Jesse McTavish knows a thing or two about poaching eggs. During his time as head chef at The Kettle Black, he raced through 20,000 eggs a month. McTavish was using Villa Verde egg merchants, who source the best eggs from young chickens at free-range farms.

While he’s volunteered to demystify the secrets behind perfect poaching, McTavish acknowledges the home cook doesn’t have access to Villa Verde. Instead, he suggests heading to your local farmers’ market and getting to know the person behind the eggs. “Create relationships with your producers the same way I do; talk to the farmer, ask them if their eggs are from younger, healthier chickens, and how many are on their farm,” he says.

Free-range eggs have a richer depth of flavour and a more vibrant colour, while those laid by younger chooks tend to have a tighter structure, which is visible in the way that the whites hold onto the yolk. This causes a sturdy appearance on the plate with the eggs sitting higher and emerging from the water as more precise domes. It’s the easiest way to create that sought-after, rounded poached egg.

The protein in egg whites, called ovalbumin, coagulates with the addition of heat, acid and salt. In other words, it takes on a semi-solid state. This process is sped up by the addition of vinegar and salt to water, heated to between 95°C and 98°C.

A large pot
Good quality white vinegar or lemon juice
Free range eggs

Heat the water
To achieve a poached egg with a firm, cooked white and a runny yolk, start by adding 5 litres of water to a deep pot. Heat the water to 98°C, then measure out 100mL of vinegar. Add it to the pot, along with a generous pinch of salt. The addition of vinegar lowers the pH level of the water, which in turn speeds up coagulation and results in a smoother appearance for the finished product by preventing the white from forming string-like trails behind the egg. Be sure to use good-quality vinegar, or even lemon juice, to eliminate an overpowering sour taste.

Photography: Mark Roper

Crack the egg
Take a fresh, 50g egg from the refrigerator and carefully crack it into the pot. The secret is to crack it as close to the water as possible. If you drop the egg in from a height, egg white tails will form. You also risk the yolk bulging out from the white. Cooking too many eggs at a time can cause a dramatic change in water temperature and, as a result, inconsistencies in shape. Up to 25 eggs are cooked in a 15-litre pot at The Kettle Black. For your 5-litre pot, don’t poach more than eight at a time.

Cook the egg
Leave the egg in the pot for 2 minutes and 45 seconds. Stirring to create a rounder poached egg is a fallacy, so no need to do that. Although it is possible to coagulate eggs at lower temperatures, as seen in cafes serving the popular 60-degree eggs, cooking at reduced heat results in gelatinous egg whites. Generally, people prefer their whites cooked through and their yolks oozing.

Trim and serve
Remove the egg from the water with a slotted spoon and carefully lay it on an absorbent cloth until the excess water has drained. This will also help remove surplus vinegar. For aesthetic purposes, trim any egg white tails to form a perfectly round poached egg before serving.