The View from My Kitchen

Benvenuti! I hope you enjoy il panorama dalla mia cucina Italiana -- "the view from my Italian kitchen,"-- where I indulge my passion for Italian food and cooking. From here, I share some thoughts and ideas on food, as well as recipes and restaurant reviews, notes on travel, and a few garnishes from a lifetime in the entertainment industry.

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Friday, January 7, 2011

How to Make the Best Scrambled Eggs

As a follow-up to my surprisingly popular article on “The Best Way to Cook Bacon,” allow me, please, to expound upon the delicious glories of the perfectly scrambled egg.

Without getting into the debate on which came first, let’s just say that eggs have been around for a long, long time. People who know about such things say that wild fowl were domesticated as early as 3200 BC and that they were laying eggs for the Chinese as early as 1400 BC. In Europe, people were reaping the rewards of domesticated hens around 600 BC. There are no precise records detailing whom the first person was to pick up the hard-shelled ovoid sphere that dropped from the nether regions of a chicken and decided that it might be something good to eat, but, following that brave soul’s example, most people today do, indeed, eat eggs produced by the chicken, or Gallus domesticus.

With its thirteen essential nutrients all prepackaged in a convenient “to go” container, some consider the egg to be nature’s perfect food. Advertising people have dubbed it “The Incredible, Edible Egg,” probably because promoting “The Incredible, Inedible Egg,” while more alliterative, would be self-defeating.

Be that as it may, eggs are enormously versatile. You can fry, poach or bake them. You can cook them in the shell and turn them into omelets, frittatas, quiches and strata casseroles. As ingredients, you can use them in cakes and cheesecakes, cookies, custards, meringues, pie fillings, soufflés and even pastries.

Best of all, you can scramble them.

I have it on good authority that God likes his eggs scrambled. [Hey! Careful with the lightning bolts!]

But if you’ve ever eaten at a Waffle House, Denny’s or IHOP, you’ll know that not just any idiot can scramble eggs, although many of them are employed by these establishments to do so.

No, there’s a little more involved in the perfect scrambled egg than breaking an egg into a pan, mixing it all up and frying it to within an inch of its life before dumping it onto a plate next to a couple of slices of overcooked or undercooked bacon. Any doofus in a stained white shirt wearing a greasy apron and a funny paper hat can do that. (See the aforementioned establishments.)

If you want your scrambled eggs to turn out the way G…..errr…You Know Who…likes them, simply follow the following procedures.

First of all, mise en place. Now, if you think I just said something dirty in French, then you didn’t read my article on having everything prepared and in place before you start cooking. Lay out your equipment, starting with a non-stick frying pan of appropriate size. A ten-inch pan works well for four eggs. Adjust up or down accordingly. I know, a lot of people don’t like non-stick surfaces, but I’m just saying……

You’ll also need a small prep bowl of some sort, a small to medium metal or glass mixing bowl, a wooden spoon, preferably one with a flat edge, and an ordinary balloon whisk. Culinary stores these days are overstocked with a vast variety of specialized whisking devices, some of which look like they might do double duty as S&M accessories. They supposedly aerate better or blend better or whatever, but mostly, they just cost more. A plain old whisk works just fine. As with many things, it’s all in how you use it.

Next, set your eggs out a few minutes in advance so they can come to room temperature. (I was going to say “lay” your eggs out, but I decided not to.) Room temperature eggs whisk to higher volumes, but I’m sure you already knew that.

Measure out some milk and let it come to room temperature, too. Use about a teaspoon of milk per egg. Skim-milk, low-fat milk, or water can be used in place of whole milk but the creamy texture of the finished product is reduced.

Have a salt cellar, shaker, box or whatever you use at the ready, preferably containing kosher salt. Why kosher salt? The larger grains are easier to handle when cooking and they also draw moisture out of foods more effectively than other salts. Although all kitchen salts are at least 97 ½ percent sodium chloride, the finer grain of common table salt makes it “saltier” than kosher salt. A single teaspoon of table salt contains more salt than a tablespoon of kosher or sea salt.

Finally, measure out about a tablespoon of unsalted butter. Okay, before you start throwing things, you can use regular salted butter. Most cooks prefer unsalted because of the ability to control the salt content of the prepared food. Better that the end result be a little under salted than over salted. If you must use salted butter, just use less salt elsewhere. And for G…..errr…Heaven’s …. sake, use good old real honest-to-goodness natural, I’m from Wisconsin and I ought to know, butter. If you really think that a combination of water, partially hydrogenated soybean oil, salt, whey, vegetable mono and diglycerides, polyglycerol esters, soy lecithin, lactic acid, vitamin A (palmitate), beta carotene and artificial flavors can ever be made to taste like butter, then we probably need to be having another discussion entirely. Think of it like this: have you ever heard of butter promising to taste like margarine? Hmmm?

Now the fun starts! (Yeah, I know, “Finally.”)

Carefully break the eggs, one at a time, into your prep bowl. Why? Glad you asked. It’s hard to examine an egg while it’s still in the shell. On the off chance that you’ve got an “off” egg, you’d rather find out about it before you dump it in with a bunch of good eggs, wouldn’t you? Also, it’s easier to fish a little errant shell fragment out of a little bowl containing one egg than it is to get the same tiny fragment out of a big bowl as it swims around among four or six or eight eggs. As you check out each egg, transfer it to an appropriate size metal or glass mixing bowl.

Add the milk and a pinch of salt to the eggs and whisk together, beating vigorously for about two minutes. Use an elliptical motion. If you’re going round and round with your whisk, you’re just stirring. Whisk until the yolks and the whites are all a nice bright yellow and completely blended together. If you don’t have a whisk, a fork will do, but a whisk will do better. Alternatively, you can mix the eggs, milk and salt in a blender for about twenty seconds, but why would you go to all that trouble? If you do, be sure to allow the mixture to set for a couple of minutes to let the resulting foam settle.

Now, put your tablespoon of butter into the non-stick frying pan and heat over medium heat. Butter burns more easily than the partially hydrogenated vegetable oil stuff, so keep the heat at medium and keep a watchful eye on the pan. When the butter is liquefied, swirl it around in the pan to thoroughly coat the bottom and then add the egg mixture.

Don’t jump right in with the wooden spoon and start stirring things up. Let the eggs set just a little. Then, at the first sign of setting, use your flat wooden spoon to push the outer edges of the eggs in toward the center of the pan while, at the same time, tilting the pan to distribute the still runny parts of the eggs. Continue this action as the eggs continue to set. Use your spoon to break apart any large pieces as they form.

After a minute or so, there won’t be any more runny parts to push toward the center. Now’s the time to flip all the eggs over and allow them to continue cooking for another thirty seconds to a minute, depending on how firm you want them.

Notice I said “firm.” At this point, your eggs should be nice and creamy and soft. Some people like them a little less soft and creamy, and that’s okay. Keep the heat down and the stirring up until the eggs get to where you want them. The difference between “firm” and “overcooked” is a matter of time and temperature.

Actually, heat is the key to the whole process. This is another of those instances where low and slow is the way to go. If you’ve ever been served a plate of scrambled eggs that were tough, watery and brown around the edges, they were cooked by somebody in a hurry.

When you crank up the heat to get your eggs to cook faster, they can go from cooked to overcooked in about five seconds.

A chemical change occurs when the eggs first begin to set, which happens when they’ve reached a temperature of about 145°. They’re actually edible at this point, albeit a little runny. Keeping them moving around in the pan maintains the cooking temperature while allowing the texture to firm up gradually. Boosting the heat – or not keeping the eggs moving – allows the temperature of the eggs to reach 165°, where the protein in the eggs undergoes a second chemical change, resulting in a tighter protein matrix. This change squeezes water out of the eggs, resulting in tough, watery eggs. The browning represents the beginnings of caramelization – or, since protein and amino acids are involved, it may be a Maillard reaction, I’m not sure. Either way, your eggs are burned and taste nasty.

If you have a real phobia about a frying pan producing dried out, burned up eggs, you actually can use a bain-marie, or double boiler, to cook scrambled eggs. Again, I don’t know why you would, but you can.

The cooking method is the same; it’s just the cooking medium that’s different. Cooking scrambled eggs in a double boiler ensures that the eggs won’t brown and thus is considered an “old classical kitchen” method for turning out perfectly cooked eggs. But it’s really time consuming, unless you have one of those fancy cooktops that boils water in 90 seconds.

You can also scramble your eggs in the oven by putting all the ingredients in a glass or metal bowl and alternately cooking and whisking and cooking and whisking and cooking and whisking…..until the desired consistency is achieved.

This method also applies to [deep breath] microwaved scrambled eggs. Just mix up your egg mixture, put in a microwave-safe bowl and zap it for about thirty seconds. Take it out, stir it up, nuke it again, take it out, stir it up, nuke it again…. until the eggs are done to your liking – or until the resultant rubbery substance can be molded into playthings for small children and pets.

And if you’re a person of the Orthodox Jewish persuasion, all bets are off because you’re not supposed to be mixing milk or butter with your eggs, in which case, I suppose you can use water and [shudder] margarine.

Now, if you haven’t already done so, go look up and read my article on how to cook bacon (unless you’re Jewish) and head for the kitchen. Maybe I’ll write about hash browns or toast next.

Buon appetito!

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