The single egg, in the dark blue egg cup with a gold ring around the top, was boiled for three and a third minutes.
It was a very fresh, speckled brown egg from French Marans hens owned by some friend of May in the country. (Bond disliked white eggs and, faddish as he was in many small things, it amused him to maintain that there was such a thing as the perfect boiled egg.)
— Ian Fleming's From Russia With Love
I was about twelve years old when I first realized there were unsuspected depths to my staid electrical engineer father. After a visit to an older cousin's house, I mentioned to him, at the time to me a rather awe-inspiring logical and scientific presence, that I was envious of the cousin's collection of books, which included the entire series of James Bond novels.
I still recall the rather quizzical look my dad gave me as he said, "We have all the James Bond novels."
Setting aside my own puzzled astonishment that these were books my father – my father! – chose to purchase and own (Sex! Violence! Fast cars!), I happily dug into a section of my parents' bookcase that I had previously been ignoring.
And it wasn't long before I ran across the concept – conceit? – that there was such a thing as "the perfect boiled egg". Even as a little kid, that bothered me. There were too many unanswered questions: How much water? How big a pot? What the heck is a perfectly cooked egg?
And during a subsequent lifetime of cooking eggs, it was always niggling away at me.
Not long ago I decided to do something about that itch...by figuring out how to cook a perfect hard-boiled egg.
The mission: a reliably reproducible technique resulting in eggs that were easily peeled, had cooked-though yolks that weren't discolored, and had properly firm whites. "Properly" might seem to be a subjective term, but ultimately it has an objective definition: "As preferred by my wife and daughter."
A Google search for "perfect hard boiled eggs" yields "About 23,900,000 results", indicating that interest in this particular problem is not limited to me alone.
The vast bulk of the descriptions I've looked at run like this: "Place eggs in some kind of cooking vessel. Cover them with water to some depth or other. Cover or don't cover the vessel. Bring water to a boil. At that point you leave the water boiling, or reduce the heat to a simmer, or remove the vessel completely from the stove. Keep the eggs at that state for X minutes."
I have absolutely no doubt that every one of those algorithms work beautifully if – and I use the word "if" in its unique glory – I were to use that person's pot on the same burner they use on their stove in their house using eggs kept in their refrigerator, if, of course, I accidentally used the same amount of water at the same starting temperature as is their habit.
The one consistency in many of those recipes is that eggs are placed in water that is then "brought to a boil".
Brought to a boil?
The internet suggests that egg whites start to set between 144 and 149°F. The yolks will start to set between 149 and 158°F, and that for safety purposes the "internal temperature" of a hard-cooked egg should be 160°F.
But we're cooking eggs in boiling water, right? Which means that they are sitting in water that – at sea level – is about 212°F. So it's clearly a question of time – the time we, as cooks, give the heat of the water to work its way into the egg.
And the time spent bringing the water to a boil can't be ignored; as soon as you get to 140°F the cooking process starts.
Consider a reductio ad absurdum: One egg in ten gallons of water in a big pot on a small burner. The 3000 BTUs per hour of a small burner will, assuming we ignore losses, raise the temperature of those eighty pounds of water at about 40°F per hour. To get from 70 to 140°F will take almost two hours. Getting from 140 to 212°F will take another two hours.
By the time that water reaches a boil, my friends, that egg will
be cooked! Another six or seven minutes will
be totally irrelevant.
A more ordinary situation would be a quart of water on a 10000 BTU/hour burner. That's two pounds of water, which means that the temperature rise about 5,000 degrees per hour. The quart of water will go from 70 to 212°F degrees in about two minutes. So, in addition to the X minutes of boiling, you'll start with a minute or three of cooking while the water and the eggs are being "brought to a boil". If you consider your own experiences boiling eggs, this should seem about right.
The reverse reductio, of course, is an egg barely covered by water in a small pot on a very powerful burner. The water will come to a boil more or less immediately, so subsequently cooking the egg at the boil for X minutes will result in it being undercooked.
So, since I don't know how powerful your stove is, and I don't know how big your pot is, how can I advise you on how to cook your egg? Heck, how can I cook my own eggs if I don't use exactly the same pot, and exactly the same amount of water at exactly the same starting temperature every time?
One solution: Eliminate the "bring to a boil" impact on the cooking time.
I live at about 145 feet above mean sea level; water here boils at 212°F. So I can put any amount of water I please into a pot and bring it to a boil, and I know it's at 212°F.
Put enough water in a big enough pot so that adding the eggs won't drag the temperature down very much. (I use about six quarts of water in an eight-quart pot when cooking a dozen eggs.) Bring the water to a boil.
Control for egg size and temperature. (I use large eggs cold right out of the fridge.)
Punch a pinhole in the large end of each egg. (Cold eggs have a tendency to crack when plunged into boiling water. Punching a hole in the air bubble reduces that tendency. You can buy a kitchen gadget for making those holes. My daughter is a quilter, so we had a box of stainless steel T-Pins in the house; I keep one in a kitchen drawer, which works perfectly for me.)
Lower the eggs into the boiling water. (I use a slotted spoon; it takes about twenty or thirty seconds to lower them in two at a time. That thirty seconds bothers me; with another thirty seconds at the end, conceivably some eggs might cook as much as a minute more than others, and which are which is random. (Note: it has occurred to me to mark the eggs so that I remove them in the same order that I put them in, but I regard that as a bridge too far.) I'm kind of on the lookout for a lightweight wire basket that'll let me lower them all in at once. The possible range of cooking times has, in the meantime, not proved an insuperable obstacle to cooked egg quality.)
Set a timer for 15 minutes. (You'll have to determine your time empirically. Left to myself, I'd set the timer for about 13.5 minutes, because it makes me happy when none of the eggs have discolored yolks. But the aforementioned wife and daughter don't mind some discoloration; they do want the whites to be firm. So I use 15 minutes. Your mileage will, undoubtedly, vary.)
Boil the eggs gently for the selected time. (I lower the heat some to reduce the mechanical ruckus, but all that's necessary is that the water continue to boil.)
Prepare ice water. (I put a bunch of ice into a six-quart mixing bowl. I cover the ice with water, leaving, of course, enough room for a dozen eggs!)
At the end of the cooking time, remove the eggs from the pot (I use my trusty slotted spoon to remove them two at a time) and plunge them into the ice water. (Although I have not formally tested the hypothesis, the plunge into cold water seems to encourage the separation of the internal membrane from the egg white.)
When the cooked eggs are cold, remove them from the ice bath and refrigerate.
In summary: Boil the water before you lower in the eggs. This eliminates all the variables of pot size, burner power, the initial temperature of the water, and the initial amount of water. If you are consistent about the size and temperature of the eggs and you plunge them into ice water when you are done, then you've controlled everything that can affect the cooking time. So, if you do all that, you should get the same results for the same cooking time – every time.
I like soft boiled eggs, too. The same method works for that. No ice water, of course, and the cooking time (for me!) is six minutes.
And I've been able to stop thinking about James Bond and his
damned breakfast. I'm sure his housekeeper used the same pot the
same way every day, and so the results were happily consistent for
him. But without knowing what she used and how she used it, we'll
never know how Bond actually did like his egg.