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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Thursday, March 19, 2015

How To Break An Egg. Really.

Let's Get Crackin'

Right about now you're saying to yourself, “You're kidding. Some idiot is actually writing about how
to break an egg?” And you know what? Up until recently, I would have been right there with you. But that was before I discovered how many people can't do it. Or at least can't do it properly. I mean, how hard is it to break an egg, right? You'd be surprised.

A lot of folks make a big mess of a fairly simple procedure. They wind up chasing little shards of eggshell around the mixing bowl. Or worse; they don't chase them and then find them later cooked up in their scrambled eggs. They get egg goop all over the counter, the bowl, and/or their hands. And it's all so unnecessary if you just master the proper technique.

Kids get a big thrill out of learning to break an egg. I know I did. I started cooking eggs when I was seven or eight years old, but my mother always cracked them for me until I developed the manual dexterity to do it myself. A lot of shattered shells and gooey messes ensued before I got it right. But eventually I did. I have a young nephew who sometimes backcombs my fur with his know-it-all attitude. I remember when he came to me all full of himself because he had learned to break an egg. He proceeded to demonstrate his new-found skill, a laborious, painstaking two-handed process that took nearly a minute to accomplish. Then, with bratty arrogance, he challenged me to match his feat: “Betcha you can't do it that good.” I know I shouldn't have taken the bait. It was mean and I really shouldn't have done it. But I did.....he was such a ripe little target. I snatched up an egg and opened it in about two seconds using one hand, leaving him deflated and crestfallen. Not to be a total jerk about it, I told him to keep practicing and I'd teach him how to do it that way after he got a little better at the two-handed method.

So let's start there. With two hands. This is really the best way to open an egg if you are going to separate the yolk from the white or if you are concerned about the yolk remaining intact. It's not as fast and as flashy as the one-handed method, but it's a lot safer and more reliable.

First, let's address the issue of cracking the egg. Ya gotta crack it before ya can break it. There are two camps when it comes to egg cracking: the “flat surface” camp and the “edge of the bowl” camp. Most people who learned by watching their mothers or grandmothers tend to fall into the bowl edge category. People who were taught by a culinary instructor are generally flat surface crackers because that's really the “approved” and “correct” way to do it. I cringe when I see supposedly trained TV chefs cracking eggs on bowls. They sure didn't learn that at the CIA or Le Cordon Bleu.

It's not just some senseless rule that chef instructors came up with. The people who study such things have found that when you strike an egg against a sharp surface – like the edge of a bowl – you run a greater risk of driving fragments of the shell into the interior of the egg. This is a big deal not just for the annoyance factor but because of the potential for carrying bacteria from the outside inward. All commercially produced eggs in the US are washed before they ever hit the cartons, so the risk is minimal. Not so much with farm fresh eggs, though, which usually just get a wipe down to remove anything obviously nasty. It's kind of a two-edged sword. The reason Americans refrigerate eggs while Europeans don't is because of that washing process. When American eggs are washed before packaging, the shells are stripped not only of potentially harmful bacteria but of the egg's natural protective coating as well. That's why you have to refrigerate 'em. They're naked. Anything yucky they encounter after they're washed can more easily penetrate their unprotected porous shells. Europeans – and Americans who get their eggs straight out of the henhouse – can get by with leaving them in a basket on the counter rather than in the fridge because their natural coating is still intact. And so are any bacteria lurking about on the outside waiting to get driven inside by an injudicious crack on a sharp surface. So, from a “better safe than sorry” standpoint, it's generally just better practice to crack an egg on a flat surface.

That said, the objective when you strike the egg is not to bust it wide open. You just want to dimple it. Pick up the egg so that it's positioned in the palm of your hand. The pointy end should rest against your thumb and the blunt end should be cradled by your ring and pinky fingers. With the contact point in the middle of the egg, give it a gentle tap or two to break just the outer shell while leaving the inner membrane intact. Now, turn the egg so you can see the dimple you've made. With the unbroken surface of the egg resting against the index, middle, and ring fingers of both hands, position your thumbs on either side of the dimple. Position the egg over the bowl or pan and gently press inward with your thumbs to penetrate the shell. Then gently pry the two halves of the shell apart and allow the contents of the egg to drop into whatever receptacle you're using. Notice I said “gentle” or “gently” three times in the description. It's an egg, okay? Don't go all Incredible Hulk on it and smash it. Handle it gently.

Not all egg shells are created equal. Depending on breed and feed, some shells are thicker than others. Other than the fact that they are on a natural diet, I don't know what my farmer feeds his chickens or what breeds he has but some of them produce some prodigiously thick shells. And I find brown eggs to generally have thicker shells than white ones. Thick shells aren't necessarily a bad thing; you'll get a lot fewer fragments because they tend to break cleaner. I've had some store-bought white eggs crumble under the slightest pressure and make a real mess. It just takes a little extra effort and care to crack a thicker shell.

As I said, if you're trying to keep the yolk intact for poaching or sunny side up or something, the more deliberate two-handed method is probably best. A little slower, maybe, but better. However, if you're all about speed and action and don't care about how the yolk winds up, the one-handed method is for you. If you're going to scramble your eggs or just dump them in a bowl for beating, who cares if the yolk is broken, right?

Now here is where manual dexterity comes into play. I know people who are ambidextrous and can break two eggs at once, one in each hand. Not me. I'm so right-handed it's an affliction. Anything I try to break with my left hand winds up spattered on my elbow. So, unless you're among the gifted, stick with using your dominant hand. The problem now is that breaking an egg with one hand is a lot easier to do than it is to describe. But I'll try.

Holding the egg as above, crack the shell the same way. Only this time, keep the egg cradled in your hand. Once you've got the crack started, the breaking motion is done mostly with a twist of your thumb and forefinger. I've heard it described as sort of like the motion you'd use to snap your fingers. You should be holding the bottom part of the shell against your palm with your middle, ring, and pinky fingers while the top part of the shell is manipulated by your index finger and your thumb. I've also seen it described as being like the motion you would employ to pop the top on a soda can with one hand. See? It's really easy to do, but harder than hell to describe. Tell you what: I saw a tip online where you hold two ping pong balls together in your hand with a quarter wedged between them. If you can separate the balls and make the quarter fall out, you can break an egg one-handed.

By the way, kids aren't the only ones who get a thrill out of learning to break eggs. Andrew Knowlton, James Beard Award-winning critic, blogger and restaurant editor for Bon Appétit magazine, recently did a feature where he worked his way through twenty-fours hours at an Atlanta Waffle House. (You can find the story and video here: Besides a new appreciation for short-order cooks, Andrew also gained a new skill: at age 39, he can now break eggs one-handed. He can also make a mean waffle, but that's another part of the story.

Now go forth, break some eggs and make some omelets. Or maybe a nice frittata. Oooo......scrambled eggs sound good about now.......or poached.....or over easy. No, Eggs Benedict......or perhaps a Croque Madame. How about egg salad........?

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