Thursday, April 25, 2013

Eggsperiment: Slow poached eggs (onsen tamago) in 5 minutes?

The other week I was waiting in line at the grocery store and I saw a copy of Cook's Illustrated sitting on display.  An article jumped out to me, titled "Perfect soft boiled eggs."  My curiosity was piqued so I hurried up and skimmed the article before it was my time to check out.  The biggest takeaway from the article was the use of steam to cook eggs to precise doneness - it was kind of a revelation to me, someone who has struggled with getting consistent results with hard boiled eggs.  Often, because I am scaling egg amounts, my hard boiled eggs are difficult to get quite right.  Adding different amounts of eggs to already-boiling water changes the temperature of the water significantly enough that your assumptions about cook temperature can no longer be trusted.  With steam, you know that you are always cooking at 212º (assuming you are relatively close to sea level blah blah) so whether you are cooking 1 egg or a dozen, the times are consistent and the results are predictable.  It's a fantastic knowledge tidbit to have tucked away, and a reminder of how great Cook's Illustrated can be when it is on form.  Thinking more about the concept of cooking with steam, I eventually settled on a question that I wanted to resolve:

I often cook slow poached eggs at home, could I use the steam technique to cook them at a fraction of the time?  

Slow poached eggs are also referred to as 60 minute eggs, or onsen tomago in Japan (onsen being natural hot springs, the story being that eggs are traditionally left by local residents in onsen and, upon being retrieved, are perfectly cooked).  Slow poach eggs are cooked in a water bath at a temperature of 145º for 45 minutes to an hour - resulting in a white that is just set (white but still runny) and a yolk that is beginning to thicken but not yet cooked (which would first begin to turn into a fudge-like consistency before hitting what we think of as hard-boiled).  Because the water never goes above 145º, the eggs are never done past where they should be.  The only downside to the water bath is that it takes a long time and requires a fair amount of planning in advance.  Here is a chart depicting the different doneness of eggs.  Notice that at 144º we are seeing whites turning white but very much still runny.  Also - tangent - it's fucking fascinating that 2 degrees of difference from  146º to 148º causes that much of a change in the yolks.  Eggs are amazing things.

(photo from

Cook's Illustrated recipe for soft boiled eggs was to place the eggs in a steamer for 6 minutes 30 seconds before immediately transferring to an ice bath.  I cut that to 6 minutes 10 seconds because I wanted the yolks to be even runnier (they began setting at 6:30) but otherwise it works like a charm.  I wondered if I could cut that cook time in order to just solidify the whites but not cook them to soft boiled, thus rendering me a soft poached egg.  I attempted to steam 2 eggs with times of 4 minutes and 5 minutes (I made an assumption that cooking time would follow an exponential curve, taking a while to heat up but then heating incredibly quickly after a few minutes).  My results were that the whites on the 4 minute eggs were still mostly clear and uncooked - completely unusable in their current form. The whites on the 5 minute egg were milky and still somewhat runny, and the yolk was thickened.

5 minute egg
It was a  good result, unfortunately I realized that one of my fears had come true.  Because I placed the eggs in a 212º heat source, the whites closest to the shell will always completely set (to a rubbery state).  I ran head on into the very reason that sous vide cookery exists - providing even cooking throughout a product through consistent temperature application.  You can't fake even heating, you can only work around it.  My plans were foiled and my question is answered - you cannot make a slow poached egg in 5 minutes using steam.  However, I would say that cutting Cook's Illustrated's times down did result in a totally usable egg.  For times when I don't want to wait 45 minutes but I want something resembling a slow poached egg, I will be more than happy to quickly steam one to get a similar result.  At least I found a perfectly suitable substitute.  Next time, I will attempt cutting 5 minutes down to perhaps 4:45 or so, to see if it creates noticeable differences in the amount of set whites.  I suspect that it will be difficult to find the precise point where eggs stop being clear and start being whites through steam-based heating though.

Makeshift oyakodon - leftover chicken karaage and tomagoyaki with the 5 minute egg

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Vietnamese Coffee At Home

Needless to say, living in Boston this week has been pretty hectic.  It has been emotionally draining and exhausting, even to those who were not directly impacted by the week's events.  After the week that we have had, a day for rest and creature comforts is a welcome change of pace.

Ever since our trip to Vietnam, I go through periods where I get intense cravings for Vietnamese coffee.  Vietnamese coffee is much different than western coffee, it is incredibly strong stuff - jet fuel by way of coffee beans.  Often served with condensed milk, both hot or iced, it was a treat for me to have in the afternoons, especially during our motorcycle trip through the mountains, when my ears were numb and I had been huffing 2-cycle exhaust for hours.  I had never seen the little drip coffee makers that were ubiquitous throughout Vietnam, so I picked one up in Hanoi before heading home.  I also bought a couple of bags of ground coffee to keep my addiction going.

Of course, upon returning home, I failed miserably at making the small potent servings of coffee, instead getting watery runoff that obviously left most of the coffee flavor in the grounds.  I would search the internet for tips or how-to's and found nothing but advice that did nothing - convincing me of everything from the grounds being both too fine and too coarse, needing to tamp the grinds, or needing an entirely new coffee dripper (which I had a hard time believing considering mine was no different than the ones I saw in Vietnam).  I attempted and gave up several times over the course of a year and a half, before finally coming across the secret.  I hope that sharing this with the blog world will get more westerners into this stuff, because it is absolutely phenomenal.

The coffee dripper can be found on Amazon for as little as $3.  I have seen fancy ones that include clamps and screws for tightening filter plates and all kinds of features, but you don't need anything more than what is pictured above:  a perforated saucer, a well for the grinds and water, and a lid.  You also will need coffee.  You can find coffee beans grown in the central highlands of Vietnam, or some sources say to use coffee with chicory added (Cafe du Monde coffee, based out of New Orleans, is the most widely available source for chicory coffee).  The coffee that I bought in Vietnam did not have any chicory added and I will probably try sticking to a dark French roast when my last bag is empty.  

Start by bringing water to a boil on the stovetop.  If you would like condensed milk, spoon some into a glass (standard amounts are anywhere from ¼-½ of the amount of coffee).  If needed, grind the coffee finely (nearly espresso grind), then add 2-3 tablespoons of coffee to the drip well.  Place the drip well into the saucer and place the whole filter on top of your glass.  When the water is boiling, add JUST enough water to cover the grinds in the well - probably 2 tablespoons or so.  Wait for the grinds to soak up the water, you can check by tapping the side of the well, if the water sloshes then it is not quite ready.  When the grounds are soaked but not sloshing, spoon in enough boiling water to fill up the well, and put the lid on.  It will take a minute or two for the drip to begin but you should see one part of the filter start to drip.  Get ready for liquid gold.

Start to finish, making a cup of coffee could take upwards of 5 minutes.  You can lift the lid to make sure that all of the water has dripped through, and when the coffee is ready, simply take the lid off and flip it upside down.  Take off the saucer/well and place them on the inverted lid and you have a safe and no-fuss way of setting aside your used grounds until you want to deal with them.  Stir to mix in the condensed milk and enjoy.  

Take baby sips and make it last, it is worth it.