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Cracking the Boiled Egg Mystery

By Brian Geiger, contributor

June 4th, 2009

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.

posted in: Blogs, food geek, temperature, egg, baking soda, heat, cooking, boiling, peeling
Comments (12)

jmcdvm writes: 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! Posted: 2:08 am on December 14th

matisse writes: 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. Posted: 11:31 am on July 3rd

samso writes: Responding to Cooksbakesbooks and other cooks who are making devilled eggs. If you are making devilled eggs, there is NO REASON to peel the egg! Just use a good serated knife and CUT the boiled egg in half lengthwise. Then using a good spoon, scoop out the halves like you would with an avocado! The egg comes out perfectly and there is no messy broken eggs or shells attached to the egg. Posted: 2:41 am on October 3rd

Pat1969 writes: I have to admit. This is the VERY BEST tip ever in having success with peeling eggs. I have often been asked to make vast amounts (up to 300) deviled eggs for occasions and usually counted on about a 10% or more failure rate, which left a lot for egg salad if you know what I mean. Since I have been using this technique...what a difference! I recently made 36 deviled eggs for a picnic and while I still cooked a few extra, only 2 out of the lot had any problems at all. Had I been just making them for myself, I would have used them anyway, divots and all. I'm spreading the word. Another kitchen mystery laid to rest. Posted: 12:46 pm on August 2nd

Cooksbakesbooks writes: I did catering for a short time years ago, and I offered to make deviled eggs as an appetizer for a wedding reception. Nightmare deluxe. I was up all night peeling eggs and half the white came off with each one. The eggs were very fresh. My days as a caterer were short-lived, and the boiled egg disaster was one experience that led me to re-think my catering career. The reception was lovely, but the eggs were not.

Great post, as always! Posted: 1:00 am on July 14th

Leahh writes: The last time I made hard-cooked eggs, I had a fabulous success. I--
1. Left the eggs at room temperature for several hours before cooking.
2. Put them in cold water, single layer, with ~2" of water over eggs.
3. Brought the water to a boil, covered the pan, pulled it off the burner, and let it sit for 12 minutes.
4. Scooped the eggs out of the hot water and let them cool in cold water, replacing the water as the eggs warmed it.

The eggs peeled perfectly! I hope it wasn't a fluke... Posted: 3:39 pm on June 9th

BasementBaker writes: The video is great. Who would've known... Posted: 1:29 pm on June 9th

solveigc writes: We always tapped the bottom and top of the egg, as shown in the video, but we tapped around the entire egg next instead of blowing it out of the shell. This was my grandmother's sure fire way of peeling the eggs without destroying them. She was the family food guru and her tricks have always been useful in the kitchen. Although, you can bet I'll be trying this method with my four children! Posted: 10:49 am on June 5th

MoeRubenzahl writes: And sometimes, no matter what -- the damn things are hard to peel! I don't know why.

I have tried most of this and agree across the board. I use running water if the egg doesn't peel easily and I agree, it does help.

Instead of boiling, I bring them to a boil, then cover and turn off. About 12 minutes gives a soft yolk, as in the picture at the top of the page, 15-20 if you want a dryer, pale yellow yolk.

Anyone have a good cooking formula for a soft-boiled egg? Posted: 1:10 am on June 5th

diamath writes: the fresher the egg, the harder to peel Posted: 11:19 pm on June 4th

melissapellegrino writes: I too peel my eggs under cold running water - it is the only method i found that works everytime! Posted: 3:54 pm on June 4th

sbreckenridge writes: Peeling eggs under running water works like a charm. The water seems to get under the shell and loosen it. But the blowing-it-out tip sounds like a fun party trick! Posted: 1:56 pm on June 4th

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