Egg-boiling essentials

Mark Bittman’s gone back to basics

April 13, 2012

If you’ve been a Culinate reader for a while, you know that Mark Bittman is one of our favorite cookbook authors. We appreciate his minimalist, unfussy approach to food. In Bittman’s kitchen, even the simplest ingredients are handled with care — not in a precious way, but in a sensible, can-do way.

Take eggs.

I’ve been cooking for . . . well, a long time. You would think I’d know the basics, like boiling an egg. I don’t do it that often, however, and when I do — usually for deviled eggs, which I love — I just wing it. “Seems like long enough!” I say after 15 minutes or so and pull the pan from the heat.

Recently our recipe editor, Carrie Floyd, added a soft-boiled egg recipe to our collection, which is great, but the truth is, there are no soft-boiled-egg fans at our house, so I don’t practice very often.

When I saw Bittman’s new book, How to Cook Everything The Basics, I knew I’d never have to wonder about boiling eggs again. On the two-page Egg Basics spread, as elsewhere throughout the book, gorgeous, spare photos by Romulo Yanes accompany Bittman’s detailed text about cooking — in this case, soft- or medium-boiled eggs. No need to wing it anymore.

And eggs are just the beginning. The book is chock-full of tips for cooking everything from soup to Thanksgiving dinner. For both beginners and longtime cooks who would like to polish their techniques, I recommend this one.

Here’s a taste of the text and photos, straight from How to Cook Everything The Basics.

Buying Eggs

You want to use the freshest eggs possible, but that’s easier said than done, thanks to a confusing and meaningless labeling system. Try to find locally raised eggs if you can. Whichever you choose, look for the sell-by date; it should be at least a couple weeks in the future.

Buy only large or extra-large eggs, since the recipes in this book (and most others) work best with those sizes. Once you get eggs home, leave them in the carton and put them in the coolest part of the fridge — usually the bottom, in the back. (Don’t store them in those cute little cups in the door.) You can tell how good they are when you crack one open: A really fresh egg will have a firm yolk that sits high on a mound of whites. If it’s runny and thin, with a flat yolk, it’s a little on the old side; you can still eat it, though, unless it smells bad.

To keep bits of shell from getting into the part you eat, open an egg by smacking the side definitively — but not aggressively — on a flat, hard surface, stopping your hand when you hear a crack.

Most of what’s inside an egg is the white, which contains more than half of the egg’s protein and none of its fat. The yolk has the majority of the vitamins and the remaining protein and minerals. Don’t freak out if you see a small blood spot in the yolk; you’ll never notice it once the egg is cooked. If it bugs you, remove it with the tip of a sharp knife.

Soft- or Medium-Boiled Eggs


Choose a pot that will comfortably hold all the eggs you want to cook and still have room to cover them with 2 inches of water. Bring the water to a boil and adjust the heat so the water bubbles gently. Lower the egg (or eggs) into the water with a spoon and let them fall off gently so they don’t crack against the sides or bottom.


Adjust the heat so the water never returns to a rolling boil. Then cook the eggs for 3 to 7 minutes, depending on how runny you like them. A timer is handy, since the texture inside the shell changes pretty fast. (The photos on the facing page will give you an idea of what to expect.)


When the desired time is up, run cold water into the pot just until you can handle the eggs. Once you remove one, crack the shell and scoop the insides into a small bowl (or eat straight from the shell), or if the white is firm enough, just peel the egg. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and serve.

Hard-Boiled Eggs

The process is slightly different than for soft-cooked eggs.

PUT THE EGGS IN A POT WITH COLD WATER: Choose a pot that will comfortably hold all the eggs you want to cook, add the eggs, and then add enough cold water to cover them by 2 inches. Put the pot over medium-high heat and bring it to a gentle boil; turn off the heat and cover. The average large to extra-large egg will be ready 9 minutes later.
GET AN ICE BATH READY: Cooling the eggs quickly after cooking helps prevent the yolk from developing a harmless (but not too pretty) green ring. Fill a medium bowl with lots of ice and some water. After the eggs steep for 9 minutes, transfer them to the ice bath and let sit for a minute or so. Then eat right away or refrigerate for up to a week or two. To serve, crack the shell gently on all sides, peel, and sprinkle with salt and pepper.

Is it done yet?

Eggs cook in a flash. Check out the difference a minute makes.

3-MINUTE SOFT-BOILED EGG: The yolk is completely runny and barely warm and the white still slightly liquid. If you want the white very soft but no longer liquid, let it go to 4 minutes.
5-MINUTE SOFT-BOILED EGG: You’ll get a cooked but runny yolk with some soft white.
7-MINUTE MEDIUM-BOILED EGG: The white will be fully cooked and almost solid, but some of the yolk may have hardened.
9-MINUTE HARD-BOILED EGG: Firm, but not quite dry, yolk and white.
11-MINUTE HARD-BOILED EGG: Still edible, but a little chalky–best for chopping into salads.

For what I would consider the perfect egg, shoot for 6 minutes.

There are 8 comments on this item
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1. by amber on Apr 24, 2012 at 6:46 PM PDT
2. by amber on Apr 24, 2012 at 6:54 PM PDT

(Sorry about the previous blank comment... oops!)

The part about using fresh eggs for hard-boiled eggs catches me by surprise; I recently had incredible trouble peeling some eggs I had boiled, and after ripping up my hands several days in a row, it occurred to me that perhaps the eggs were too fresh. I recalled something Alton Brown wrote about in “I’m Just Here for the Food” about the membranes in an egg breaking down over time making them the preferable option for hard-boiled eggs. (He does mention that fresh eggs are better for other uses.)

Now I’m wondering if the older eggs will really save my poor fingers or if I need to keep looking for other solutions. Looks like I still have some learning to do :)

Thanks for the in depth info and especially the pics of the eggs at different intervals!

3. by Whitney on Apr 26, 2012 at 6:57 AM PDT

I’ve also heard that older eggs are easier to peel than fresh. A Turkish friend sweares by putting some white vinager I’m the water to aide the peeling process- this is also supposed to quickly harden/congeal whites that might escape an egg that has cracked during the boiling process and is leaking out the egg. I’ve also heard that if you’re trying to make deviled eggs - or any egg that you want the yolk more centered- you should turn the carton on its side for a while before cooking them to center the yolks. And lastly, I think I read one time that it’s better to let the eggs come to to room temp first but ...I can’t remember why.

4. by Anthony James on May 3, 2012 at 1:56 PM PDT

I’ve never paid attention to the freshness of the eggs. I will definitely keep that in mind now. It makes buying in bulk a little harder.

5. by Barbara Lamb on May 31, 2012 at 9:50 AM PDT

It will also be easier to peel hard-boiled eggs that are very fresh by adding a generous amount of salt to the water when cooking them.

6. by Penny on Jun 23, 2012 at 10:57 AM PDT

I have made deviled eggs for years and made some a month ago and was going to serve them the next day. They were perfect when I put them in the frig. then when I went to serve them, the yolk part had turned runny, I have never had this happen. What would cause this to happen?

7. by Diane on Jul 18, 2012 at 8:16 PM PDT

Farm eggs need to be at least a week old to peel for deviled eggs. The shell becomes more porous as the egg gets older and the membrane between the shell and the egg needs to break down just a bit. Two weeks is better!

8. by Vigneron on Jun 21, 2013 at 5:39 AM PDT

Poke a small hole in the round end of the egg (through the membrain) with a sharp knife prior to boiling. The shells come off very easily even if layed that same day.

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