One of the most common ingredients in food but for some reason one of the least understood by most people is eggs. We’ve all had eggs at some stage of our lives, even if you don’t eat them anymore you’re probably eating them as an added ingredient somewhere in your life. Mousses, cakes, parfaits, thickeners, custards, sauces, bread and so on and so forth. A lot of instant sauce mixes have powdered dried egg whites for example. So even if you try run from them, at some point you WILL consume them unless you make a point to read packaging and remove the chance of consuming them from your diet.
So what is an egg? For simplicity’s sake I will only refer to poultry eggs. Let’s start from the beginning. It’s the embryo of an unborn bird, lizard or fish. The ones that we’re interested in are the poultry kind. They are shaped the way they are to make them easier for the bird to extract them from their system and also because of the internal structure inside the egg. At the rounder end of an egg there is an air pocket or sac, this is important as the older an egg is the larger the air sac. The shell of an egg has small pores in it that appear as tiny dimples. The pores allow air into the egg which help provide oxygen for the growing baby bird if the egg is allowed to develop. So when purchasing eggs hold them up to a bright light, if the air sac is large…the egg is old. Another way to check age is to place the eggs in a bowl of cold water. The higher the egg floats the older it is. A fresh egg will sink all the way to the bottom of the bowl.
You also have a thin membrane just under the shell. The membrane is what stops the shell from being too brittle and breaking apart but it’s also what holds the egg yolk in place through 2 membranes at each end called a chalaza. The older an egg the more runny the egg white. So if the egg is old, the egg yolk will tend to be more to one side or the other. A fresh egg when boiled will have the yolk perfectly in the middle. Another way to check the freshness of an egg is to break it onto a plate. If the egg white (also called the Albumen) is thick and tight around the egg yolk then the egg is fresh, if the egg white runs then the egg is old. A fresh egg’s yolk also appears like a strong high bubble on the plate and shouldn’t be flat. The yolk is what eventually develops into a bird (if its been fertilised it will have a small red spot on it), the white is protein rich and is what the growing chick eats as it grows inside the egg. The yolk is full of cholesterol and flavour but eating too much of it has health risks. Most of today’s eggs are unfertilised and therefore won’t develop into birds if incubated however there are some eggs that are free-range and may have been fertilised on the farm. They often have tell-tale signs such as a small red blood spot inside them.
Ok, so that’s basically what an egg is made from and how to tell its age. It’s important to know this as the age of an egg can affect how your recipe turns out. Having fresher egg whites will result in better meringues and whips. Fresher egg yolks will mean more flavourful mayonnaises and sabayons. Fresher eggs will mean better looking poached eggs and easier to make sunny side up eggs for breakfast. When it comes to the difference between good and perfect in the culinary world it’s the small things that matter.
When you whisk egg white you’re mechanically pushing air bubbles into the protein molecules and also de-naturing the protein strands and amino acids in the whites. Protein strands are coiled up naturally, when you whisk you basically stretch the proteins. The longer your whisk the more air bubbles you create and the smaller you make the air bubbles you’re created previously. Sometimes adding an acid like lemon juice or vinegar helps in keeping the stretched out amino acids stretched. This is why you get thicker whites the longer you whisk HOWEVER its also easy to overwhisk eggs too, this is when you’ve whisked the eggs so much that the proteins break up and become watery. When baking or whisking eggs use room temperature eggs and the fresher the egg the better.
In today’s world we also have a whole myriad of labels for eggs. You arrive at the egg section of a supermarket and the whole array of eggs on offer is confusing to most. We just look at price and grab the biggest at the cheapest price. There is actually a very good reason for the price differences. Next time take a few seconds to actually read the labels. Besides small, medium, large and jumbo size eggs you also get broiler, organic, free-range and grain fed eggs. In Europe and America they go further still and categorise according to chicken type and type of eggs (the colour of an egg shell is determined by the type of chicken that laid it…hence we get brown and white eggs). In Europe they also pasteurize their eggs to kill bacteria. Some good quality eggs like the ones sold at Woolworths will also have date stamps on each egg to tell you when it was laid.
The type of egg I have found to work best for my recipes and baking are free-range fully organic eggs. Their yolks tend to be a dark orange colour and more flavourful. They’re also, unfortunately, the priciest type of egg you get as free-range organic chickens are not fed growth hormones and are left to roam the farm they’re raised on. Collecting the eggs takes a bit longer then with broiler chicken. They are allowed to eat anything they can find including grains that the farmer will also put out. This results in a more firm and flavourful egg. It’s also environmentally better to use them.
Ok, so onto a few of the many ways of making and using eggs. Omelettes, sunny side up, over easy, devilled eggs, Scotch eggs, in steak tartare, scrambled eggs, Eggs Benedict, Frittata, pickled eggs, Crème brûlée, Sauce Anglaise. Here are some tips and tricks I’ve learned over the years about some of these dishes
- Omelettes – Try find a non-stick pan, first get it really hot and then reduce to medium heat and use non-stick spray before putting the eggs in. Some people add water or milk to the eggs but I’ve found that using eggs alone results in a stronger omelette that’s less prone to breaking. Whisk the eggs a bit until they begin to cook then let them form the all important skin on the base. Add you precooked fillings and cheese whilst the eggs are still a bit wet on top. If you always struggle
with folding an omelette fold it on the plate. An omelette doesn’t always have to be folded by the way. The fine dining way of serving an omelette is by folding it twice, it’s a bit tricky but after practice it becomes second nature. The reason we do this is to make more space on the plate for other things and a half-moon omelette is often daunting to look at for customers.
Sunny side up – the most popular style of eggs in photographs but for some reason I’ve rarely seen anyone make them properly outside of a restaurant. The restaurant trick is to have metal rings or cake cutters. They have to be metal as you will be placing them on a hot pan. You don’t want oily eggs, so just like the omelette, use a non stick pan and a lot of non stick cooking spray, don’t forget to spray the metal ring too! Break the egg into the middle of the ring and let it cook on medium heat (it’s essential you cook it on medium heat otherwise you’ll get a burnt bottom and an uncooked top).
- Over easy – Basically sunny side eggs flipped over. The yolk is meant to remain runny though. The trick is not to break the yolk sac though so a non-stick pan is key once again. Once the egg starts sticking to the pan…the game is over.
- Boiled eggs – Pour a little salt in the water before boiling them to make them easier to peel. Also use a teaspoon that’s been rubbed with a little butter to peel the egg. Push the teaspoon under the shell and push the egg shell off as you push the teaspoon around it. To prevent that grey greenish colour on the yolk don’t overcook the eggs. Hardboiled eggs take 10 minutes and softboiled eggs take around 4 minutes.
- Devilled eggs – These are basically hard boiled eggs that have been cut in half, had their yolks removed and mashed up with other ingredients and then piped pack into the egg where the yolk used to be. They’re VERY old fashioned but if a guest requests boiled eggs its often the only creative way to present them. They’re also good as cocktail snacks but be careful as yolks dry out very quickly.
- Scotch eggs – Also a very old fashioned way of making eggs. It’s believed they’re from Scotland. They were sold as a quick finger snack. Their appeal is their look and texture. Although not a rule of thumb in the chef world we see a perfectly boiled egg as one that has an almost runny yolk. It’s a skill to manage to this when making Scotch eggs. So what are they? Basically boiled eggs that have been wrapped in sausage meat (but you can make your own minced meat mixture too) and then rolled in breadcrumbs and deep fried until crispy.
- Scrambled eggs – Scrambled eggs are best served moist and NOT dry please! Whisk the eggs beforehand and then whisk them in the pan as your pour the yolks into the pan. Let them sit for a bit and whisk them further. Don’t whisk constantly as this will result in smaller chunks of eggs. Well, that’s my preference, it’s up to you really. Some people add milk to their egg mix, I recommend you use cream instead. They turn out softer and more moist.
Eggs Benedict – Thanks to McDonald’s having gone and completely taken the art out of this dish everyone assumes it’s a simple thing to make. It’s one of the most intricate breakfast dishes to make as each component has to be exact. The poached egg must be soft boiled with a runny yolk. The English muffin should be slightly toasted but still soft. The Hollandaise sauce should be thick but not taste eggy or too acidic. The ham or bacon should be firm (or crispy if you prefer). I’ve made English muffins, they are the most technical baked things I have every attempted to make so you will be forgiven for buying them. I’ll put a hollandaise sauce recipe on this blog later so you can make your own at home. See below as to how to make a poached egg.
- Frittata – A frittata is a baked omelette. Basically a crust-less quiche. Chop any ingredient you’d like and cook them off first. Whisk the eggs with a little cream and stir in the ingredients. Bake in an oven proof dish. Add cheese and bake until the top of the frittata has browned slightly.
- Poached eggs – The key to making poached eggs is to be gentle and to use really fresh eggs. A lot of chefs and restaurants hide the fact that the poached egg was badly made by covering the egg with a lot of sauce. A perfectly poached egg is rounded in shape and doesn’t have stray whites hanging (these can be cut off though). To poach an egg simmer a large pot of water and pour in a spoon or two of vinegar. Vinegar helps the egg white coagulate. The pot should NOT be boiling. With a spoon stir the water until a whirlpool appears in the middle and then gently break a fresh egg just to the side of the middle of the whirlpool. Don’t stir anymore, just let the egg spin round by itself for about 2 or 3 minutes. As soon as the egg white becomes solid white in colour remove the egg with a slotted spoon. Blot it dry with paper towel. A good poached egg has a solid egg white but runny yolk, you tell this by gently pressing the egg, and it should wobble slightly like a water balloon. (this is the traditional way…but you can have them hardboiled too if you like)