My answer to the perennial question of which comes first, the chicken or the egg, is a resounding: egg. Yes, I enjoy a roast chicken, that celebratory meal, as much as the next carnivore. But I am enamoured of eggs.
So are the rest of us, if Agriculture Canada is to be believed. They tell me that the average Canadian eats a whopping fourteen dozen eggs a year in one form or another. Good for us, bad for us: the terrible science journalism in the newspapers keeps whipping back and forth on the subject; and all the while the sounds of cracking are heard in the land.
Which brings me to the kitchen counter, where I want to spend some time with you this Friday. You would think that after millennia of egg-laying by the faithful gallus gallus (a.k.a. the red jungle fowl) the business of cooking their gifts would be done and dusted. Not so. Disputes rage to this day about the best way to boil, poach, fry, scramble, and otherwise cook the humble egg. Oh, you’ll have long ago adopted your house method, I’m sure: it’s just not possible — or desirable — to get up each and every morning and stand puzzling at the stovetop as to what technique to use that day and whether yesterday’s temperature might not have been a little too low or whether the pan was right or not.
That said, I’d like to offer you some advice from professional cooks as to egg-cooking technique even so. After all, it’s the function of a fillip to give a little kick to the routine. Egg-cookery ranges across a huge territory, so I’m going to limit myself to only a few of the popular forms: soft-boiling, poaching, scrambling — and an afterword on frying. So with that prolegomenon…
How to soft-boil an egg
The difficulty lies with the egg and its three different proteins, each of which coagulates at a slightly different temperature and after somewhat different cooking times. The trick is to optimize all of this so that the white is firm but not rubbery or runny, and the yolk is cooked but still very soft and also liquid in the centre. With the advent of sous vide cooking in restaurants and now at home, many thought nirvana had been reached: you chose your temperature — say, a 65°F egg — and no matter how long the egg sat in the water bath it would emerge cooked to your idea of perfection. (See this sous vide egg graphic for a depiction of what temperature will result in what texture.) Latterly, however, some culinary chemists have shown that this is oversimplification and that time is critical in a way that the sous vide champions hadn’t acknowledged. And besides, which of us has one of these machines on the counter at the moment.
So what to do?
Watch the video below. Steam is the answer. I’ve field tested this approach a number of times and can report it makes the best soft-boiled eggs I’ve had, the only downside being the need for a precise digital timer — but then that’s what smart phones are for, no? (By the way, the guillotine device used in the video to behead the egg is a German invention that goes by the name of Eiersollbruchstellenverursacher, which means… er… a thingy that breaks eggs at the places they should be broken… or something like that. Handy, withal.)
How to poach an egg
This gets trickier because it’s all liquid you’re playing with. And that raises the matter of cracking the egg — another thing that’s sometimes contentious. Best advice seems to be to hold it firmly in one hand and strike a flat surface with a firm blow sufficient to crack the eggshell laterally, then to grasp it in two hands and with your thumbs at the crack, pull apart the two halves. Using a sharp edge, like the rim of a pan or a bowl, to crack the egg risks getting shell fragments into the liquid. The egg white doesn’t always want to come out easily. Some scoop it out with their fingers; I hoist the halves high enough above the bowl so that the weight of the dripping white eventually pulls everything out; this annoys my partner for some reason.
Now the debate. Two methods recommend themselves: the vortex method and the shrink wrap method. Both are aimed at confining the white as much as possible so that you don’t wind up with something that looks like a snowstorm in April. Alton Brown advocates the vortex method, and since he uses words like “accost” in his advice I follow his approach. If you like your poached eggs even tidier — and perhaps basted with good things — you should give the cling film method a try, as shown here in a video. (But don’t use truffle oil, which is mostly fake stuff.)
How to scramble eggs
Easiest of all, right?: crack ’em into a bowl, whip ’em up, and stir in a frying pan until done. Possibly. Thing is, you’re dealing with a form of custard and that requires some delicacy. Now if you like your scrambled eggs to resemble cheese curds or bullets, read no further. But if you enjoy a softer scramble, here’s an interesting bit of video instruction from the notorious Gordon Ramsay. I’ve field tested this more than once and can say it’s my new favourite method. The variable I find to be important — in addition to the on-off heat — is the amount of butter: I tend to favour somewhat less than does the chef.
You can’t fry an egg. Not really. You can crisp the bottom, steam cook the top, or half cook the whole. And over easy? That’s a real trick (if you don’t fake it with the drop of water and lid to steam the yolk), because any sticking in the pan and the things a bust. The reason there’s difficulty, I think, is that unless you’re British, you really don’t fry an egg: you sauté it perhaps, waltzing it gently around in some butter. Whereas, as I remember it at least, the Brits will have a pan of fat from the obligatory bacon that preceded all the egging (not to mention the possibility of black pudding, fried bread, bangers et al.), whereupon the technique is to keep spooning or spatula-ing the hot fat over the egg until something like an even cook is achieved. Some like the edges crispy; I can live without that. But frying is essential. Here, as a coda, and to show you that even the Brits continue to debate this, the least respected method, is a column from the Guardian, “How to cook the perfect fried egg.”
(Things regretfully not covered: devilled eggs; Scotch eggs; perfect hard-boiled eggs; omelettes; shirred eggs; egg salad . . . )