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Scrambled Eggs Unscrambled

Most Western kitchens would collapse if God suddenly abolished the egg. In Indian kitchens, the effects would be less damaging but significant nevertheless. Here's why.

india Updated: Jul 02, 2011 19:55 IST
Vir Sanghvi

Chefs can be sniffy about eggs. Most Western kitchens would collapse if God suddenly abolished the egg. There would be none of the great sauces (no Hollandaise, no Bearnaise, no mayonnaise, etc.); there would be no baking (no cakes, no pastries, etc.); no desserts (no soufflés, no custards, and no ice-cream); and even ordinary savoury dishes would be affected. In Indian kitchens, the effects would be less damaging but significant nevertheless.

So, why are chefs snobbish about eggs? After all, most hotel kitchens consume eggs like a Hummer consumes petrol. All breakfast menus are based around eggs so they serve hundreds every day. Moreover, the pastry kitchen consumes its own quota of fresh eggs. I have two theories about why this should be so. The first is that because hotels turn out so many eggs at breakfast each day, their preparation is regarded as a menial task best left to the youngest cooks in the kitchens. The second is that chefs don’t like cooking things that we can make at home. If you and I can make perfect fried eggs in our kitchens, then why should a great chef waste his time with them?

eggsThis is a pity for two reasons. Many so-called luxury ingredients work best with eggs. Take white truffles, for instance. There is no better way of enjoying them than shaved over scrambled eggs. Good caviar works brilliantly on top of a dab of creamy scrambled eggs. But chefs will insist on inventing complicated dishes as bases for caviar and truffles. They will shave their truffles over risottos and will encase their caviar in little vol-au-vents. The second reason why the reluctance of chefs to bother with eggs is a tragedy is because eggs can become haute cuisine dishes. Yes, you and I can make scrambled eggs at home. But our eggs are rarely as good as those made by professionals – if only the professionals would bother to make them.

There is a difference between the Western scrambled egg and its Indian counterpart. In India, we make such dishes as akuri or bhurji rather as we would make subzis. Of course, there is a lot of technique involved but the trick is in the recipe, the condiments and the ingredients. The Parsi akuri, for instance, varies from home to home, not so much because of the cooking techniques but because of the ingredients and condiments used.

The classic Western scrambled egg, on the other hand, does not rely on ingredients. It is, at its heart, a marriage between the chicken and the cow. But while most dishes involving chickens and cattle are non-vegetarian, this is a happy exception because no animals or birds are harmed in its preparation. The chicken contributes the eggs and the cow contributes the cream and the butter. The trick in getting a scrambled egg right lies in ensuring a creamy consistency. Chefs will tell you that the best way to do this is to cook the eggs over a minimum of heat. Some will even suggest that you use a double-boiler.

EggsThere is a scientific basis to the conventional wisdom. Egg yolks contain a lot of protein (though we think of the protein as being restricted to the white). These proteins are little balls of tightly-wound strands. When you heat the yolks, the proteins begin to unfold. To get the proteins to the point where they unfold fully, they must be heated to 160 degrees. Slow heating makes the proteins relax slowly and completely. Once the temperature goes up too much, things begin to go wrong. At 185 degrees, egg proteins coagulate 600 times faster than they do at 165 degrees or so. The trick, therefore, is to keep heating them gently while ensuring that they never get too hot. Allow the temperature to get too high and you will have clumpy, lumpy scrambled eggs.

Most Western chefs will tell you that the best way to scramble eggs is to whisk them a little in a bowl and to then pour them into a pan. Use a very low flame and keep whisking gently. As the cooking process continues, add little lumps of cold butter. This will have the effect of reducing the temperature of the egg mixture. Finally, when the eggs seem nearly ready, add a little cream. The coldness of the cream should put a stop to the cooking process because the eggs will continue to cook unless the temperature is suddenly reduced.

Various chefs offer slight variations on this recipe. Gordon Ramsay says to hold the pan just above the flame and to keep raising it away from the heat when you think the temperatures are too high. Our very own Bhikoo Maneckshaw writes that you should keep whisking the eggs with firm, slow movements of a flat wooden spoon. Use slow movements, she says, because if you use vigorous movements the eggs become a mish-mash.

My guess is that if you stick to the basic principle of slow heating the eggs at a temperature that is never above 180 degrees, you should do okay. The American food writer Russ Parsons (to whom I am indebted for the science in this piece) says that you should ignore recipes that recommend using a double-boiler. Parsons says that this will actually increase the chances of curdling because the heat is so low that it will take the yolks a long time to thicken and inattention is almost inevitable.

On the other hand, I know professional chefs who make terrific scrambled eggs without understanding any of the science. The best scrambled eggs I have had in India were cooked by sous chef Apoorve Kunte at the Machan at Delhi’s Taj Mahal Hotel, using a recipe perfected by his boss chef Tapash Bhattacharya. Tapash’s recipe uses Keggs eggs. (You can use any other free range eggs but do not waste time on industrial eggs.) He takes eight eggs and mixes them with 20 ml of cream and 15 gm of butter. He whisks the eggs, butter and cream together for 90 seconds and puts the mixture into a pan over a slow flame and stirs gently till he has what he calls a pouring consistency. He recognises that the mixture will keep cooking till it gets to the table so he removes it from the fire just before it is done.

CheesecakeI have had Tapash’s eggs with caviar, with white truffles, and with a variety of luxury ingredients. They form a good base for truffles and caviar but frankly, they are best enjoyed on their own on slices of unbuttered melba toast. (The eggs have enough butter.) The taste of a good egg with rich, creamy butter is hard to beat.

Last Sunday, I went to Machan for the brunch only to eat Tapash’s eggs and the feeling of gorging on his scrambled eggs while listening to Stella Pinto singing old songs (John Lennon’s Jealous Guy, Sting’s An Englishman in New York, etc.) was unbeatable. The problem – and let’s be upfront about this – is that these are not the scrambled eggs that Machan serves as part of its breakfast buffet. In common with most Indian hotels, the Taj uses industrial eggs for breakfast. (The Bombay Four Seasons used to be the one exception in that it always used free-range eggs – perhaps it still does.) No matter how much cream or butter you use and no matter how talented the chef, you cannot recreate the taste of Tapash’s scrambled eggs unless you use Keggs or some other brand of free-range eggs.

I am assured by Tapash that if you go into Machan and ask for your egg dishes to be made with free-range eggs, the restaurant will do it. But equally, let’s be clear that it will cost more than the normal breakfast buffet. I reckon it’s worth it but you should make up your own mind.

As for making perfect scrambled eggs at home, I think it’s possible. All the ingredients (free-range eggs, cream and butter) are now readily available in our cities. It will take a certain amount of practice before you work out exactly how much heat you need (we don’t all have cooking thermometers at home to tell us when the temperature reaches 160 degrees) but the eggs are not a high-cost item so the damage won’t be too great.

But once you perfect them, the eggs can become your party piece. Great scrambled eggs can be the centre of a dinner either paired with other ingredients (ham, asparagus, potatoes, etc.) or simply on their own. Your friends will admire you for your ingenuity in making the mundane taste amazing.

There’s a cost to be paid, though. You’ll never be able to enjoy the nasty, clumpy, bland-tasting industrial scrambled eggs made by most hotels and restaurants ever again.

From HT Brunch, July 3

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