Soft-boiled perfection

Soft-boiled and marinated, fresh-laid eggs can astonish with their flavor.

Ari LeVaux

We egg snobs have it good in spring. Whether we get them from a winter market, farmer friend, hen-ranching neighbor or your own backyard flock, we don’t buy eggs at the store. Especially these days, after a long winter lay-cation, when the local chickens are cranking them out again. Freshly laid eggs will turn any egg-using dish into better version of itself. But the best way to appreciate a quality egg is often the simplest.

I once had a co-worker who would bring two hardboiled eggs to the break room each morning. He would eat the whites and place the unwanted yolks on a napkin on the table for the rest of us to contemplate their chalky green overcooked glory. A muscly guy, he wanted the protein but not the fat. He also had an air of frustration to him, or so I felt. Those forsaken yolks explained the situation perfectly, I believed. But it wasn’t until I met his alter-ego, years later, that I realized how much of a yolk man I really was.

Each day, the fictional Padre Xantes, from Peter Matthiessen’s At Play in the Fields of the Lord, would use a sharp spoon to open a soft-boiled egg, “… taking great pains, for the egg was so little cooked that its white was scarcely clouded.”

Carefully with his tongue, Padre Xantes would work the flaccid sphere to the back of his mouth, and then tried to relax for a moment. Then,

“… breathing in and out rapidly until, unable to restrain himself a moment longer, he clamped it savagely twixt tongue and palate, uttering as he did so a tiny squeak of pleasure; the yolk exploded in abandon, mounting deliriously toward his sinuses, then sliding past the roots of his tongue into his throat.”

The first time I read this passage I considered quitting reading fiction right there, and retiring at the top. Today, knowing what I know, how tragic it seems that Padre Xantes wasn’t stationed in the Far East.

Many Asian cultures have a way with barely-cooked egg yolks, and enough tricks to keep Padre Xantes perspiring through centuries in Purgatory. Today, I will discuss how to soft-boil eggs with the brightest, most custardly-molten creamy yolks inside, and float them in dark umami.

Fresh eggs, of course, are preferable, but they do have a liability: when boiled, they are impossible to peel.

The shell breaks into little pieces that stick to the white, pulling chunks of fleshy albumen and leaving a pockmarked moonscape. This happens because a young, muscular albumen will cling to the shell’s inner membrane, while a watery old egg white, weakened by acid from dissolved carbon dioxide, has no grip. That’s why fresh egg whites, cracked into a hot pan, will to hold a three-dimensional shape, while an old, watery egg will scatter in a thin film.

There is a fix for this predicament, a process in which all chicken keepers and their associates should be drilled. Literally, you drill a little hole, by twisting a thumb tack or small finish nail between your fingers (or with a real drill), into the wide end of the egg where there’s an air pocket between the shell and the sac that holds the egg. As long as you don’t go more than an ⅛-inch past the edge of the shell, you won’t poke the inner membrane.

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Take your freshly drilled fresh eggs, or your non-drilled old eggs, and carefully place them into a pot of boiling water for six minutes. Immediately transfer them into a bowl of ice water for five minutes. Peel them in water, carefully, as the eggs will be soft beneath the shell.

The marinade options are along the lines of the ramen-style egg you may have seen, a dark sauce that stains the outside of the white, while the inner white remains bright and the yolk stays golden and gooey. Here are my two favorites:

Japanese-style: Three tablespoons soy sauce, pinch each garlic powder and black pepper, and ¾ cup of water. Optional and recommended: 1 tablespoon dried bonito flakes, 1 sheet of nori, crumbled into little pieces, and/or a drop of sesame oil.

The Chinese-style one that makes me squeak like Padre Xantes: 3 tablespoons soy sauce, 1 tablespoon each bean sauce and hoisin sauce, 2 tablespoons sugar, 1 cup water. Bring briefly to a boil and then let cool.

In your marinade of choice, in a cup or freezer bag, submerge the eggs for at least six hours.

Or for less flourish, do like Padre Xantes, and finish with nothing but a pinch of salt.

Ari LeVaux writes Flash in the Pan, a syndicated weekly food column carried in more than 60 newspapers nationwide. Though his audience is national, he says he "always writes about Montana. Usually."

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