Making a hard-boiled egg should be one of the easiest things to prepare on a kitchen stovetop. And yet, get it wrong and bits of the egg will stick to the shell, leaving a pitted surface. Cook it too hot or too long and the white gets rubbery and develops a sulfur fragrance, while the yolk becomes chalky and takes on a greenish tinge. Ew!
But get it right and you’ll have one of Mother Nature’s simplest and tastiest treats—and one of her healthiest. At just 78 calories, a boiled egg is chock-full of essential vitamins and minerals, and delivers more than six grams of protein in its one-of-a-kind package.
Before we dive into the best boiling methods, there's one method we don’t recommend: using a microwave for a hard-boiled egg. In a microwave, steam will build up quickly inside the egg and there’s a good chance it will explode. Now, let’s put the water on and go over a few essential tips.
Don’t use the freshest eggs
Since most of us are taught to use the freshest products for cooking, this may seem counterintuitive. But if it’s a gleaming, unblemished surface you’re after, spanking fresh eggs will be harder to peel. Instead, let your eggs age in the refrigerator a week or more after purchase. The air that the eggs take in helps separate the egg membranes from the shells.
It's important to note that “use by” dates on cartons are conservative. Eggs that are refrigerated properly will be fine to eat a little beyond that date. And if you're in doubt, perform the “float test.” All you have to do is submerge the egg in a bowl of water. If it floats, it means bacteria has produced gases within the shell, and it’s not safe to eat. If it sinks, it’s good to go.
Cold water vs. hot water
There are two schools of thought here. Let’s start with the most obvious, which is to first bring your water to a boil in a large pot. Carefully lower—don’t drop—eggs straight from the fridge into the pot with a slotted spoon and let them boil for 30 seconds. Then, cover the pot and reduce the heat to low so that the water simmers gently.
For soft-boiled eggs (with a custard-like yolk), let them simmer for 6 minutes and remove them. You can simmer them for a minute or two less for a runnier yolk, or a minute or two longer for a firmer yolk. For hard-boiled eggs, they’ll need to simmer for a total of 11 minutes.
An alternative method, recommended by many, is to place the eggs in a pot, cover them with one inch of cold water, put the pot on the stove, and bring the water to a full boil. Then, cover and remove the pot from the heat and start your timer. Let the eggs sit in the hot water, covered, for six minutes to make them soft-boiled, or 11 minutes to make them hard-boiled. Note that in high-altitude locations, where water boils at a lower temperature, a slightly longer cooking time is required.
Chef and food blogger J. Kenji López-Alt, Culinary Director at Serious Eats, has this to say about how a cold start affects peeling:
More than any other factor, the thing that made the most difference in how cleanly eggs released from their shells was the temperature at which they started: A hot start produces easier-to-peel eggs. And it doesn’t matter whether that hot start is in boiling water or in a steam-filled pot or pressure-cooker. They’re all strikingly easier to shell than those started in a cold pot. Even with two-week-old eggs, starting cold resulted in eggs that had just over a 50 percent success rate for clean peeling. Eggs started in boiling water or steam came out well above 90 percent.
Recent tests by Cook’s Illustrated, which previously recommended the cold water start, confirm that starting the eggs in boiling water yields easier-to-peel eggs. It’s no big deal if you’re making egg salad, but when whole- or half-egg presentation counts, you’ll want to start with boiling water.
Cooling the eggs for peeling
As a hard-boiled egg cools, the actual contents will shrink ever so slightly, making it easier to peel. To cool your cooked eggs, simply place them in a bowl of ice water for a few minutes.
When they get close to room temperature, tap each egg gently on a flat surface, rolling it to crack the exterior evenly. You should start peeling from the large end of the egg, and hold it under cool running water to help pull the shell off.
Making poached eggs
Perfect poached eggs (with a runny yolk and cooked white exterior) are a little more challenging. In contrast to hard-boiled eggs, you’ll want to use the freshest eggs possible, but even that won’t guarantee a proper poached egg.
J. Kenji López-Alt learned a simple trick from English chef Heston Blumenthal that eliminates those whispy white floaters and broken yolks. And a short video from Serious Eats will show you how you can use a fine mesh strainer to do just that.
For extra credit, if you’re lucky enough to have a sous vide cooking system, poached eggs can also be prepared by cooking them in the shell, in the temperature controlled water bath, for about 60 minutes at 145°F (or 167°F for hard-boiled eggs).