“Experts” Who Say “Don't Add Liquid” Are Misinformed
A couple of things led to my writing this little screed. The first motivator was personal experienceand the second was a recent proliferation of unsound “expert” advice.
Breakfast is probably my favorite meal, both to eat and to cook. It's definitely the one I've had the most experience cooking – more than fifty years worth. It's my singular nod to non-Italian cuisine. Italians do coffee and pastry and call it colazione. Not me. Give me some combination of bacon and eggs and potatoes and toast and biscuits and pancakes and all the trimmings. I'll eat breakfast for breakfast, I'll eat it for lunch, and I often have breakfast for dinner. Bacon was the first thing I learned to cook. Eggs were second. I can fry 'em, poach 'em, boil 'em or make 'em into an omelet or frittata. But my absolute favorite way to prepare eggs is to scramble them up all nice and light and fluffy. And I am amazed and appalled at the way scrambled eggs can be ruined by inept cooking methods.
I eat at Waffle House a good bit, especially out on the road. They're conveniently located at just about every interstate exit in the South. They're inexpensive, they're open 24/7/365, and the food is generally consistent from location to location. Unfortunately, that consistency extends to their scrambled eggs. Don't get me wrong; they're not altogether bad, but they're not altogether good either. They're.......for lack of a better word.......typical. They're cooked the same way in a lot of diner-style eateries. By and large, they are flat, dry, and dense. On the rare occasion that I encounter light, fluffy scrambled eggs at a Waffle House or similar establishment, I make a big deal out of complimenting the cook. He or she is obviously not following the “approved” restaurant technique that results in......unremarkable eggs.
Hey, I know. Short order cooks are all about speed. And sometimes speed means sacrificing little nuances......like decently cooked scrambled eggs. You break a couple of eggs into a hot pan, scramble 'em up with a spoon or a fork, cook 'em on high heat until they're dried out and brown. Doesn't usually take more than a few seconds and then you slap 'em on a plate and put up 'em for service. And a lot of home cooks do the same thing. That's what I mean by inept cooking.
Ept cooking (yes, it's a word; check the OED) requires a little more finesse. And the addition of a liquid, preferably a fat-containing liquid, to the party. Hence my second motivator. Recently, I've encountered a couple of online articles, written by alleged “experts,” that insist adding liquid to scrambled eggs is not only unnecessary but detrimental. Here's an example of that flawed advice from the Huffington Post: “We don't care how many years you've been adding milk, cream or water to your eggs, it stops today. Despite whatever type of logic you've attributed to this addition, the truth is that eggs and added liquid will separate during cooking which creates wet, overcooked eggs.” There's an Italian word for that theory – stronzate. And I'm not just talking through my fifty-plus years of experience. I've got science on my side.
Rather than try to parse the scientific reasoning on my own, I turn to the culinary nerds at America's Test Kitchen for the explanation: “When eggs are scrambled, the mechanism that transforms the liquidy beaten eggs into a fluffy mound on the plate is protein coagulation—the process by which, when exposed to heat, proteins unfold and then tangle up with one another and set, forming a latticed gel. The more tender the scrambled eggs, the more loosely the proteins have coagulated. Adding water to scrambled eggs dilutes the proteins a little, thereby raising the temperature at which they coagulate and making it harder to overcook the scramble. Water also increases the amount of steam, which puffs up the eggs, producing fluffy scrambled eggs. As for milk, it contains water but also fat, which coats the protein molecules so that they can’t bind with one another as tightly. The key to scrambled eggs that are both fluffy and tender is a balance of water and fat.....The bottom line: Scrambled eggs benefit from added liquid, preferably a liquid with fat.”
Don't like those experts? How about this one, Dr. Harold McGee, author of On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen. “Cream, butter, milk, water, or oil (used in China) will dilute the egg proteins and produce a tenderer mass when the eggs are carefully cooked.” The italics are mine, because Dr. McGee goes on to point out that “overheating, however, will cause some of the added liquid to separate.” Ah-HA! Go back to that opposing statement a couple of paragraphs ago; yes, “added liquid will separate during cooking,” but only if you're not cooking the eggs right in the first place! If you're using a blazing hot pan, the liquid will, indeed, separate. So don't do that!
And as as aside to Dr. McGee, China is not the only place they use oil in scrambled eggs. Waffle House does, too, as Bon Appétit Restaurant Editor Andrew Knowlton discovered on a recent magazine assignment as a Waffle House cook. Andrew calls liquid vegetable shortening “literally the grease that keeps the gears at Waffle House spinning.” And a former cook there reveals that Waffle House employs two or three tablespoons of the stuff in a hot aluminum pan when cooking scrambled eggs. And that's likely why the discrepancy I've experienced; some cooks not as obsessed with speed don't get the pan as screamingly hot as others and the eggs turn out better as a result.
Dr. McGee says “scrambled eggs made in the usual quick, offhand way are usually hard and forgettable.” Can I get an “amen” from the choir!! He goes on, “the key to moist scrambled eggs is low heat and patience; they will take several minutes to cook.” Oh, preach it, Brother McGee!!
Now, I'm not going to write another piece on how to make scrambled eggs because I've already written one and you can find it here: http://ronjamesitaliankitchen.blogspot.com/2011/01/how-to-make-best-scrambled-eggs.html. There's lot's of cool stuff in there about temperatures and protein matrices and coagulation and Maillard reactions and such, but besides all that it's a darn good example of the right way to cook scrambled eggs. One thing I will reiterate here, though, is Egg Cookery Rule 101: Eggs that look done in the pan will be overdone on the plate. If you remove the pan from the heat while the eggs are still a little soft, carry-over will render them perfectly cooked when you plate them. If you wait until they look “done” in the pan, carry-over will carry them right over the edge and they'll be hard and dry.
Here's the takeaway: Ignore the “experts” who babble about not putting liquid in your scrambled eggs. Either they were absent for the scientific discussion in culinary school or they only read half the lesson. And go out of your way to praise the rare Waffle House, Denny's, et al cook who actually gets it right. Maybe if enough people compliment the good cooks, the bad ones will either be inspired or fired. Better yet, just learn good technique on your own and you can make perfect scrambled eggs yourself.