It is very easy to poach a couple of eggs in a saucepan for a couple of minutes and come out with nice looking perfectly cooked eggs. We use the swirl method, which causes the stray white to wrap around the egg instead of filling up your pan. While it is time consuming, you can also cook them in an Instant Pot: it doesn’t work very well.
But suppose you are making poached eggs for a crowd. We once made Eggs Benedict for 11: that’s 22 eggs. How can you do this quickly and efficiently? Fortunately mass production of poached eggs has been solved years ago, and Harold McGee describes it in his magnum opus, On Food and Cooking.
You use a large pot and add 1 Tb of salt and ½ Tb of vinegar per quart of water. What happens seems almost like a magic trick: you break the eggs into the pot of barely boiling water. They sink to the bottom. But when the eggs are done, they float to the top. You lift them out and put them on toast or muffins to serve. There is no need to keep track of which egg is next. You just keep adding eggs and lift them out when they pop up.
Eggs at the bottom of the pot
Eggs coming to the surface
What is happening is a little bit of chemistry: the vinegar reacts with a bit of bicarbonate in the egg whites, forming small bubbles of carbon dioxide. As the egg white coagulates, the bubbles get trapped in the cooking egg. The salt increases the density of the water just enough that after about 3 minutes of cooking the eggs and their bubbles will float to the surface. And there are no long tails of uncooked white, either. They always look perfect!
To make this work best, you want to use freshly bought eggs, and for a large crowd, use an 8-quart spaghetti cooker pan.
For our photos, to make it easier to see, we used just a 3 quart pan, but you could easily do 6-8 eggs in it, scooping them out as they float to the surface.
And that’s the whole trick. And for even a few eggs, this is a really helpful trick!
Microwaved Poached Eggs
Someone is always publishing some other weird idea for cooking eggs, and here’s another one that doesn’t really work: microwave poached eggs. Supposedly, you put ½ cup of water into a small bowl, break an egg into the water, and cover the dish with a plate and microwave it for a minute.
We tried it, and the egg was seriously overcooked. And while we could have fooled with it to find the right time for our microwave oven, we didn’t bother, because it really doesn’t scale much beyond 2 eggs. You’d have to do them separately, and you get a lot of little bowls (and plates) dirty.
Stick with the swirl method for 2-4 eggs and use the crowd method for large numbers of customers.