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North African–Style Poached Eggs

By Annie Petito Published

Shakshuka’s savory, aromatic tomato sauce is a perfect foil for rich, runny eggs. If only it were a great poaching liquid, too.

Forgive me while I take a minute to gush like a perfectly poached egg about why I love shakshuka. This dish features eggs gently poached in a bright, savory tomato sauce fragrant with warm spices and spiked with red pepper and pops of fresh herbs. The runny yolks mingle with the sauce, and everything gets scooped up with pita or crusty bread. It is often customized with additions such as crumbled cheeses, olives, sausage, or ground lamb—making it an excellent breakfast‑for‑dinner option—and may be further enlivened by condiments such as harissa, zesty herb sauce, or even tahini.

I’m not alone in my devotion: This North African dish has long been a favorite across the Middle East and Europe, and in recent years its popularity has spread to the United States. As if all this isn’t enough, there’s also a practical reason to love shakshuka: A basic version comes together quickly from staples I’m likely to have on hand. Chopped tomatoes (canned work well), red peppers, aromatics, and spices get cooked in a skillet until the flavors blend and the sauce thickens; you then crack in the eggs, cover the pan, and cook until they’re done.

The only downside to shakshuka is that if you’re making enough to serve four, getting eight eggs perfectly poached—with gently set whites and thickened but still runny yolks—in a single skillet can be a challenge. But if there was ever a dish I was inspired to make foolproof, it was this one.

In the first round of tests, we chopped softened red bell pepper to create a chunkier sauce.

Get Cracking

I first focused on the sauce. In a 12-inch skillet, I softened red bell pepper that I’d cut into ½‑inch pieces and then added sliced garlic. When the garlic turned golden, I added tomato paste for savory depth and bloomed a few ground spices in oil: coriander, smoked paprika, cumin, and cayenne. Once the tomato paste had darkened, in went canned tomatoes, which I intentionally left chunky.  

After a 10-minute simmer, the sauce had thickened slightly, so I quickly cracked eight eggs into the pan, covered it, and waited. After a few minutes, I peeked. Things had already gone awry. The eggs I’d added first were cooking faster than the others. The eggs nestled deeply into the sauce had hard yolks, while eggs near the surface had runny yolks but watery whites. The sauce wasn’t great either; its flavor was nondescript, and though the pepper’s texture was pleasing, I couldn’t taste it through all the tomato.

I made a couple of changes. First, I swapped the fresh bell pepper for smoky, sweet jarred roasted ones. I also doubled the spices. When it came time to add the eggs, I removed the skillet from the burner to eliminate the urgency of adding them over heat and to help them cook at a more even rate. These were all improvements, but the eggs still sank into the sauce to varying degrees, so they remained unevenly cooked. I also realized that there were watery patches in the sauce.

The Pursuit of Evenly Cooked Eggs

  • Test #1: Nestling the eggs in groups of two, hoping that fewer wells of eggs might cook more evenly

    Result: More watery whites

  • Test #2: Leaving the skillet uncovered

    Result: The eggs cooked too slowly

  • Test #3: Rotating the skillet around the burner to evenly heat the entire pan

    Result: Too fussy of a process; still did not achieve a proper cook

Through Thick and Thin

When eggs are poached in water, they are completely submerged in a thin liquid of uniform consistency. But here, the eggs were sitting in a chunky liquid. Was that the cause of the uneven cooking?

I tried processing the tomatoes and half the red peppers in a blender and then adding the remaining red peppers, finely chopped, for just a little texture. The results were encouraging. The yolks were evenly contained and surrounded by the smooth sauce. They were also more evenly cooked. Our science research editor explained that chunks in a sauce impede convection currents, whereas a smoother, more fluid sauce carries heat more evenly (see “For More Evenly Cooked Eggs, Smooth Out the Sauce”). I was thrilled to have worked out the yolks’ cooking, but I still had loose whites and a weepy sauce to deal with.

For More Evenly Cooked Eggs, Smooth Out the Sauce

  • We started with a sauce full of large pieces of red peppers and tomatoes. However, we found that a smoother sauce helped the eggs cook at a more even rate. That’s because a chunky sauce impedes the convection currents that transfer heat. Thus, an egg surrounded by large pieces will cook more slowly than an egg sitting in a smooth sauce. Pureeing the sauce ensured that the eggs were surrounded by a consistently smooth, fluid sauce for a more even transfer of heat.

Traditional gazpacho, in which vegetables are pureed until smooth, can also separate this way. But Spanish cooks have a solution: Add bread. Would that work here? I added a slice of white sandwich bread to the blender with a batch of tomatoes and red peppers. The resulting sauce was silky-smooth and stayed homogeneous after cooking. Moving forward, I swapped in pita, which I’d be serving with the dish anyway.

Adding pita bread to the sauce helps bind the extra water from the tomatoes to prevent the sauce from weeping.
Spooning the warm sauce over the egg whites helps speed their cooking so they will set by the time the quicker-cooking yolks are thickened but still runny.

Cover Up

I still needed to speed up the cooking of the thicker egg whites, which remained loose and watery around the yolks. Plopping the eggs into the sauce neatly contained the yolks and cooked them from underneath and around the sides, but the whites flowed freely over the surface of the sauce. I wondered if I could use the sauce to help contain the whites and cook them faster.

Once I added the eggs (making slight divots in the sauce with the back of a spoon helped map out where to drop each one), I spooned some of the sauce over the whites so they were more contained and submerged in the hot sauce, hoping it would transfer heat to them faster than the air above them in the covered skillet would. Sure enough, in my next batch, by the time the yolks were soft and golden, the whites had set.

It was time for the garnishes: chopped fresh cilantro, sliced kalamata olives, and crumbled feta were all simple but potent. (But if you’re interested in creating a truly knockout dish, whip up a batch of zhoug, a spicy green sauce of fresh herbs and chiles that’s often served alongside shakshuka.)

With this satisfying, richly flavored version featuring perfectly oozy, creamy eggs, I fell in love with shakshuka all over again.

Recipe Eggs in Spicy Tomato and Roasted Red Pepper Sauce (Shakshuka)

Shakshuka's savory, aromatic tomato sauce is a perfect foil for the rich, runny eggs. If only it were a great poaching liquid, too.

Recipe Eggs in Spicy Tomato and Roasted Red Pepper Sauce for Two (Shakshuka)

Shakshuka's savory, aromatic tomato sauce is a perfect foil for the rich, runny eggs. If only it were a great poaching liquid, too.

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