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Cracking the Boiled Egg Mystery

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Kitchen Mysteries is a weekly exploration of oddities surrounding cooking and food. They could be recipes that fail when they shouldn’t, conflicting advice from different sources, or just plain weirdness. If it happens in a kitchen, and you’re not sure why, send a tweet to The Food Geek to find out what’s happening.

Friend of The Food Geek AGamersEdu asks via Twitter:

In my experience, preparation is key to boiling an egg. This either means that preparation is, indeed, key, or it could mean that I have terrible technique. Still, here’s what I’ve found.

  • A fresh egg is harder to peel than an old egg.
  • Baking soda in the water can help make a fresh egg easier to peel.
  • An egg left to cool is easier to peel than an egg left to sit.
  • Not hitting a full-boil keeps the egg intact, which makes it easier to peel.
  • Fancy internet peeling techniques are foolishness. Foolishness, I say!

A fresh egg is harder to peel than an old egg. Under most circumstances, fresh eggs are what you want when you’re cooking. They hold their shape better, they have better flavor, and they’re generally happier eggs. However, an egg is a functional device, not just a culinary package waiting to make our omelettes, soufflés, mayonnaises, custards, and sundry baked goods. Though it may surprise some, eggs are meant to create chickens, which means that, as time progresses, eggs will undergo physical and chemical changes as time passes, most of which are meant to help the growing chicken to hatch. The farther along the egg has developed, the more the egg will want to be broken, because that makes it easier for the chicken to get out. Those same changes make it easier to crack and to peel an egg, even if no chicken has developed inside.

Baking soda in the water can help make a fresh egg easier to peel. One of the changes that happens to an egg over time is that it goes from being acidic to being alkaline. One effect of this is turning your blueberries into greenberries in baked goods. Another is to cause the albumen in the egg whites to stick to each other more than they stick to the egg shell. Not even Harold McGee knows quite why, unless he’s found out since having written the most recent edition of On Food and Cooking, but that’s what happens. So, you can naturally let the egg age, or you can put a little baking soda into the cooking water. I use about a teaspoon for a medium pot of water. The water passes through the shell and makes the egg less likely to stick to the shell, which makes it easier to peel. An older egg, and an egg treated this way, will have a slightly more sulfuric smell than the equivalent fresh egg. Not enough to bother me when I cook them, but that is a downside.

An egg left to cool is easier to peel than an egg left to sit. You can put the eggs into the refrigerator to cool them, or you can shock them in cold water for a faster effect. Because water holds heat better than air, it will cause the temperature of the eggs to drop more quickly. However, if you’re not in a hurry, go ahead and cool the eggs in the refrigerator.

Not hitting a full-boil keeps the egg intact, which makes it easier to peel. If you actually boil the eggs, then there are a lot of bubbles, which causes the eggs to bump around and crack. Once the egg cracks, there’s a big mess, and a smell worse than that of a little baking soda in the water, and you’ll just be generally unhappy. The best way to avoid this mess is to not boil the eggs at all. I prefer to bring the temperature of the water to between 170 and 180, hold it there for 10 minutes, then remove the eggs. There are lots of variations to this, but the end goal is basically to get the center of the egg to 165°F. You could do this with fancy scientific equipment to hold the water exactly at 165°F for 30 minutes or as long as you’d like. You could  cook them on a grill, put them in a salt crust and bake them, put them in a hot smoker, or whatever you’d like. Some of those methods are trickier than others, and I don’t really know how the flavor would change with the salt and smoked versions, but if you’re feeling adventurous, let me know how it goes.

Fancy internet peeling techniques are foolishness. Foolishness, I say! So if you spend a little time on Google or, presumably, some other search engine, you’ll find that people like this technique of, well, see for yourself:

This technique seems to work, but it only works if you do all of the other steps properly. And if you do all the other steps properly, then the eggs are easy to peal, and you don’t have to put everyone’s eggs to your mouth in order to remove them from your shell. The other downside to this technique is that, if you don’t manage to ensure that the shell is extremely easy to remove by following all of the other steps, then the white will stick to part of the shell and rip the egg in half.

So, follow these guidelines, and your peeling life will be much easier. Neglect them, and perhaps a proper technique will save you, or perhaps you’ll just end up losing a lot of the white to the process.

If anyone has any other peeling tips, please leave them in the comments. I would especially love to hear from someone who has to peel many hard-boiled eggs every day.

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  • LilTam | 02/05/2017

    You have it all wrong all of you! Don't make this hard! Well make them hard boiled!!lol Take it from me and my mom. All you do, no matter how fresh or old or how long you boil your egg, it does not matter, put your boiled egg in a glass of cold water cup your hand over it or a container small in size so the egg doesn't get jostled around too much and shake the container vigorously and the peel will come off so easy you'll wonder where this post has been all your egg boiling days!!

  • jmcdvm | 12/14/2010

    WOW, blowing into eggs to peel them. What clever way to inoculate egg dishes with Staphylococcus, Listeria or Hepatitis virus etc., for starters. I relish the thought of having some cook's assistant in the kitchen, with a zit on their lip or cold sores or cankers, sharing their micro-flora through my food. If you are in the food prep business, this would also be an ingenious way to lose your license, should the local food health authority observe this technique. Perhaps licking your fingers clean to save a few steps to the hand wash sink could be the encore. And after 30+ years in regulatory food safety I thought I had seen it all, wrong!

  • matisse | 07/03/2010

    After boiling the eggs... shock them by running cold water over them while still in the pan. Let set a few minutes. Leave eggs in the pan with a little water, not even an inch, and place a lid on the pan. Shake vigorously back and forth. The shells come off the eggs by themselves. You might have a few stubborn ones which you can run under water to relieve the peel.

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