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They’re incredible, they’re edible. We already knew that. But even the most devoted fan of the humble egg can gain a new perspective on the ingredient in Michael Ruhlman’s new book, “Egg: A Culinary Exploration of the World’s Most Versatile Ingredient” ($40, Little, Brown and Co.).
To Ruhlman, the egg is “a lens through which to view the entire craft of cooking,” a continuum stretching from baking to frying to clarifying a consommé to shaking up a gin fizz.
When it comes to the kitchen, “If you understand everything there is to know about the egg, you increase your skills tenfold,” he explained on a recent pre-Easter visit to Seattle, when we asked him to cook with us.
Ruhlman is a confident, cogent guide who’s both an experienced journalist and a trained chef, who combined the two skill sets in one of his early books, “The Making of a Chef,” where he chronicled attending the Culinary Institute of America. He’s cowritten five cookbooks with renowned fine dining chef Thomas Keller, including “The French Laundry Cookbook,” and has turned in recent years to writing about the concepts and techniques that help readers understand how to cook for a lifetime, rather than single recipes making dinner for a day.
“I’m not a fan of recipes, and I think we’re overly reliant on recipes,” he said.
Ruhlman’s fascination with eggs came about — something of a chicken-and-the-egg case — when working on his previous book, “Twenty,” codifying 20 essential cooking techniques. (“Think” was one.) He was stumped while trying to prune down to five egg recipes for that book.
“How do you choose five representative egg recipes? They’re countless,” he said.
He began mapping out a flowchart of all the things that could be done with eggs. By the end, he had a 5-foot scroll: whole or separated, raw or cooked, in the shell or out. It binds, it enriches, it garnishes, it forms a sauce or custard or wash, it’s essential for dishes from pasta to brioche — and on top of that, it’s nutritious and economical.
There’s no other ingredient he can think of as universal.
“Nothing that I know of. Water? But water on its own is not a good meal,” he said.
Despite all his years with an intense focus on cooking, he learned new information researching the book: Pressure cookers, for instance, turn out perfect hard-cooked eggs (although the easiest way, which he also details, just involves the usual pan of water.) Meringue, made from egg whites and sugar, proved remarkably versatile; baked to a crunch, steamed for floating islands, mixed with cooked sugar for nougats and gelatin for marshmallows, folded with flour for angel food cake.
As food geeks already know, there’s a scientific explanation behind the egg’s role in every preparation. It helps to know some of that reasoning, Ruhlman said, and he does brief readers on highlights such as the “badass” lecithin molecule that’s key for emulsifying, but he avoided discussion at a depth where he thought it would bore either readers or himself.
We asked Ruhlman to demonstrate for us one recipe that people feel overconfident about making — scrambled eggs, which he calls the most “abused” preparation around, routinely overcooked into dryness.
He starts by cracking the eggs and mixing them into “absolute uniformity.” While you can use a whisk (and he did in our demo), he finds a few seconds with an immersion blender does the trick better.
Next step is to cook them gently in butter over low heat, in a nonstick pan if possible, stirring continuously and finishing them off well before most home cooks would consider them done. Ruhlman eyeballs the cooking rate as he stirs the eggs, lifting the pan from the burner when he judges it too hot, and essentially sauces the cooked curds with the final fluid part of the egg mixture.
All in all, it took 50 seconds from the raw eggs hitting the pan for him to pronounce them done.
“Remember, they will continue to cook on the plate,” he said. It was a mere minute later, after a sprinkle of salt and a scattering of fresh chervil, tarragon, chives and parsley, to the first bite.
“These are damn good scrambled eggs,” he said. Everyone else in the kitchen sampled a bite — moist, delicate and luxuriously simple — and agreed.
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We then asked him to demonstrate a technique most people are less confident about trying than they should be — poaching. Ruhlman says not to bother with the common instruction to add vinegar to the water.
Instead, he notes that there are actually two parts to an egg white, a loose part and a thicker one, and drains off the runny part in a slotted spoon (he actually created his own deeper spoon to perfect the technique, but a regular one works too). He gently swirls the water before dropping in the egg, then uses the water currents to help lift and evenly cook it. It’s one of the neat properties of eggs, he said, that the whites cook faster than the yolks, allowing for tender, firm whites and a runny, saucy interior.
In his hands, it seems simple. He thinks it can be for anyone else too.