Monday, January 09, 2006

Eggs poached & scrambled

The food column in yesterday's NYT Magazine, by a chef named Daniel Patterson, is about egg cookery. The setup:
When I was given a temporary reprieve from the daily routines of restaurant kitchens early last year, I decided to try acting like a civilized person and eat a proper breakfast.
I'm all for that. Patterson decides to fry eggs for breakfast in his nonstick pan but soon enough his fiancée makes him throw it away for fear of its toxic fumes. When you heat up a nonstick pan past the medium stage the fumes are strong enough to kill birds. Ok, that's too bad for the birds and those who love them. But seriously, do the fumes harm humans? No one can say for certain that they do or do not but some people aren't taking any chances. But wait a second. Should you scramble your eggs in a pan that has been preheated to 600 degrees? No, never, terrible idea. I should have stopped reading at this point but I continued because I'll read anything about cooking eggs. Once the Teflon is out we get a montage of unsuccessful alternatives:
Attempts at making scrambled eggs in a regular sauté pan led to crusty egg proteins stuck to the cooking surface, no matter how much fat I used. Eggs fried in a cast-iron pan spattered everywhere - not to mention that fried eggs without bacon just didn't seem right, and nor did bacon as a daily staple. Soft-boiled eggs were far too irritating to peel before coffee, and even the thought of dry, mealy, hard-boiled eggs made me cringe. If I wanted eggs for breakfast, it seemed, I was going to have to poach them.
A chef can't figure out how to fry eggs in a regular pan? Can't tolerate a bit of grease to wipe up after breakfast? Can't peel an egg? Can't hard cook one properly either? Given this information, why should I take this person's culinary advice?

So he eats regular poached eggs every day for breakfast until he tires of them, at which point he is about to cry eureka:
what would happen, I wondered, if I beat the eggs before putting them in the water? I expected that they would act much as the intact eggs did and bind quickly, but I did not expect them to set into the lightest, most delicate scrambled eggs imaginable.
I believe our correspondent is talking about egg drop soup, hold the soup.

Lest we think it simple to pour beaten eggs into hot water, consider:
The most important factor is using only the thick whites and the yolk. At first I could get this technique to work only with very fresh farmer's-market eggs, whose viscous whites are high in protein (the main bonding agent). As eggs age, the thick part of the white erodes, and the thin, watery part increases, which is why fresh eggs (less than one week old) are best for eating, and older ones are better suited for meringues. This flummoxed me until a quick e-mail message to my friend Harold McGee, the food scientist and author of "On Food and Cooking," solved the problem. He discovered that using supermarket eggs is just fine if you start by cracking each one into a slotted spoon (or sieve) and let the thin white drain away, then work with the remaining thick white and yolk.
First of all, Harold McGee has become to food writing what Robert J. Thompson is to pop culture journalism, i.e., the only name in the rolodex. And if indeed McGee is the friend of every writer who calls him that, he must be, oh, just the friendliest person since Mr. Rogers.

Second of all, I tried straining my thin whites through a slotted spoon. Not a task I intend to repeat. The whole egg kept slipping off the spoon, then the whole white kept slipping off the yolk. I decided to give this scrambled/poached technique a try without straining out the thin whites and my week-old supermarket eggs set up just fine, thanks very much. This could be another solution to which there is no problem. Here's some more:
Next, beat the eggs with a fork, but don't add salt. (The grains of salt will tear the structure of the eggs, causing them to disintegrate on contact with the water.) Let a covered pot filled with about four inches of water come to a low boil over moderate heat, then remove the cover, add a little salt and stir the water in a clockwise motion. After you've created a mini-whirlpool, gently pour the eggs into the moving liquid, which will allow them to set suspended in the water rather than sink to the bottom of the pot, where they would stick.
I tried them two ways, with and without salt. Without salt they set up as one big blob of eggs, while with salt they fell apart into dozens of little strands. After being strained out, though, and assembled on my plate, the eggs with salt were just as edible and tasted just the same, but a bit saltier. I did make a whirlpool cuz it's fun, but I never make a whirlpool when poaching eggs the usual way in non-nonstick pans and my eggs don't stick to the pan. Things tend not to stick to pans filled with simmering water. Anyway...

The bad news: these eggs are bland and boring. Scrambled in a frying pan with butter over low heat, stirring constantly, eggs become rich and custardy. You can add cream, salt, extra butter, and other seasonings (e.g., tarragon). These poached/scrambled eggs might have been ok under a blanket of rich sauce but with just salt, pepper, and a bit of butter on top they were pretty lifeless. Actually, I hated them.

And the good news: my scrambled eggs are better than the ones in the New York Times.

9 Comments:

Blogger Robyn said...

...whoa, what? Eggs. Eggs! Aren't they one of the easiest foods to cook? I figure this because I of all people can cook them. And there was a whole column about cooking them? :O Now i feel like I've disrespected my eggs by simply cracking them into a hot pan with some oil and stirring it around with a wooden spoon to break it up. (I have no idea what that method is called because it's not really scrambled or fried, but a bit of both?) Seemingly 10 seconds later, it's done. ...I don't have high standards for eggs, haha.

Souplness egg drop soup. Hm.

10:49 PM  
Blogger Barbara Fisher said...

So much for a chef supposedly knowing over one hundred ways to cook eggs.

What a freaking moron.

He used a non-stick pan to scramble eggs? Like, he doesn't have a properly seasoned omelette pan or a cast iron skillet or even a carbon steel or cast iron wok for god's sake?

Where does this dude cook?

I can probably guess why he got a "vacation" from restaurant kitchens--because he couldn't cook a bloody egg!

11:32 PM  
Anonymous lindy said...

I was not sure when I read the article whether it was supposed to be a put-on or not. The chef who can't fix eggs in an ordinary pan?....the special way of scrambling eggs so that they will be a little watery island with no butter? Straining the egg whites? The incredible difficulty of eating a plain soft boiled egg?

The NYTimes Mag seems to be having a run on food stories they believe to be about food science/technology...like the boil-in-a-bag article a while back.
Hope they will remember that it is important that results be edible.

I'd rather eat those eggs you made with the onions and cheese, please.

5:04 AM  
Blogger Pyewacket said...

I thought the same thing - my god, what a lot of fuss to make some eggs!

I love eggs and eat them severla times a week. I make boiled eggs, scrambled eggs and what my boyfriend calls "wiggy-eggs", because when I try to do a perfect over-easy egg first thing in the morning before coffee, I can get a little wiggy. None of these come out perfectly every time, but they're EGGS, which means they taste pretty good no matter what. No need for straining and whirlpools and all that.

9:22 AM  
Anonymous Luisa said...

I clipped the article this weekend, mind already working feverishly over what I would write when my attempts at this overwrought recipe failed. I'm so glad you all agree that this article was just totally weird.

10:24 AM  
Blogger BNA said...

As always, you crack me up.

11:21 AM  
Anonymous Doug Barber said...

"Eggs fried in a cast-iron pan spattered everywhere" - hello? Does the chef's stovetop have a setting other than "high"? Good grief.

I stumbled and paused over that line myself, when I first read it in the Times.

5:33 PM  
Blogger mzn said...

Glad to hear everyone else felt the same as I did about this article.

I don't know what to call Robyn's eggs. I've noticed these are the eggs most often cooked in movies and TV shows: the character cracks the eggs right into a hot pan and stirs. Perhaps people call these scrambled eggs but I have always thought scrambled eggs are beaten in a bowl before being put in the pan. When I watch movies and TV shows that have people making eggs this way, I always wonder why the character didn't bother to beat the eggs in a bowl first. This sometimes preoccupies me more than it should.

And bna: thanks for the kind words.

11:42 PM  
Blogger Robyn said...

MOVIE EGGS! ...I had no idea. Hm. I don't like completely scrambled eggs as much as partially scrambled, hehe (and scrambling them takes another step, which I don't really mind taking but when I realized I didn't like completely scrambled eggs I thought, "Screw this"). The coagulated egg goo I end up with is omelet-ish but not since those eggs would be completely scrambled. Or. Something.

AH WHATEVER, they're just eggs.

11:55 AM  

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