The secret life of eggs
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