I’ll begin this by saying that I am an unabashed apologist for the egg. Not only is cuisine as I know it quite impossible without the egg, it is, to me, one of the “pure drop” foods, to borrow an Irish expression. While eggs combine with other ingredients to enrich and improve the whole equation and open new possibilities to the cook, it is impossible to improve on a simple poached or soft-boiled egg with some good sea salt sprinkled on it bite by bite. Like bread, the quality of an egg stands out most prominently when presented and consumed alone and, like wine, the use of poor-quality eggs in a dish noticeably taints and subtracts from the result.
In this article, I’d like to share some of my favorite tips on how to get the most out of egg cookery and also some health and nutritional data on free-range organic eggs compared with mass-marketed “conventional” (I always balk a little at this term, as the conventions referred to are only 60 years old—sort of a drop in the bucket in the history of agriculture, hey?) eggs—I’ve been in the way of seeking that kind of comparative data for several foods in response to requests from school lunch programs and it turns out the data pertaining to eggs is some of the most conclusive, clear and easy-to-find out there.
Scrambled eggs—a food to be found in the humblest of culinary contexts and also the most exalted, believe it or not. You will find scrambled eggs in the shell with maple syrup at the Paris restaurant Arpege, accorded the highest possible Michelin ranking of three stars. You will also find scrambled eggs in a pre-packaged microwaved breakfast burrito. Let’s look at what happens when an egg is scrambled and how you can hew closer to Paris than PDQ.
We all know that eggs contain a lot of protein, which is one of the things that make them a miraculous binder of custards, bakery and sauces. What you are doing when you scramble an egg is combining the more concentrated protein (yolk) with the diffuse protein (white) and agitating the mixture as it cooks. To affect the final product, the big factors you can exert direct control over are: the choice of the egg, the level of heat, the speed of agitation and the fat used to cook the egg in. Once you’ve chosen the best egg you can get your hands on, what remains is to understand the behavior of proteins and how it affects your quality of eating.
I always tell newbie cooks to imagine the proteins they are using as behaving in exactly the same way as their own hand (which is mostly protein)—an analogy some find gruesome but usually in a humorous way. The point is: If you touch a smoking hot pan with your hand, you involuntarily jerk back—and so does an egg or a piece of zucchini. In some cases, that’s exactly what you want, but not with our scrambled egg. You want your aggregated proteins to cook gently so they don’t lose too much moisture and so they don’t form big lumpy, leathery curds. Patience, a high-quality pan and good butter are necessary elements.
You want a pan that transfers heat quickly but evenly—there are plenty of cheap skillets out there that will get hot fast, but in a ragged, spotty way that will make your egg stick in some places and burn in others. Use copper if you can, heavy stainless steel otherwise. Take two great eggs (more below on what is “great”), crack them on a flat surface so as not to drive shell fragments into the egg, and place in a small bowl. Add a marginal amount of sea salt and whisk well with a fork—at this stage you can also add small pieces of whole butter to really stack the deck. Now take a good-sized lump of butter and put it in your best skillet over medium heat—keep it swirling around the pan and heat it until you see some bubbling but before any browning. Pour in your eggs and immediately start whisking again with the fork before any of the egg can coagulate and set on the bottom of the pan. Now your task is to pay total attention, lower the heat and keep the eggs moving so the curds formed are small and contain as much moisture as possible. Itmay be necessary to move the pan entirely off the heat to fully control the cooking process. (Go for it—it’s generally much easier than trying to jockey the gas knob while you’re holding a heavy pan and a fork or spatula.) You want to keep it all moving fast and turn off the heat a little before you probably think you should—you want the result to be the texture of cottage cheese and to contain a comparable amount of water, There will be a carryover heat transfer that will keep the eggs cooking well after you’ve taken the pan off the heat.
Now—use another large lump of butterfor your toast, pour a strong cup of tea or coffee and spoon up those eggs. You’re ready for anything.
I find that eggs, being one of the foods that people are habituated to buying cheaply, suffer disproportionate stigma if they cost more than $2.00 a dozen—but, as with so many foods, not only is the extra quality well worth the price but it’s also the “real” price, without federal subsidies for corn used to feed hens (the feed for hens laying certified organic eggs must itself be 100 percent organic). Personally, I feel that the difference in flavor is so great as to make the question moot, but there are statistics to support the price differential in terms of your health. To wit, the Skaggs Nutrition Laboratory at Utah State University and The Food Products Laboratory in Portland, Oregon, found that free-range eggs (this only pertains to eggs raised by hens out of confinement, not even taking into account the benefits of an all-organic diet) may contain one-third less cholesterol, one-fourth less saturatd fat, two-thirds more vitamin A, triple the amount of vitamin E and twice the amount of omega-3 fatty acids.
Incumbent on free-range egg producers is the careful monitoring of dioxin levels in the soil their hens use as pasture—an organic toxin present in soil as a by-product of combustion processes, this might be the one drawback to free-range chicken farming. To me, it frames another argument in favor of buying from smaller local producers who not only have less land to keep careful track of but also more vested interest in maintaining good standing in their business community.
A great egg is one that came from a well-fed hen with a good immune system. It has not lost much water through the porous shell and thus the yolk and white retain their robust texture and color. The color of the yolk is typically darker orangish-red than an egg from a malnourished, confined hen, which shows a pale yellow. When cracked, the yolk will hold together and stand proud of the white on a flat surface such as a plate. Last but not least, the flavor will be rich and full and the texture when cooked properly will be velvety, not rubbery. Even a badly cooked high-quality egg will be far better than whatever you can get from a mass-market egg, though.
I consider myself very fortunate to live in a place where such good eggs are easily available and happily pay what they cost. They bring me more satisfaction at the table than most meats at a fraction of both cash and environmental costs. At Willy Street Co-op, you can take your pick of several free-range egg producers as well as New Century Farm’s triple whammy of free range, certified organic eggs delivered by biodiesel truck. (We use the local eggs in all Deli and Catering foods we make.) Avail yourself of some of this goodness and make an omelette with world-class Surchoix Gruyere—add a glass of wine and a green salad and call me in the morning.