If you boil an egg for 20 minutes you will not have a soft-boiled egg.

I didn’t learn this the hard way; I learned it from a joke: “Now it has boiled for 20 minutes – and it is not soft yet?”  The idea of boiling an egg for 20 minutes had never been on my mind before I heard the joke.

If you use a fresh large egg – large is a standard size for eggs, as is small or extra-large, and refers to the weight of the egg – and take it out of the refrigerator when you set the water to boil in a pot, puncture the thick end with an egg piercer, and put the egg into the water when the water boils, a soft-boiled egg needs 5 minutes and 26 seconds at sea level. That gives you white egg white and runny yolk.  If you like clear runny egg white, modify the boiling time.  I don’t.

Should you live high in the mountains where lower air pressure can result in the water boiling at a slightly lower temperature, you may need to give the egg a little more time – a little more being less than half a minute more.  If you take the egg directly from the refrigerator when the water boils, it also needs more time.  If your egg sits in a bowl on the kitchen counter and is room temperature before you put it in the pot, it needs less time.

You puncture the thick end of the egg with an egg piercer because this end contains a little bubble of air.  When the air expands, as it does when it gets heated, it can escape out of the hole.  Otherwise, the eggshell may crack while you are boiling the egg.

When the time is up, you throw out the boiling water and shock the egg with cold water to stop the boiling.  Then you throw out the cold water or your egg will get cold.  If you don’t shock the egg, it will continue boiling and be hardboiled if it sits for more than a couple of minutes.  Unless you get an egg immediately after it has come from the kitchen, it will almost always be hardboiled if you go to a hotel where they serve soft-boiled eggs for breakfast.  That is because their eggs haven’t been shocked.

Some eggs are almost oval and it can be difficult to tell the thick end – the bottom – from the other end – the top.  If you put the cold egg to your lips, the end with the air bubble will heat up faster.  If no end of the egg heats up within 10 seconds, the egg may be rotten, and you should throw it away.  Don’t check by breaking the egg to make a fried egg instead.  Rotten eggs smell like, well, rotten eggs.  (This simple trick can also be used for normally shaped eggs that you just don’t remember when you bought. Boiling time may vary with freshness.)

Don’t use plastic or silver when you eat your egg or store a cracked egg or whisk it in a bowl.  Egg will make silver black because eggs contain Sulphur that interacts with the silver.  Eggs will chemically bond with your plastic bowl and you may get some of the artificial hormones or carcinogens drawn out of the plastic and into the cake/omelet.

Warning: Raw or undercooked eggs may contain SalmonellaBut the bacteria are mainly on the outside of the shell, being transferred from the bird shit, so the risk with soft-boiled eggs – where the shell has been heated to boiling point – is minimal compared to for example using raw egg yolks in ice cream.  If you only need the raw egg yolk, you can pour boiling water over the raw egg while it is lying the sink before you crack it and you have reduced the risk of Salmonella considerably.  If you need raw egg whites, buy them pasteurized.

From “If you use a fresh large egg…”, everything but what is written in italics has been learned from my father cooking breakfast on weekends.  My mother taught me the boldfaced part.  I taught my father the italics part later.

Salmonella wasn’t much of a thing before the egg farmers started giving their chicken antibiotics in the feed to make them fat faster.  We used plenty of raw eggs when I was growing up.  We never ate soft-boiled eggs except on weekends.  On weekdays, we ate cereal before rushing off to school – not raw eggs.

I didn’t need Simon Sinek to teach me that the Why – why we are in business, why we think like we do, why eggs take longer to boil in the mountains – is important for getting the message through.  My father always explained why.  If you don’t know why things are one way and not another, it is much harder to remember – or to wish to listen in the first place.  “Because I said so” never held any value in our household.

A central part of the teaching was that I would boil eggs.  Explain, show, practice, practice, practice.

Can you swim?  Speak a foreign language?  Or ride a bike?  Some things just can’t be learned from reading a book or watching a video.

But whether you will ever attempt to learn to swim, or ride a bike, or make a white sauce, or boil an egg, or do anything else that you don’t master already, may hinge on whether you trust that the teacher will keep you reasonably safe.  Safe physically or from ridicule.

If you got punished or ridiculed for “serving runny or hardboiled eggs”, you may never have learned to cook them to perfection.  You will probably not even like eggs.

But you should know why.  The reason may have gone away.

I wrote this piece a while back – and then I heard Dianne Wyzga listen to a beautiful and very relatable story by Jeff Ikler in his Getting Unstuck podcast. You can listen to Jeff’s story, too ⤵︎



Charlotte Wittenkamp
Charlotte Wittenkamp
Charlotte Wittenkamp is an organizational psychologist who counsels international transfers, immigrants, and foreign students in overcoming culture shock. Originating from Denmark, where she worked in organizational development primarily in the finance industry, Charlotte has lived in California since 1998. Her own experiences relocating lead down a path of research into value systems and communication patterns. She shares this knowledge and experience through speaking and writing and on her website Many of these “learning experiences” along with a context to put them in can be found in her book Building Bridges Across Cultural Differences, Why Don’t I Follow Your Norms?. On the side, she leads a multinational and multigenerational communication training group.

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  1. Charlotte — Thanks for this enjoyable romp through the chicken coup and kitchen, and for the shout-out.

    I learn best from seeing. I can read a recipe, and I can read how to make a “perfect” cast with a fly rod, but I’m much more likely to pick up the skill if I watch it demonstrated.

    The line in my mom’s kitchen between nutrition and love was so blurred that she created a new line: the sustenance of body and soul.

    • I am so happy that you shared your story, Jeff.
      I am sure that food and love is intricately intertwined for many, not just you and me. And that the connection between creating a safe space and learning also works for others than you and me.

  2. The boiling of eggs may sound easy, but as you show clearly Charlotte, it varies with many factors like where the egg was stored, the altitude and even quality of the egg itself.
    The trapped air in one end of the egg is another issue.

    As much as boiling eggs may sound easy it is a skill to get boiling right. It takes practice. Even serving the eggs right is equally important.

    Skills take time to build. Coaches need to understand this and be patient. The coach should always remember that it took her/him time to gain the skill.

    • Just by pure chance, last night we watched a movie where a cook has learned from his father to do poached eggs. “First I boiled 1000 eggs” he tells somebody else. What we do, boiling an egg or making a white sauce or hitting a baseball, becomes so much more if the learning is attached to memories of love or ridicule.

  3. Very interesting I never knew so much about boiling eggs. But I agree if you don’t get it right and your ridiculed you may never learn. I grew up with a very stern dad abd if we didn’t do something right the first time we were either punished or ridiculed. Needless to say we tried to get it right and we didn’t all the rest of my brothers and sisters would learn from each others punishment. There was nine children in our family. So I tend to catch on quickly to new things. Great article.

    • I am so happy that you got the gist of what this silly post is about, Eva. I am happy that your team of loyal siblings could share the burden of your father’s probably less than helpful attitude.