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Cooking with eggs: Why the humble egg is a kitchen staple

BY Tamar Adler

26th Apr 2023 Food Heroes

Cooking with eggs: Why the humble egg is a kitchen staple

We often underestimate cooking with eggs, but with the right care and attention, an egg can enhance any delicious meal, writes food critic Tamar Adler

Everyone has something to say on the subject of eggs. MFK Fisher is the best: “Probably one of the most private things in the world is an egg until it is broken.” The egg industry drones that eggs are incredible and edible. The French philosopher Diderot noted that all the world’s theologies could be toppled by one.

I am going to be as practical as I can be because most people know how to “make eggs.” But “making eggs” sounds dull and habitual, and too much like “making do,” and we and eggs deserve better.

I have three things to say.

Choosing your egg

First, an egg is not an egg is not an egg. I don’t know what to call the things that are produced by hens crowded into dirty cages, their beaks snipped, tricked into laying constantly. Whatever they are, they are only edible in the sense that we can cram anything down if we need to; their secrets merit airing, but not eating.

Eggs should be laid by chickens that have as much of a say in it as any of us about our egg laying does.

"Eggs should be laid by chickens that have as much of a say in it as any of us about our egg laying does"

Their yolks should, depending on the time of year, range from buttercup yellow to marigold.

They should come from as nearby as possible. We don’t all live near cattle farms, but most of us live surprisingly close to someone raising chickens for eggs. If you find lively eggs from local chickens, buy them. They will be a good deal more than edible.

An egg for every occasion

Hands cracking egg into frying panEggs can serve many purposes, but are best cooked with intention

Second, a good egg is only worth it if you know all it’s good for. Whether or not they ever take off, eggs possess in them some of the mystical energy of flight.

A cookbook from the 1930s lists, in a catalogue of eggs’ uses: “albumen water [egg whites] for invalids,” “for exhaustion,” “emergency dressing for a burn,” and “antidote to poisoning.” I haven’t used them to treat poisoning, but if the need arose I would.

"A gently but sincerely cooked egg tells us all we need to know about divinity"

Good eggs are worth it, as long as your stance, egg in hand, isn’t automatic. As long as you stop before cracking it and think: “I am going to softly scramble this egg,” or “a bowl of yesterday’s rice would be delicious topped with this one.”

Here Diderot stumbles. A gently but sincerely cooked egg tells us all we need to know about divinity. It hinges not on the question of how the egg began, but how the egg will end. A good egg, cooked deliberately, gives us a glimpse of the greater forces at play.

An eggless meal is incomplete

Third is the stance of a man I met in eastern Africa. He was a reedy, white-blonde Berliner named Gregor. Gregor had spent five years driving trucks up and down the coast from Mombasa to Cape Town.

He had seen a lot of backcountry meals over that time, and whenever he was served one, he reacted in one of two ways.

"An egg can turn anything into a meal and is never so pleased as when it is allowed to"

If the plate of food he was handed included an egg, he would look happy and eat. If it didn’t, he’d look mournfully up at whoever had delivered it and ask, always as though for the first time: “What about egg?”.

For my taste, meals still qualify as meals if they are eggless. But an egg can turn anything into a meal and is never so pleased as when it is allowed to.

How to cook eggs to perfection

Fried egg on top of plate of spaghettiA fried egg atop spaghetti is just as good as the traditional beaten egg for a carbonara

When we make eggs, we usually fry or scramble them. “Frying” and “scrambling” imply too much aggression. I soft-fry and I soft-scramble. Fried eggs should be cooked at a gentle sizzle, which keeps their whites from toughening, and scrambling should just be a series of persistent nudges.

Fried eggs do a good job on spaghetti. There is a slightly harrowing Tuscan pasta sauce called carbonara for which raw eggs are beaten with Parmesan and then tossed with hot noodles. It isn’t difficult, but there is always the looming chance that the eggs will start scrambling before they are convinced to become sauce.

Frying an egg sunny-side up and putting it on top of olive-oiled and cheesed pasta takes the guesswork out of it and allows you to experience the combination.

Fry eggs for pasta as I learned to in Spain. Cook them slowly in a half inch of just warm olive oil, constantly spooning the oil over the top of the eggs, to lightly poach each part of them in oil.

Scrambled eggs make a delicious sandwich. I first tried a scrambled egg sandwich in Laos, where a big mound of softly scrambled eggs with strange little mushrooms was stuffed inside a warm, soft roll. It was perfectly creamy and the mushrooms were earthy and just barely browned, and it was a revelation.

I make a similar one with wild mushrooms or simply with good butter and fresh herbs.

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