Boiled egg and soldiers may be a favourite British breakfast, but getting it right is a fraught business. So much so it’s taken a team of scientists to crack what they claim is the perfect formula.
After canvassing 1,500 Brits and running experiments, Nottingham University statisticians say the perfect boiled egg should be cooked for precisely four minutes and 15 seconds, before being plunged into cold water for 57 seconds.
But do our top celebrity chefs agree? And from pesky poached to head-scratching scrambled, what about the best ways to cook other kinds of eggs?
We looked at how celebrity chefs do it to see how their methods vary. Then we asked eggs-traordinary chef Theo Randall — whose restaurant at the Intercontinental on London’s Park Lane has won awards for its brunch menu, and who holds the Guinness World Record for the fastest omelette maker at just 14.74 seconds — how he would do it . . .
Nottingham University statisticians claim the perfect boiled egg should be cooked for precisely four minutes and 15 seconds (file image)
Boiled eggs have long been a point of contention, with opinion divided as to how hard, or soft, they should be. The top celeb chefs are equally divided.
DELIA SMITH recommends giving your egg one minute’s simmering time (never have the water fast boiling) in a very small saucepan, before taking it off the heat and leaving the egg in for another six minutes for a soft, fairly liquid yolk, or seven for a firmer one.
JAMIE OLIVER adds a pinch of sea salt to his water, initially dipping his eggs in and out at a fast boil to avoid cracking due to the sudden change in temperature. Cook for five minutes for soft boiled, seven-and-a-half for semi firm and ten minutes for hard boiled.
According to GORDON RAMSAY the secret is to place the egg into the water gently, tilting the spoon so it doesn’t hit the bottom. Bring the water to the boil, count to five, turn the heat down and cook for exactly four-and-a-half minutes.
However NIGELLA LAWSON recommends almost double the time. Put the egg into cold water, then bring to a boil. After one minute, take the pan off the heat and let the egg sit for ten minutes, resulting in a hard-boiled egg with a yolk which is set but slightly soft.
Chef Theo Randall, whose restaurant at the Intercontinental on London’s Park Lane has won awards for its brunch menu, argues eggs shouldn’t be boiled in cold water (file image)
MARY BERRY also starts with cold water, before bringing to boil and cooking for four-to-five minutes for a soft boiled egg. If you want to peel your egg you must plunge it into cold water after boiling to stop the egg overcooking.
THEO’S VERDICT: I would beg to differ with Mary Berry and Nigella Lawson. Never boil an egg in cold water. Use boiling — you get a more reliable result.
Ensure the egg is at room temperature — if it’s too cold, the shell is likely to crack as soon as it hits the water. For the perfect soft-boiled, medium egg, simmer for exactly five minutes. Nigella’s method of leaving the egg for ten minutes makes scientific sense and does the job well. But who wants to wait that long?
If you want a classic hard-boiled egg, an older egg is easier to peel. Simmer for ten minutes. Then plunge the egg into cold water, crack the outside then gently ease a teaspoon in the crack and twist. You should find the shell comes away in one fell swoop.
Delia Smith said having the heat too high can cause your scrambled eggs to become flaky and dry (file image)
DELIA has one key rule for scrambled eggs: don’t have the heat too high. If you do, the eggs will become flaky and dry.
Season the lightly beaten eggs with salt and pepper. Swirl a heaped teaspoon of butter in the pan. When it foams, pour in the egg and stir.
As the egg begins to cook, keep stirring. When about three-quarters of the egg is a creamy, solid mass, remove the pan from the heat and add another teaspoon of butter.
JAMIE adds a pinch of sea salt and black pepper, then beat eggs in a bowl with a fork. Put a saucepan over a low heat and add a knob of butter.
When it starts to bubble, carefully pour in the eggs. Stir slowly with a spatula. Keep gently stirring until the eggs still look slightly runny and underdone.
Remove from the heat — the pan’s heat will continue to cook the eggs to perfection.
GORDON says crack two cold eggs into a deep saucepan. Add 4 g of butter, then put the pan on a high heat. Stir continuously with a rubber spatula, making sure to scrape the bottom of the pan.
After 30 seconds, remove the pan from the heat. Keep stirring, and after about 10 seconds put back on the heat. Repeat for about three minutes. In the last minute, season the egg lightly. For extra creamy texture, stir in 1 tsp of crème fraiche.
Theo recommends adding cream to uncooked eggs, then using a fork to gently break up the eggs for a richer consistency than using a whisk (file image)
NIGELLA cracks two eggs in a bowl, whisks, then places in a pan over heat. Add a small amount of milk. The egg will stick, so keep moving with a spoon. Add salt and pepper and once it is a scrambled, lumpy consistency, take off the heat.
MARY says lightly beat the eggs with salt and pepper and a little milk. Melt a pat of butter in a pan and add the eggs.
Cook over a medium heat, stirring constantly with a wooden spatula or spoon, until they are almost set.
THEO’S VERDICT: Take two super fresh eggs at room temperature and break into a bowl. Add 50 ml of double cream. Unlike Gordon, I add the cream to uncooked eggs so as not to chill the mixture.
I also prefer the richer cream to Nigella and Mary’s milk, which will make the eggs set a bit harder. Use a fork to gently break up the eggs. This will give a richer consistency than using a whisk.
Gently melt 25 g of butter in a non-stick pan until it foams. Pour the mixture into the pan and leave to sit untouched for 30-45 seconds. Then use a spatula or wooden spoon and gently move the mixture around the pan.
This aerates the eggs and stops them getting solid. Repeat a few times. Three minutes gives the perfect result: big loads of set egg, which is wet in the middle.
Gordon Ramsay recommends leaving the egg to cook for three minutes or until it floats to the top for the perfect poached egg (file image)
Poaching is surely the most debated kind of egg cooking. DELIA says to fill a pan with one inch of water from a boiling kettle and put it on a gentle heat.
When you see bubbles, break the eggs into individual bowls before slipping into the water. Set the timer for two minutes, with the water barely simmering. Take the pan off the heat for ten minutes.
Keep basting the tops of the eggs with hot water, then use a draining spoon to lift them out.
JAMIE recommends half filling a pan with boiling salted water and bringing to a light simmer over a medium heat. Crack an egg into a cup and gently pour it into the water in one fluid movement.
A really soft poached egg should take around two minutes, a soft to firm will need about four. To check whether it’s done, remove carefully from the pan with a slotted spoon and give it a gentle push with a teaspoon. If it feels too soft, put it back for a minute or two.
GORDON brings a saucepan of water to a gentle simmer and adds a dash of white vinegar. Break an egg into a teacup or ramekin.
Whisk the water to create a gentle whirlpool and tip the egg into the centre of it. Leave to cook for three minutes or until the egg floats to the top and the white is cooked but the yolk is still soft.
NIGELLA says she used to strain the egg through a fine tea strainer to remove the liquid part of the egg white — but has since gone down a less fiddly route.
Crack a fridge-cold egg (it holds its shape better if it’s cold) into a cup and add a teaspoon of vinegar or lemon juice.
Let a small pan of water come to a boil, then turn off the heat and slowly pour the egg in, leaving behind the watery liquid which will have collected in the bottom of the cup. Leave in the water for four-to-five minutes, depending on the size of the egg.
Theo said freshness is key and don’t be tempted to choose a large egg because the medium ones have a better ratio of yolk to white (file image)
MARY starts by bringing a pan to the boil. Reduce to a simmer and add a dash of vinegar. Crack the egg into a ramekin, swirl the water with a spoon and carefully drop the egg into the pan.
Leave until the white is just beginning to set and carefully turn with a slotted spoon to form into an oval shape. Simmer for three to four minutes. If the water starts to bubble, turn it down to stop disrupting the egg’s shape.
THEO’S VERDICT: Freshness is key. I’m that annoying person who rifles to the back of the supermarket shelf to get the freshest box of eggs. And don’t be tempted to choose a large egg — medium eggs are tastier as you get a better ratio of yolk to white. I always choose free range.
She may have found an easier way, but I like Nigella’s tea strainer tip. Hold a strainer over a cup, and crack your egg into the strainer so the watery bits get left behind.
Don’t be tempted to use an egg straight from the fridge like Nigella, though.
Eggs cook from the outside in, and yolk is much denser than the white. If it’s cold in the middle, the yolk will take that much longer to cook and the white will become rubbery.
Put your egg into a ramekin. Then, as Mary suggests, add a dash of vinegar or lemon juice, which will cook the white quicker.
Bring a pan of water to the boil. Whisk vigorously to produce a whirlpool effect like Gordon and, once the water is boiling, drop the egg into the vortex.
The white will spin around the yolk and seal it beautifully like a nut. Cook for no more than two-and-a-half minutes.
The Italian Deli Cookbook, by Theo Randall (£26, Quadrille), is out now.