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Welcome to Day Four of Kitchn’s Cooking School! Today we’re covering the incredible egg. Chances are you’ve got a dozen or two in your fridge right now, but can you say you really know your way around an egg, or that you’re making the most of their incredible versatility in the kitchen? Well, then, let’s get cracking! Read on, and become the eggspert you’ve always wanted to be.
These portable protein-packed packages are sources of true magic in the kitchen. More than just great for breakfast (but that too!), the unique structure of eggs gives them the ability to bind dishes together, make food light and fluffy, form delicate foams, and do much, much more. In fact, they’re essential to all kinds of savory and sweet cooking.
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Start Here: Egg Basics
Cracking an egg is one of those things that seems straightforward, but can suddenly get troublesome. Without warning, a membrane doesn’t puncture quite right, the shell breaks into a million pieces, and you’re left holding a jumbled mess with broken yolk and white dripping everywhere. While we can’t guarantee every egg will crack perfectly, here are some tips to cut down on the risk — and the mess.
First, this may seem obvious, but make sure you’re near the bowl or pan you’re cracking eggs into. Then give the egg a confident tap on a flat surface to crack it. Many people (including some Kitchn editors!) grew up cracking eggs on the edges of bowls or pans. And most of the time it may work okay. But trust us: The flat-surface method is far less likely to result in broken yolks, or in egg shell ending up in the bowl or pan. Next, holding the egg over the bowl or pan, press your thumbs lightly into the crack, until you break the membrane. Then pull gently apart. Voila!
Okay, some bits of shell got into the egg, now what? Don’t stress! It happens. If you’ve ever tried chasing egg shell bits around the white with a fork or knife, and watching them maddeningly drift away, you also know it can be a real pain. Here are two moves, both of which will work. One, you can grab a bigger piece of egg shell and use it as a scoop. What makes this work is that the shell easily cuts through the viscous white more easily than a utensil. The drawback to this? Egg shells can contain bacteria, and you don’t want to risk contaminating your dish (any more than it might be) — especially if you’re planning to make runny or soft-cooked eggs. Two, you can wet your finger and simply use it to scoop out the shell. Yes, it’s a bit messy, but you can just wash your hands after. And as long as your hands are clean, this is actually the safer method.
What happens when you beat an egg? You aren’t simply mixing the yolk and white together. You’re mixing air in there as well. And (oversimplified science alert) because eggs are mostly made of protein suspended in liquid, and because proteins are long, gangly things, the air stays in there. Here’s a much more detailed and accurate description of what happens.
But the takeaway is this: When you’re beating eggs for a scramble or an omelette, or to incorporate into a dish, if you want them to be light and fluffy, beat them thoroughly for a while. For even a basic scrambled egg, this can make a huge difference in the quality of the food.
If you’ve gone through the grocery aisle you know eggs are sold in different sizes, although you’ve probably also noticed that not every egg in your carton is the same size. Here’s a full breakdown of the actual difference in sizes, and how eggs are sorted. It doesn’t make much of a difference in small amounts, or when frying eggs for breakfast, but when your recipe calls for “four large eggs” and all you have on hand are medium or jumbo, it can throw the recipe off. Luckily the Egg Board has a very easy-to-use conversion chart. But you also can’t go wrong mostly buying large eggs. They’re the standard size in almost every recipe.
Storing and Checking for Freshness
If you’ve ever been to Europe you may have noticed people storing (and stores selling) unrefrigerated eggs. And there aren’t cases of mass salmonella poisoning. So what gives? Can we all save space and keep our eggs on the counter?
Not exactly. In the United States, most eggs are washed before sale. This cuts down on contamination, but it also removes a protective coating, meaning they need to be refrigerated. Luckily, eggs last several weeks in the fridge, and so unless you’re leaving them there for months, they’re likely to be good when you need them.
Want to check whether your eggs are fresh or not? Here’s an easy trick: Put one in a bowl of water. If it lays down at the bottom, it’s fresh! If it stands up, it’s older, but still good. If it floats — toss it. You can read more on why that works right here.
If You Learn Just One Thing Today …
To ensure your eggs don’t overcook, use lower temperatures. This is true for a lot of foods, but especially eggs (and most especially scrambled eggs, when a slightly soft, creamy texture makes all the difference). When you cook an egg, the proteins begin to coagulate. But cook the eggs for too long and those proteins tighten to the point where all the liquid is forced out, resulting in rubbery, dry, overcooked awfulness.
The longer you cook eggs, the more the proteins coagulate. The hotter you cook eggs, the more quickly they will coagulate. A lower temperature, therefore, lengthens the cooking time, and decreases the risk of over-coagulation.
For scrambled eggs, for instance, try taking them off the heat a little before the eggs look fully cooked. They’ll finish cooking and “set” while on the plate, and they will taste much better.
And to keep your eggs from sticking to the pan — even a nonstick pan — it doesn’t hurt to remember Day Two of cooking school and be generous with the oil. A brand-new nonstick pan may work great, but as they age and develop microscopic pits, where all those proteins will want to stick, oil will make a big difference.
What You Don’t Need to Learn
While it’s a fun party trick, cracking eggs one-handed isn’t really worth the effort of learning, unless your goal is to be a short-order cook at a breakfast diner, where the time savings might actually make a difference (and be worth the occasional broken mess).
Level Up! Egg Pro Tips
Of course, eggs aren’t just a stovetop breakfast food. They go in baked goods, and help bind meatloaf and casseroles, just to name a few things. But you can do even more when you separate the yolks and the whites.
The risk when separating eggs into their yolks and whites, of course, is that a yolk will break. There are many, many tips out there for doing this successfully. Some recommend passing the yolk back and forth in the halves of the shell, while others advise using a sieve (or buying some kind of tool). There’s even a viral trick out there where you use an empty water bottle. But the easiest and most effective method is to simply use your hands to catch the yolk while the white drips through your fingers into a bowl. Because your fingers are soft, the yolk is much less likely to break than it would against a sharp shell edge or a metal strainer. One note: Cold eggs are easier to separate than warm ones, so use eggs straight out of the fridge — but warm whites are easier to whip, so give them a few minutes to come to room temp if you’re going to be whipping them.
We do recommend using three bowls when separating eggs: One to break the egg into, then one to hold the white, and one to hold the yolks. If you try breaking an egg over the bowl of whites, you risk getting yolk (or shell) in there.
Whipping Egg Whites
There’s not much to whipping egg whites, but the process can be intimidating, especially if you’re using a hand mixer and/or trying to achieve stiff peaks. Simply remember that the process can take up to 10 long minutes (or more!) depending on the machine you’re using — to say nothing of whipping them by hand. That can feel like an eon when you’re staring at a bowl, but just be patient, be watchful, and stop every once in a while and test the whites to see how stiff they are. Eventually you’ll get a good feel for how long it takes with your particular mixer setup. Here’s a handy visual guide to soft, firm, and stiff peaks. You can also watch the video, above, to see the difference.
When egg whites are over-beaten the peaks fall apart, and the whites become grainy and watery. Adding a little cream of tartar (or sugar, if you’re making a sweet dish) can help prevent this from happening. But it can’t stop it completely, so if you catch your whites starting to look over-beaten, stop, add another white to the bowl, and mix for just a few seconds — it can often bring them back!
Folding Egg Whites
If a recipe calls for folding egg whites into a batter, and the only things you know how to fold are napkins and laundry, you’re not alone. The technique isn’t the easiest to grasp — but it can often make the difference between a light and fluffy dish, and something dense and unappetizing. The essential goal of folding is simply to incorporate the whipped whites gently enough that you don’t lose all the air you just spent so long putting in! You’ll want to use a big bowl and a wide, flexible spatula, and proceed slowly and carefully. Here’s a handy step-by-step guide.
What You Can Do with Egg Whites
Egg whites are a fantastically versatile ingredient. Even when you’re using whole eggs, simply adding the whites in separately can make muffins and pancakes fluffier. Whites alone are essential for making meringue and giving angel food cake it’s lovely texture, but they’re not just for sweet stuff. They make fried chicken batter better, and even lighten up potato kugel. But perhaps the best (and easiest) thing you can do with an egg white is treat yourself to an ethereal whiskey sour.
What You Can Do with Egg Yolks
One perennial struggle when separating eggs is figuring out what to do with the unwanted part, and that often means the yolks — but don’t toss them! The simplest (and, frankly, most useful) thing is to just whip up a quick mayonnaise. It’s easy, impressive, and once you do it you may end up wondering why you’ve been spending money on jars of the stuff.
But yolks are also necessary for custards like key lime pie and crème brûlée, for classic Caesar dressing, and for making your own ice cream.
You can also freeze the leftover egg yolks (or whites) for later use: Here’s a good link with instructions.
6 Essential Egg Recipes
There may be more ways to cook eggs than any other single ingredient, and technique plays a big role in the results. Therefore, you’re going to get a lot of benefit out of studying these techniques and practicing them.
All of our assignments have three options, depending on how much time you have today. Do what you can; come back for more later!
15-Minute Assignment: Watch & Read
If you haven’t yet, watch the crash course video above. After that, read these basic primers. If you could pick just one thing from all this information, what would you like to try first?
- Seven Ways to Hard Boil an Egg
- How To Make Soft, Creamy Scrambled Eggs
- How to Separate an Egg
- A Visual Guide to Soft, Firm, and Stiff Peaks in Egg Whites
- How To Fold Egg Whites or Whipped Cream Into a Batter
30-Minute Assignment: Practice!
Try making either a frittata or a French omelette (which is slightly harder). Both lean on skills we discussed yesterday. Practice cracking eggs and scrambling them the way we discuss above, and pay attention to when the eggs begin to set in the pan. If there’s time, try making the dish again, but with the heat set a little lower.
Check your work: Did you try a new method for cracking or scrambling? If so, it may have felt strange at first. Try it a few more times before deciding whether to stick with it. If you made the dish twice, which one was more effective? Which one resulted in the better dish?
60-Minute Assignment: Stretch Yourself
Try this recipe for a basic cheese soufflé. This recipe doesn’t have a lot of ingredients, but it does have a lot of steps. You’ll practice separating eggs, whipping egg whites, and folding the whites back into a batter.
Check your work: Have you made a soufflé before? How did this one turn out? If it went well, congratulations! If it could have been better, look again at the instructions, and consider what didn’t work. Could you have whipped the whites more stiffly? Folded them more gently? Set aside time to practice these skills separately, and then try again.
What It Takes to Be an Eggspert
Regardless of what you absorb now or how much you practice this weekend, it takes a long time to really master any cooking skill. Eggs, especially, employ a lot of technique. So don’t be discouraged if you don’t do everything perfectly the first time around! Keep practicing and you will improve. But when you use eggs in your recipes, start thinking about their purpose. Are they there to emulsify, as in a salad dressing, or leaven, as in muffins or asoufflé? Do they add richness, as in cookie dough or a custard? Or are they there to help bind ingredients together, as in a meatball? Knowing what is intended will help you adjust your techniques — or the recipe, if necessary.
Meet Your Classmates
Follow your fellow classmates and share your questions and progress on Instagram and Twitter with #kitchncookingschool.
You can also join your Kitchn Cooking School cohort in our Kitchn Facebook group, which is devoted to all things Cooking School this month.
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