Each month, on the posting of a new How to Eat, there is a clamour below the line for this blog to address the simple stuff. "What next, Guardian," ask HTE's literally tens of fans, "how to eat toast? How to drink water?" So, bowing to popular demand – hey, at Word of Mouth we aim to please – HtE will this month crack open the boiled egg. What's that, you say? Those commentators were being sarcastic? Never!
New here? How to Eat is a regular blog that seeks to establish informal rules of good gastronomic conduct for Britain's favourite dishes. The aim is amusement. It sometimes results in anger. Don't blame us. Blame society.
It is not this blog's job to get into the technical detail of cooking. We haveexperts for that kind of thing. But given that the boiled egg seems to be one of the kitchen's most devilishly difficult tasks – with even Delia Smith famously feeling the need to weigh in – I can't let this opportunity pass without throwing in my two penn'orth.
You know how you get good at boiling eggs? Practice. Hours of dogged practice. It's like Beckham's free kicks and muscle memory. Size of pan? Size of eggs? Room temperature or from fridge? Time the water takes to boil? The practised boiler will find that they can intuitively make allowances for all such factors. You need a clock, yes, to judge the two to three minutes your eggs will need (I'm presuming that we're all sensible adults who want a just-set white and fully runny yolk?), after the water has come to a rolling boil. But if you're using any sort of egg timer then, essentially, it's over before you've begun. Boiling eggs isn't about relying on gadgets to do the thinking for you, nor following precise timings and instructions. It's all about feel.
Ultimately, there is no such thing as a bad egg (what's not to like?), but working on the basis that we're all buying from supermarkets (I know you probably think it's obligatory at the Guardian, but I don't keep my own hens), eggs are one of those great products that, if you spend 50p more, taste, in a small but significant way, better. As you move up the scale to free-range and thenorganic – it's down, I'd guess, to the superior animal husbandry and feed that is a stipulation of Soil Association certification – there is, for me, and despite my default scepticism about organic food, a significant improvement in the firmness and creaminess of the white and the vibrancy of the yolk (something which is even more profound in duck eggs). The best egg yolks can carry some quite unusually sharp, interesting flavours among their ambrosial richness.
It's commonplace in adverts to see cheery souls photogenically bashing at the top of their breakfast egg in order to loosen the shell. Before, presumably, peeling it and cutting the top off. But is that a real thing? I've never actually seen anyone do it in real life and, surely, with good reason? Namely, the danger of tiny shell splinters embedding themselves in your egg and the fact that, if you're eating what you might consider a rubbish egg, where the white is likely to stick to the membrane and the membrane to the shell, you may well end up not with a clean dome to slice open, but a pitted, potholed mess. Interestingly, Harold McGee blames that shell-stickiness on the relatively low pH of newly laid eggs. Who knew that you could have an egg that's too fresh?
Either way, the only sensible way to take the top off an egg – the pointy end, of course, not the fat bottom – is by giving it a smart crack with the blade of a knife (the one you've used to butter the toast*), then cutting smoothly through the incision, to a depth – around a centimetre, usually – that allows you to insert a roughly index finger-width piece of toast into the yolk. Using a teaspoon, the top should then be smoothly scooped out in one movement, placed on the corner of a piece of toast, sprinkled with salt (please, no pepper), and eaten first as a kind of eggy amuse-bouche.
Yes, you read that right, bread. Not toast. Don't get me wrong: in itself, toast offers a nice dry, crisp contrast to the sweet, clean, wet egg. But, if we're talking perfection, then thickly buttered bread (using salted butter, of course) is the way to go.
Forget getting flash with your loaf, too. It's pointless. A brown/granary/seeded loaf will override your egg with malted, nutty flavours. If you buy an uncut white loaf, it will also be difficult to cut slices of sufficient thinness. You don't want doorsteps with an egg. Basically, the bread should be a neutral method of delivery for that vivacious fresh egg, so keep it simple. Warburton's toastie loaf (only, not toasted; other loaves are available) is perfectly suited to the task.
Presuming, that is, that you are going to eat your egg in its most sublime form. If you're going to spoon out a bit at a time, seasoning each mouthful as you go, then toast, and a thicker, better quality loaf is fine. A sourdough bread would offer a pleasant lactic tang to offset the egg and butter. However, surely the best way to deal with your egg is to eat the top, dip the yolk, and then scoop out the remaining egg, unroll it on a pre-cut, halved slice of bread, scatter it with sea salt and sandwich it with another half of bread? On a good day, that reassuringly bland bread will give way to a burst of hot, salty, buttery dairy goodness that is like eating a double cream sandwich. Perfect.
How old are you, five? You actually need your bread cut into twee little soldiers? Just tear a bit of bread off and get stuck in. Blimey.
Tea, tea, tea. Park the juice (orange and eggs?!), forget the ballsy coffee. You need a large rusty brew, both complementary, in its milky sweetness, but firm and commanding: its metallic tannins scrubbing your mouth clean of fat before each fresh assault.
Teaspoon, large dinner plate to sit bread and eggcup on. For the latter, go classic. You may have a collection of eggcups in the cupboard in all sorts of novelty shapes. It's the present that people buy you … when they really don't give a toss. Such eggcups (I've got some metal ones with too large a cradle, that look like a very begrudging experiment in constructivist design), are invariably not fit for purpose. Question: in the event of yolk overflow, can you easily get in there to wipe up the yolk with a bit of bread? If not, that's not an eggcup. It's a liability.