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Eggs

Eggs are a miracle food and a kitchen marvel. They are both a standalone food and an ingredient in dishes. Eggs are very nutritious, and despite what we were all taught for many years, have little to do with blood cholesterol levels (they contain a fair amount of cholesterol, but ingesting it doesn’t convert it into the kind of cholesterol that shows up in our bloodstream). Eggs are also very versatile as an ingredient: they serve as a leavener, causing baked goods to rise; an emulsifier or binder, holding together other ingredients that generally don’t like to stay together; and a thickener.

Properly stored in a refrigerator, eggs can last for weeks; at room temperature on your kitchen counter, they’re good for at least a couple of days. That said, they are better when fresh, and the properties of eggs that make them useful recipe ingredients are also better when eggs are fresh. While not frequently found, eggs can carry salmonella, so eating raw eggs should be discouraged and you should always endeavor to thoroughly cook eggs before consuming them

Eggs can be prepared in many different ways, including scrambling, frying, hard-boiling, and poaching. They can also be used to make omelets. Egg whites can be whipped up into meringue, and egg yolks can be combined with sugar and cream to make custard.

Eggs are a delicate form of protein, which means that in most circumstances they should be cooked slowly over low heat to prevent them from getting tough (an exception being omelets, in which making them a little tough helps them to contain other ingredients without tearing apart).

Buying eggs

When buying eggs in the grocery store, you will see several sizes: medium, large, extra large, and jumbo. If you’re just going to scramble eggs at home, the size of the eggs you use doesn’t matter; but the universal standard size for eggs in recipes is “large.” Using eggs that are the wrong size in a recipe can definitely throw off the results, so unless you have a really good reason for wanting to stock larger or smaller ones, I recommend that you always buy “large” size eggs; that way you know you always have the right ones for whatever you may want to make.

You’re also likely to see both brown eggs and white eggs. The shell color has essentially no effect on what’s inside an egg; the food that the hens were fed has a much bigger effect. These days most grocery stores will give you some options for grain-fed, grass-fed, and/or “vegetarian fed” chicken eggs, and for eggs sourced from chickens that were somewhat more humanely raised in “cage-free” environments (though without visiting the facility yourself, it’s hard to know how literally to take these promises).

Eggs produced in the United States must go through a rigorous washing process before they are boxed and delivered to stores. There are pluses and minuses to this: it certainly removes a variety of pathogens that could be lurking on the outside of the shell; but it also removes a some of the natural protective coating that helps an egg stay fresh longer. Egg shells are gas-permeable – that’s why chicks don’t suffocate before they hatch – but that means the environment they are in has a big effect on their freshness. Egg washing won’t remove salmonella; that lives inside the egg, and you need to thoroughly cook your eggs to be safe from that.

Breaking an egg

One of the many topics that cooks will wage religious wars over among themselves is the proper way to break an egg.  Some people will crack it against the corner of a counter or bowl, then split it apart at the crack. Others claim that this approach increases the likelihood of small pieces of eggshell breaking off and mixing into the egg white, and that it’s better to crack an egg on a flat surface.  In truth, either way can dislodge small pieces of eggshell, and either way can also result in a perfect crack with no small pieces. The best advice is probably to try both ways, get good at one of them, and stick with it.

Inevitably, though, you will end up sometimes with pieces of eggshell floating around in the egg white. If this has ever happened to you, then you know it can be very difficult to remove the pieces of shell: they have a nasty way of slipping away from spoons, fingers, or whatever else you stick in to try to scoop them out.  Here’s the secret: use one of the eggshell halves to scoop out pieces. For some reason, the small pieces don’t scoot off the same way.

Separating an egg

Separating an egg by hand is one of the classic show-off-your-kitchen-skills tests.  In theory, you crack the egg so that you have two evenly-sized half-shells (and catch the egg yolk in one of them as you crack it), then repeatedly pass the yolk back and forth between the two half-shells, letting all of the white drop into a bowl below as you do it, until all you have left in the egg shell is the yolk.

Yes, I did this for years. The danger is that the yolk will catch on the sharp edge of the shell and puncture, ruining both the yolk and the white. But it’s perfectly doable, with a success rate above 90% given enough practice. However, separating an egg with the half-shells also runs the risk that bacteria on the outside of the shell will be transferred to the inner contents.

A better approach is to buy a cheap metal or plastic egg separator. There are about a half-dozen different designs, and they all more or less work. They look like small measuring cups with slots in them; you gently pour the egg in, and the yolk stays in the cup while the white falls through the slots to be caught underneath. The best ones can be laid across the top of a bowl or clipped onto the side of a bowl or coffee mug; this is important because cracking an egg for most of us requires two hands (cracking an egg with one hand is another stupid cook show-off skill that you never need to learn).

No one has a 100% success rate separating eggs, even with an egg separator or after years of experience. Some eggs simply will not cooperate, or their yolk is too delicate and will puncture even with the gentlest handling. If you’re making a recipe that involves separating eggs:

  • Have some extra eggs around just in case one (or more) decides not to cleanly separate;
  • Don’t separate an egg directly into the bowl where you are collecting the separated whites or yolks; separate each one into a different bowl, and once you’re done pour each part into the bowl with the others. That way if one egg goes wrong, you don’t ruin the whole batch.

Beating an egg

Beating an egg (or eggs, often) is simply the process of stirring the egg white and yolk until they are well-mixed together. Sounds simple, right?  Mostly, yes. The one trick is knowing when you’re done.  Egg white has filaments running through it that hold it together and prevent it from flowing smoothly; the other point of beating an egg is to break up those filaments so that your mixed egg has an even, smooth consistency. It takes about 45 seconds of constant, vigorous stirring to fully mix together the yolk and white and to break up the filaments. The test for whether you’re done beating your eggs: stick your fork or whisk into the egg mixture, and lift it straight up. If the egg runs smoothly off of it, you’re done. If it falls off unevenly and in glops (pardon the scientific term), then you need to stir it some more. Don’t worry, you can’t over-beat your eggs.

Tips:

  • Bring your eggs up to room temperature before you use them (unless told otherwise in a recipe, it’s generally good to bring all of your ingredients up to room temperature before you start cooking – it makes cooking much more predictable). This takes 20-30 minutes sitting in a bowl on your kitchen counter. If you forgot to take your eggs out early and are in a hurry, you can accelerate this process by placing the eggs in a bowl of warm (not hot!) water for 5-10 minutes.

Recipes:

Scrambled eggs

  • Per serving:  2 eggs,  2 tbsp. water or milk, pinch of kosher salt. The liquid will turn into steam and give the eggs extra rise. Using milk gives it a creamier texture and flavor.
  • Beat eggs, water/milk and salt in a bowl until will mixed and an even consistency (45-60 seconds).
  • Add 1 tsp of butter, margarine or a neutral oil in a nonstick pan and preheat over low heat.
  • Pour egg mixture into pan. When solid pieces of egg begin to appear, start stirring and continue until all the egg has cooked. Remove from heat and serve.

Fried eggs (aka “sunny-side up”)

  • Per serving: 2 eggs, 2 tsp. butter or margarine
  • Preheat nonstick skillet on low heat for 5 minutes.
  • Crack two eggs into a small bowl, taking care not to break the yolks.
  • Add butter/margarine to pan; when melted and sizzling subsides, swirl around pan to coat it. The sizzling is the water in the butter boiling off
  • Gently pour the eggs into the pan; sprinkle salt and pepper.
  • Cover and cook on low heat for 2 ½ to 3 ½ minutes, depending on how firm you like the yolks.

Hard-boiled eggs

  • There are multiple schools of thought on the best way to hard-boil eggs. Some people put them in cold water and let them cook as the water heats; others add them to boiling water. The recipe below is the first approach, with a bit of a twist:  letting the eggs sit in the hot water after it’s been brought to boil and removed from the heat.
  • Per serving: one egg, though multiple eggs can be hard-boiled at the same time and stored in the refrigerator to eat later.
  • Place eggs in a medium saucepan, and add tap water until the water level is one inch above the tops of the eggs.
  • Bring the water to a boil over high heat.
  • Remove the pan from the heat, cover, and let sit for ten minutes.
  • Remove the eggs from the sauce pan and let cool. If in a hurry, you can put them in ice water for five minutes.
  • To peel a hard-boiled egg: tap the egg in several places against a countertop or other flat surface, then roll it gently several times.  Peel off the shell starting at the wide end (there will likely be an air pocket underneath the shell here).

Omelets

Quiche