Cooking a soft-boiled egg correctly is really quite simple. However, the process has deep taproots so bear with me for a bit with some background about my father and grandfather.
My grandfather arrived in the United States from Germany around 1913, a young man from a solid middle class background. Here, his Horatio Alger dreams ran backwards, and he spent most of his life working in a factory. He did manage for a time to own a restaurant in New York City.
Hearing the story from my dad growing up, I had visions of 21 or The Stork Club. In fact, the place was a tiny storefront eatery in Brooklyn, mit counter und four tables, where he slung hash behind the counter along with inexpensive wiener schitzel and sauerbraten.
From this experience sprung my father’s founding family myth: “I am the son of a chef! And you are the grandson of a chef!” Food, including the particulars of preparation, were a fairly big deal in our central Massachusetts house in the 1950’s.
But my grandfather’s influence over the soft-boiled egg extended beyond the simply culinary. While for the most part a blue-collar factory worker, he retained the middle class mores and values from his German upbringing. Thus my father grew up working class in environment but middle class in attitude and aspiration. He was determined that we should recapture our lost status, and that meant one thing: go to college.
This was by no means assured in the town I grew up in, which broke both ways in terms of career paths. So dad made sure we held as many unattractive, low-level jobs as possible, using the experience to remind us how easy it would be to end up like the mythical Joe Doaks the Ditchdigger, ever present as a threat to our future.
My brother and I at various turns worked on the town highway crew, as landscaping laborers, as supermarket baggers and on the line at a sprinkler factory. I hated them all and learned nothing, except that I had better go to college.
There was one exception to this dreary list of part-time jobs: working as a short-order cook behind the counter at a local greasy spoon. I was, after all, the grandson of a chef–or at least a counterman–and took to the job immediately.
I found I really liked the multi-tasking aspect of it: toast in the toaster, two eggs on the grill, over light, get some home fries crisping, remember two coffees one black one regular, new omelet order coming in–don’t forget toast from the first order! Important skills to bring to correctly soft-boiling an egg.
Now just because your grandfather didn’t come from Germany, or was not a restaurateur, well, that’s no reason you can’t boil an egg right. Just pay attention.
The key lies in proper time management, the kind of thing they don’t teach in college and that you can pick up best working behind a counter, or learning from one who has.
Look at it this way: how much time does it take to soft-boil and egg, start to finish? Take out small pan, add water, put on heat bring to simmer–figure that at 4 minutes if you’ve got, as you should, a gas range that can put out a nice blast of heat.
Take out an egg, lower into simmering water and let it bubble away–figure another 4 minutes.
That means you have eight minutes–a veritable eternity in short order country–to fix your egg correctly.
Now you go to the refrigerator and take out whatever else you want with your egg. I am taking out shredded cheese, Trader Joe’s arugula and some sliced prosciutto.
Also–very important–take out the ball of dough you keep in there. So far less than a minute has gone by.
[You don’t have dough in icebox? No problem! Do it some time previous, whenever, and just keep one in there, always. Three parts flour to one part water, a pinch of salt and maybe yeast, and oh a little fat. I use the lard or schmaltz I keep in the freezer from when I cook chicken or pork but any fat will do. Run through food processor until it balls up nicely and just put aside. The dough-making process itself shouldn’t take more than a couple of minutes, but better to have it done in advance, and that you have the dough around whenever you need it.]
Put broiler on high. Then take out your cast iron skillet and put on high heat on the rangetop.
[What no well-seasoned skillet? Get one. OK any pan will do but cast iron is great.]
Take a golf ball size piece of dough.
Make sure it is floured so it is not sticky. Roll it out quickly till is is about skillet-sized, adding flour as needed to keep it unsticky. Don’t worry about how circular it is. And anyways, after a few times it is a breeze to get about right in no time. Takes me about 45 seconds to roll out.
Then into the hot skillet. If the skillet is quite hot, as it should be, you’ll see the dough start to bubble up in 15 seconds or so. Once it appears cooked and dry on the bottom, and before it starts to char, turn it over and repeat on the other side.
Now take the thing out and, pushing the skillet away, toss it directly on the gas flame. Char–don’t burn!–on both sides, something that takes maybe 5-10 seconds a side, max.
Then onto the counter, where we add, in order, cheese, arugula and prosciutto. Again, less than a minute. Then under the preheated broiler for maybe a minute, just enough time to sizzle the ham, wilt the arugula, melt the cheese and finish whatever additional charring the crust might need. Don’t waste this last minute. This is when you drain the egg, at its four minute mark, run it under cold water so you can handle it, and peel it.
Remove pizza-like contraption from oven, shmoosh soft-boiled egg on top.
For a total experience, toss on some chiu chow chili oil. It adds a wonderful flavor and heat, and makes for a terrific visual, what with the bright red of the chili oil set against the bright yellow yolk, the greens, the ham/melted cheese and the charred bread.
You don’t need the chili oil but it helps. You can get Lee Kum Kee’s version at most Asian markets or online.
Or you can make your own for a couple of pennies and pass on the $2.85 (Amazon) Lee Kum Kee. That’s mine in the photo–recipe available on request. It is killer.
The result: a soft-boiled egg in the time it takes to cook it.
The well trained counterman will always make efficient use of time.