankering for a snack, this might be the time to justify its purchase.

Horton is a freelance writer living in Seattle.

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