There’s no way around it – poaching an egg takes practice. The concept is not complicated – an egg hangs out in a hot-but-not-boiling-water bath and cooks gently until the whites are set and the yolk is runny or slightly thickened – but actually doing it can be elusively difficult. On top of that, everybody and their dog that does this has a foolproof, always-works trick to get it right. It’s like the beer commercial says, “It’s only weird if it doesn’t work.”

What you need:
– A pan full of water. Think: the egg needs to be comfortably submerged in water but not so deep that you can’t get it out. A wider pan means you can do more eggs at once. A friend tipped me that deeper is better, as this helps the eggs keep their shape; I later tried this in a stockpot, and while the eggs worked perfectly, I don’t think it needs to be that deep. But enough to cover the eggs by a few inches.
– Fresh eggs. Fresher is definitely better.
– A bowl of ice water. Used for shocking the cooked egg to stop cooking – else, your beautifully poached egg can almost hard-boil itself.

What you do:
– Bring the water to a simmer. If you have a thermometer handy, look for 180F-190F. Not boiling, not bubbling at the surface, but definitely hot to the touch.
– (Optional) Stir the water to create some movement. This is one of those “tricks” meant to help keep the egg from spreading out too far in the pan. I don’t always do this, but sometimes I do. If nothing else, it makes me feel better.
– Crack the egg on a flat surface, hold it right at the surface of the water, and break the egg gently into the water.
– Do nothing. Resist the urge to poke the egg. Don’t worry about flyaway whites. Wait for 4-6 minutes (shorter end if you really like runny eggs, longer if you like harder eggs; I like mine on the well-done side of poached).
– With a slotted spoon, carefully work under the egg to free it from the bottom of the pan. Lift gently to the surface and make sure the whites are cooked through. If not, put it back to cook for another 30-60 seconds and check again.
– Dunk the egg in the ice water. At this point, you’re stable – you can store these in the refrigerator under ice water for a couple of days if you need.
– Take the egg out of the ice water, and with a knife, trim any flyaways that aren’t pretty. A poached egg should look like an egg.
– Return to a pot of hot-but-not-boiling-water for 30-60 seconds to reheat. You’re taking the chill off the egg but not leaving it long enough to cook more. Dab dry on a side towel or paper towel to take away excess moisture.
– Salt the egg. A few twists of black pepper. Eat and enjoy.

A few common tricks:
– Vinegar: Some would say to add vinegar to the cooking water, in order to firm up the whites. If I understand correctly, egg whites to firm up a bit in acid, but you’re not adding much to the water, and I don’t like the smell of cooking vinegar water.
– Stirring the pot: Creating a “vortex” in the pot helps spin the whites around the yolk as it sets. I’ve found that if you crack the egg in the center of the swirl, this can work. If you crack at the side of a spinning pot, I flung the yolk clear out of the whites and ended up with something that resembled a hard boiled comet. Like I said, I usually do it, if for no other reason than to make me feel better and more confident. (Placebo effects are still effects, people.)
– Strain the egg: This one also works for me, especially with eggs that are a bit older. Usually. The idea is that egg whites aren’t all the same, and some of the white in an egg is runny and some is thick. With a fine mesh strainer or properly slotted spoon, you can drain off the thin whites and only keep the thick whites and the yolk. This definitely reduces flyaways, although I have had trouble with yolks separating from the whites in the process.
– Egg stands for poaching: They bug me. I can’t do anything else with them. So, I don’t own them.

Some additional reading: