The se­cret life of eggs

The Daily Telegraph - Saturday - - Food & Drink -

As Os­car Wilde said, “An egg is al­ways an ad­ven­ture.” In terms of culi­nary po­ten­tial, eggs open up end­less pos­si­bil­i­ties: fried, boiled, scram­bled, in omelettes, mousses and souf­flés, de­ployed to stick bread­crumbs to a fish­cake or lend a golden gloss to the pas­try of a chicken pie — to name just a few of their roles.

Pon­der­ing the ques­tion of just how many things could be done with an egg led Amer­i­can jour­nal­ist Michael Ruhlman to publish a book ded­i­cated to the ovoid won­der, which he de­scribes as “a mir­a­cle we walk past ev­ery day”.

I spoke to Ruhlman while he was on a break from film­ing a new tele­vi­sion se­ries in the US – he was pre­vi­ously a judge on the pro­fes­sional cook­ing chal­lenge Next Iron Chef, although he de­scribes him­self as a home cook, hav­ing trained at – but not grad­u­ated from – the pres­ti­gious Culi­nary In­sti­tute of Amer­ica. Mind you, his cre­den­tials are good – he has col­lab­o­rated on cook­books with chefs in­clud­ing the culi­nary su­per­star Thomas Keller of Cal­i­for­nia’s French Laun­dry.

Eggs have never en­joyed the sta­tus of su­per­star in­gre­di­ent. That is down to their ubiq­uity, Ruhlman ex­plains. “They are common, they are rel­a­tively in­ex­pen­sive and most of us have eggs in the kitchen. But in fact they are a tiny mar­vel of econ­omy, de­li­cious­ness, nu­tri­tious­ness and power.” It is, he reck­ons, worth your while learn­ing to use them well, be­cause “if you know how to use an egg you in­crease your cook­ing skills ex­po­nen­tially”.

Ruhlman de­cided to think about the egg’s role log­i­cally, break­ing down the recipes and tech­niques that in­volved cook­ing it in and out of its shell, sep­a­rat­ing it or not, fry­ing, poach­ing, bak­ing and so on. Scrib­bling in pen­cil on a roll of bak­ing parch­ment, he wrote “egg” in the cen­tre of the page and built a flow chart of the uses of the egg. The idea, he says, “ex­ploded in my mind”, grow­ing faster than a meringue in the mi­crowave – not a recipe you’ll find in his book, although there are di­rec­tions for poach­ing an egg in a plas­tic bag. The huge di­a­gram forms the ba­sis of the book, oc­cu­py­ing the cover as well as a fold-out di­a­gram in the back.

It’s full of nifty tips, such as how to make hard-boiled eggs easy to peel (pres­sure cook them, ap­par­ently – es­pe­cially use­ful when deal­ing with no­to­ri­ously tricky oeufs mol­lets or soft-boiled eggs) and why non-stick pans should gen­er­ally be avoided – they stop food brown­ing prop­erly.

I’d quib­ble with some of the pro­nounce­ments – his “un­der­cooked” hard-boiled eggs, with a hint of dark orange lin­ger­ing at the cen­tre of the yolk, look per­fect to me. As for cook­ing eggs sous vide, very slowly in a bath of hot wa­ter, can that ever be a worth­while use of time? Es­pe­cially when the re­sult, even in the beau­ti­ful photographs taken by Ruhlman’s wife, Deb­bie, looks frankly snotty. And de­spite a care­ful con­ver­sion of mea­sure­ments from Amer­i­can cups to metric for the Bri­tish mar­ket, some things don’t quite trans­late – like the egg salad, which is what we’d call egg may­on­naise and put in a sand­wich. But then, he is stick­ing his neck out – what suits Ruhlman might not suit me, but at least I know ex­actly where he stands. And he agrees cheer­fully when I tackle him on his dog­ma­tism: “I speak my mind. I’m not al­ways right, but I’m al­ways cer­tain.”

This means the di­rec­tions are sat­is­fy­ingly pre­cise, with lots of clear photographs of tech­niques. And yes, he does have a recipe for how to boil an egg, in­clud­ing that tricky firm white/soft yolk ma­trix. Ap­par­ently the trick is to cover the egg with an inch of wa­ter, bring to the proper boil (at least 98C, if you are count­ing), then cover and draw off the heat. Leave to stand for three min­utes, no more, then fish out with a slot­ted spoon and serve.

So how else can I be a bet­ter egg cook? Watch the tem­per­a­ture, Ruhlman tells me. “The most im­por­tant thing is to recog­nise that eggs like gen­tle heat – the most fre­quently over­cooked dish is prob­a­bly scram­bled eggs. We cook them too hard, over a high heat and quickly, when we should re­ally take our time and do them slowly so that the curd is very del­i­cate and not rubbery. There should be enough liq­uid left to almost “sauce” those curds, so that they are juicy, and you end up with de­li­cious self-sauced eggs.”

Beyond that, Ruhlman breaks down egg’s role into three main func­tions: as main in­gre­di­ent (for ex­am­ple in meringues), or the fo­cus of the dish (such as a poached egg salad), or a “tool”. Sep­a­rated, they have new prop­er­ties, he ex­plains. “The whites are pro­tein that can be used as bin­der in meat­balls and fishcakes. Or they can be whipped and filled with air – then if you add sugar and flour it be­comes a cake; if you add sugar and bake it it’s a crunchy meringue. The yolk is an en­richer and an emul­si­fier, as in a may­on­naise or a but­ter sauce where the egg keeps the fat in sus­pen­sion.”

Ruhlman is also keen to re­ha­bil­i­tate the egg nu­tri­tion­ally. “For a long time eggs got a bad rap – they were meant to be bad for you and that’s plain wrong,” he says. “I want peo­ple to know how nu­tri­tious they are, and what a valu­able eco­nom­i­cal source of pro­tein and fats and nu­tri­tion is con­tained in an egg.” Nor should we be anx­ious about raw eggs, he in­sists, as “a raw meringue on top of an egg nog or a le­mon pie is de­li­cious”.

Well, it is true that egg nog is de­lec­ta­ble, and also that as long as the eggs you use have a lion mark they will come from sal­mo­nella-tested flocks and the risk of in­fec­tion is low – if the dishes don’t sit around at room tem­per­a­ture for ex­tended pe­ri­ods. None the less, I wouldn’t en­gage in a game of jeop­ardy, how­ever small the chance, with the el­derly, preg­nant or any­one who is not in the peak of health.

More than any­thing, the book is a paean to a more thought­ful way of cook­ing, to learn­ing sim­ple tech­niques and do­ing them well. Ruhlman says: “My main goal is to get peo­ple to cook. If more peo­ple cooked food, the world would be a bet­ter place, out bod­ies would be health­ier, our com­mu­ni­ties would be health­ier and the en­vi­ron­ment would be health­ier. Eggs are a good place to start.” That sounds like a (sorry) egg-cel­lent ad­ven­ture.

Al­bu­men be­hav­ing badly: Michael Ruhlman, above, says eggs used to be ma­ligned but are ac­tu­ally a ‘tiny mar­vel of econ­omy, de­li­cious­ness, nu­tri­tious­ness and power’; top right, the per­fect poached egg

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