How to Boil an Egg

This is an edited extract from the book, The No Recipe Manifesto, to be published in 2014.

It will not tell you how to boil an egg. Sorry.

How long does it take to boil an egg? 3 minutes for soft-boiled, 4 minutes for “normal”? How long for hard-boiled?

The correct but boring answer is that I haven’t given you enough information to answer the question. Whether you’re aiming for soft-boiled, hard-boiled or something in between, the optimum timing will depend on the size, shape and temperature of the egg, the relative size of the yolk (which, of course, the cook has no realistic way of knowing), the starting temperature of the water and so on.

The differences might be relatively small in most cases, but nonetheless, the “perfect” timing will vary by a few seconds from egg to egg. The reason we’ve settled on round numbers for the task is that they provide a decent approximation of the time required for a cooking task that otherwise offers no useful information about how it’s progressing.

This is why I’ve always found it curious that boiling an egg is widely perceived as one of the most basic cooking skills, to the point that Delia was roundly and famously mocked for devoting an entire half-hour programme to the subject. I suppose it’s an important skill – especially if you like eating boiled eggsbut I certainly wouldn’t call it basic. How can it be, when there are multiple variables to consider, when no two cooks can agree on the best method, and when you can only judge the success of the operation by cracking the egg open? If that’s a basic skill, it’s little wonder so many people give up on cooking altogether.

When you cook, you normally have several sources of information on things are progressing. The clock is among them, but so are your eyes, ears, nose and fingers. However doubtful you are about your own cooking skills, you’ll be used to using at least some of these. If you see a saucepan about to boil over, that prompts you to turn it down. The sound and smell of a frying burger helps you to judge when to flip it over. And a jab with the tip of a knife will let you know whether boiled potatoes have softened enough to eat.

The boiling egg offers no such evidence. It will turn from underdone to overdone in the space of a minute or two; but all the information about its progress is hidden within the shell. (Unless you accidentally break it, in which case it’s ruined anyway.)

The only comparable ingredients I know are the lobster and the crab: each has that same combination of delicate contents concealed by an exoskeleton. Yet not many people would include boiling lobsters on their lists of cooking “basics”.

Fortunately, most foods are rather less secretive than eggs and crustacea, and offer plenty of clues to the cook, as well as a good deal of flexibility. The need for egg timers or their modern equivalents is much reduced, because your senses will inform you how the cooking process is going. This in turn allows you to vary the heat you apply in order to achieve the desired effects. And unlike boiling an egg, you don’t have to await the grand unveiling to establish whether you’ve overseen a triumph or a disaster.

Of course, if you’re going to remain in control of the cooking process, you’ll need a reasonably clear idea of what you’re looking to achieve. In most cases, one of your main aims will be to bring the food to eating temperature – normally around 70-75°C. If you manage to do that, you can at least be reasonably confident that you won’t poison yourself.

But bringing your ingredients up to temperature may only be part of the story. If you fry a slice of pork fillet over a high heat, it will be ready to eat by the time it‘s hot through to the centre. But a piece of shoulder meat from the same animal, given identical treatment, will still be unpalatably tough, and will need additional time to break down its tough sinews.

And if you’re cooking dried grains or pulses, getting them to eating temperature won’t be your focus; you need them to absorb sufficient liquid to be tender and palatable.

Alternatively, you might be looking for a more dramatic effect in your quest for “doneness”. If you’re frying a steak, you’ll want a certain amount of searing or burning at the surface of the meat. And roast potatoes aren’t really worthy of the name until they’ve crisped up on the outside.

So there’s a huge difference between bringing your ingredients gradually to eating temperature and ushering them there at a gallop. It’s a difference that you can see, hear and smell as the food cooks, and it’ll be just as apparent when you sample the finished dish.

If you’re not convinced, consider how a sliced carrot, boiled quickly to serve as a side vegetable, will be ready in a few minutes and horribly soggy in a few more; yet the same slices in a beef casserole will still be good to eat after two or three hours’ gentle simmering.

All of which begs the obvious question: how do you decide which approach to take?

As ever, the genuinely inquisitive question (“what do I want to happen here?”) is much preferable to the subservient one (“how long should I cook this for?”).

If you want to transform the food at its surface, as in the steak or roast potato examples, or when boiling pasta, then you’ll need to apply plenty of heat. If you want the ingredients to retain their shape and structure as far as possible, you’ll need to take things far more gently, allowing your ingredients to transform gradually, as if from the inside out.

And if you’re not sure what you want, go for a medium heat throughout – and prepare to be punished for your indecision.

Cutting out the middle man

The advantage of thinking in polarised terms is that it makes your chosen subject much easier to comprehend. Once you’ve determined that “x is good, y is bad”, it becomes straightforward to evaluate almost anything: all you have to do is decide whether it’s an x or a y. Right or wrong, City or United, Republican or Democrat: whatever the subject might be, if you can reduce it to a 50/50 choice, it becomes a whole lot simpler.

The disadvantage of this binary thinking, of course, is that it’s usually nonsense. Think about your topic for a little longer, and you soon realise that the options aren’t twofold, or even threefold, but infinite. At this point, you might feel reassured that you’ve developed a more realistic perspective on the subject, but you’re left with the knottier problem of working out what on earth to think.

In practice, what we often end up doing is using binary thinking at first, in order to get our heads round a topic, then developing our understanding into something less straightforward but altogether more meaningful.

If you’re trying to get to grips with intuitive cooking, this binary-first approach turns out to be a particularly useful one. When you’re deciding how to cook something, don’t allow yourself to be overwhelmed by the apparently huge range of possibilities. Narrow down your options: think “fast” or “slow”.

On reflection, I’m not even sure that this particular piece of binary thinking is all that simplistic. In fact, if I was asked to offer a single sentence of cooking advice that would bring the most benefit to the largest number of people, it would be this:

Cook fast food faster and slow food slower.

As I’ve hinted already, we go wrong most often by feeling our way tentatively towards the middle ground. If we go to check on a stew and see that it’s virtually motionless on the surface, it’s understandable that we should presume there’s not much going on under the surface either. So we turn the heat up – not all the way up, but enough for it to look like it’s actually cooking.

Understandable it may be, but this increase in the boiling rate from “negligible” to “moderate” can be enough to turn a potentially superb stew into a disappointing one.

Remember that your target temperature is eating temperature, usually around the 70-75°C mark. Even the gentlest, trembling simmer will be close to 100°C; so even if the contents of the pan are looking worryingly inactive, they’re still heading in the right direction.

It’s difficult to resist the instinct to turn up the heat and accelerate the process. Difficult it may be, but it’s also vital. Subjected to even a slightly more aggressive boil, both the meat and the vegetables in the stew will be broken down much more rapidly. After a couple of hours of this, the vegetables are likely to end up pale and soggy, and the chunks of meat will initially toughen, then eventually disintegrate into thousands of wispy strings.

The search for moderation can be equally damaging when we perceive that something is cooking too fast. Alarmed by the intensity of the sizzle when steaks first meet frying pan, our natural instinct is to turn the heat down. But the pan will also be cooled down significantly by the cold steaks themselves. This double cooling effect can end up halting the caramelising process almost entirely; the steaks take longer to lose the appearance of rawness and appear “ready”, and we end up with well-done but scarcely browned steaks.

To my mind at least, that represents the worst of both worlds.

Eschewing the elusive and largely meaningless “medium” heat actually gives you far more control over what you’re doing, because it increases the range of effects that you are able to create.

For instance, if you buy a whole chicken for roasting, the instructions on the packaging might direct you to roast it at 180°C for 90 minutes. This will certainly cook the chicken through, but the delicate breast meat is likely to end up horribly dry. But if you roast it at a high heat (say 210°C) for the first 20 minutes, then at a much gentler one (around 140°C) for the remaining cooking time, you’ll reach a much happier conclusion. The initial blast of heat will deliver the golden, crispy skin you’re after; then, by lowering the oven temperature significantly, you slow down the rate at which moisture is driven from the meat. The outcome is a chicken that is crisp on the outside but moist within, all thanks to a single twist of the temperature dial.

How fast is fast?

Or for that matter, how slow is slow?

Clearly, some basic parameters are needed here, and The No Recipe Manifesto has been designed to help you define and understand these.

For starters, though, you’ll need to consider the characteristics of the individual ingredients, as well as their sizes and shapes. After all, you don’t want to cook your “fast” food so rapidly that the outside burns to a bitter, blackened crisp before the centre is cooked to your liking. And an oven set to 80°C will bring its contents up to that temperature eventually, but it’ll probably take all day.

That said, if you happen to have the whole day to spare, it’s not necessarily something to rule out – but that, I think, is a topic for another time.

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The Art of Stopping

As this blog develops, I’ll do my best to balance my fondness for theorising and pontificating with some more practical thoughts around the many aspects of cooking that recipes can never adequately cover.

And where better to start than with the question of when to stop?

OK, perhaps there are more logical places to start. But stick with me, because this one’s pretty fundamental – especially if you’ve ever found yourself in a panic in the kitchen, feeling that you’re losing all control of the meal you’re cooking.

(If you’ve never experienced a kitchen panic of this kind, congratulations. It probably means that everything I’m about to say will seem ludicrously obvious. It also means that you’re weird, and that normal, fallible people are very likely to hate you.)

One of the most fundamental but rarely discussed skills of cooking is knowing when to stop. I mean that in a couple of closely connected senses: firstly, the ability to recognise when food is optimally cooked and to halt the process at that point; and secondly, the capacity to calm down, take a deep breath and, if necessary, re-plan.

Neither of those abilities is straightforward to develop. Both come with experience, and with familiarity with particular ingredients and processes. So it’s hardly surprising that I’ve rarely seen a recipe that offers much help with either.

But on both counts, a simple change of method, allied to an associated change of psychology, can make an enormous difference; not only to the quality of the meals you produce, but also to the amount of nervous energy you expend while making them.

For some reason, we have a tendency to view cooking – and in particular, so-called “fast” cooking, such as stir-frying – as a continuous, unarrestable process. Heat the pan, start adding ingredients, and keep adding, cooking and stirring until everything’s ready.

With a stir-fry, our perception is that this all has to happen very quickly. This is why any chef will tell you how important it is to have your mise en place set up in advance. (A non-chef might instead talk of the importance of getting all the meat and veg chopped before you start cooking. It doesn’t matter. It’s the same thing.)

The thinking behind this is entirely sound. If you have to turn away from a sizzling wok to slice a pepper, there’s every chance of something unfortunate happening during the minute or so that your attention is elsewhere. Get the preparatory tasks out of the way, and you can focus completely on the cooking.

But while the advice might be perfectly correct, it only perpetuates the notion that the cooking absolutely has to be done in a tremendous rush. Heat the oil, then it’s all systems go. Add the meat, stir, add the veg, stir some more, add your sauces, powders and unctions, stir again, serve. But whatever you do, don’t stop. You’re Magnus Magnusson: you’ve started so you’ll finish.

Most of us approach our stir-fries with this mentality, and that’s none too surprising. It’s the only way we’ve ever seen it done; either on the telly, or in the open kitchen of a noodle bar.

But, at the risk of stating the obvious once again: these are professionals, working with excellent equipment in well-appointed kitchens. When we’re armed instead with clapped-out electric cookers, a flimsy frying pans and far less experience and confidence – and when we’re subject to all the interruptions and distractions of domestic life – it’s little wonder that our own attempts often turn out rather differently.

For instance, what do you do if you misjudge the heat of the pan, so that the chicken takes forever to cook, and steadfastly refuses to brown on the outside as intended? What if you’re a little heavy-handed with the soy sauce, leaving your stir-fry sloppy and wet, instead of the prescribed “glossy”? What if your best-laid plans are sabotaged at a crucial moment by an external source: a ringing phone, or a crying baby?

If your answer in each case is “plough on and hope for the best”, that’s nothing to be ashamed of. It’s what most of us do, most of the time. But it rarely produces a happy outcome – and more to the point, it isn’t necessary.

Keep frying the chicken pieces in the under-heated pan until they finally turn vaguely brown, and they’ll end up dry and overcooked. Leave the vegetables in the pan while you wait for the excess liquid to boil down, and they’ll become soggy and miserable. Let the whole thing continue cooking for as long as it takes you to placate a screaming child, and God only knows what will happen.

But in each case – and as with so many things in life – the best solution is also the simplest.

Stop.

If the chicken isn’t browning as it should, lift it into a bowl while you get the pan back up to temperature, then try again (perhaps in two or more batches, if you’re struggling to maintain a high enough heat).

And if the meat and veg are cooked but you need to reduce the liquid, put them to one side while you do. What harm could they possibly come to as a result of spending a few minutes away from the heat? Far less, certainly, than if they were left in the pan to overcook horribly.

Extend these principles, and a potentially stressful method of cooking becomes far easier to control, and to carry out successfully.

Yes, it’s worth getting all your chopping (or mise en place, if you will) done first; but if you’ve already started cooking and suddenly realise you’ve forgotten the onions, don’t fret: just stop.

And if you regularly struggle to get the various elements of the meal ready at the same time, try a change of approach: do them one by one. Put a large bowl next to the cooker, and get started.

Fry the chicken, in as many batches as seems appropriate to the size of the pan, and put the pieces in the bowl when they’re done. Do the same with the veg, halting the cooking process while they still retain the desired amount of crunch. Then get the sauce – whether bought, concocted or some combination of the two – to a taste and texture you’re happy with, before returning everything to the pan for a final amalgamation.

Written down, this might seem a long and convoluted process. But in practice, it barely takes any longer than trying to do the whole lot in a frenzied oner.

In a suitably hot pan, and with plenty of room to move around, the chicken should be nicely browned all over in a couple of minutes. Even if you have to cook it in three batches, that’s still only six minutes in all.

But if you try to cram all the chicken into the pan at once – which, given that you’re filling it with fridge-temperature meat, is bound to cool the pan down significantly – and it’ll take at least six minutes to cook through, and probably more. And you’ll be lucky to achieve any surface browning at all.

The same applies to the veg, and in particular to the sauce. On its own in a hot pan, the liquid will reduce rapidly, and should reach a desirable consistency in moments. Force it to share the space with all the other ingredients, and you slow this process dramatically. It might take several minutes to reduce sufficiently; during which time, the meat turns to shoe leather, and the vegetables to mush.

When you break the process down into distinct, manageable stages – and in so doing, come to realise that even stir-frying, for all its associations of frenzied pace, affords you plenty of opportunities to pause, breathe and reassess – you regain control over what you’re doing. So if the phone rings, that’s OK: just turn off the heat, take the call, realise it’s another sodding recorded message about PPI, hang up and start cooking again.

Best of all, you can take the same principles and apply them to almost any style of cooking.

If the beef in your stew is cooked but the sauce is too runny, you don’t have to chuck in a load of flavour-deadening flour, or carry on cooking and risk ruining the meat. Stop; lift out the solid ingredients (or, if it seems easier, use a colander to drain off the liquid into a clean pan), and reduce the sauce, pretty much as fast as you like. A few minutes off the heat won’t do the meat or vegetables any harm; and stirred gently back into the newly reduced, thickened sauce, they’ll soon come back up to temperature.

Or if you’re making a fry-up for several people, and you’re struggling to keep track of multiple pans at once, don’t bother to try. If the sausages are ready but you haven’t started on the bacon yet, don’t worry. Just keep a dish in a very low oven (around serving temperature, 70°C or so), transfer the cooked items into it when they’re done, and forget about them until you’re ready to serve. Even toast will cope with a lengthy stint in this “holding chamber” without losing its crunch.

So you can stop worrying about getting everything ready at once, and just let things take their own time. That way, you can leave the one task that’s really time-critical – cooking the eggs – until everything else is done. Your friends might get ravenously impatient after a while; but the quality of the finished product will more than make up for the brief wait.

Almost any cooking task is rendered so much easier if you give yourself the chance to stop, think and relax. And it’s no coincidence that the few that don’t really allow you to do that – deep-frying in batter, for instance – are the same tasks that I’ll rarely bother to take on at home. Instead, I’ll try to keep my cravings for such foods in check until I find myself somewhere that’s better set up for cooking them. The chippy, for instance.

So when you next find yourself in a kitchen panic, remember that just about the worst thing you could do is to “keep calm and carry on”. Firstly, you can’t keep calm, because you’re already not calm. And secondly, it’s rarely a good idea – for your meal or your sanity – to carry on doing something that patently isn’t working.

On that basis, perhaps we could all throw away all those stupid bloody “Keep Calm” T-shirts, tea towels and mugs, and agree to a more appropriate mantra.

“Become calm…and stop.”