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Great egg spectations

The simplest egg dishes that we eat at breakfast are the hardest to make, writes Vir Sanghvi.

india Updated: Jul 28, 2008 12:38 IST
Vir Sanghvi

The simplest egg dishes that we eat at breakfast are the hardest to make. And most Indian restaurant kitchens don’t know how to cook them properly.

So, I’m not the only one who loves eggs! When I lamented, a couple of weeks or so ago, that Indian cooks were unfairly neglecting one of nature’s great treasures, I portrayed the egg as a humble object, passed over by mighty chefs as they reached for the lobster, the lamb or even, the chicken.

Not true, some of you have since told me. You like eggs as much as I do and wish more cooks would learn to cook with them. Moreover, most of you regret that the breakfast egg has now become a cheap and nasty dish, usually made by the junior-most chef in the kitchen, using the most inexpensive ingredients available.

What interested me about the response to the piece was that
(a) most of you still like your eggs done western style (in my column I had argued for more Indian recipes) and
(b) you still think of them as breakfast items.

Okay, fair enough, but I’ve got to warn you: prepare to be disappointed. The simplest egg dishes of Continental breakfast cuisine are the hardest to make. Most Indian restaurant kitchens do not know how to cook them properly. And the ingredients used are often so sub-standard that the chefs should be ashamed of themselves.
Here’s my own guide (based on stealing other people’s recipes, mainly – I am the world’s worst cook or so they regularly tell me at home) to getting a decent egg breakfast.

The eggs: I am sorry if I’ve become a bore on the subject of free range eggs and sometimes sound like a flack for Keggs eggs, but you cannot make a decent egg dish with the nasty industrial eggs available in the market. You must use eggs that come from hens that have been allowed to run around, enjoy the fresh air, and have been fed a proper diet. A few weeks ago, my friend Tapas Bhattacharya, served me fried eggs with hash browns at Machan, the restaurant where he is chef/manager. There was nothing wrong with the cooking but the eggs were anaemic with yolks that were pale gray.

Tapas took one look at the eggs, worked out what was wrong, disappeared into the kitchen and returned with another plate of two fried eggs, their whites gleaming and their yolks the colour of bright sunlight. The eggs had been cooked in exactly the same way – Tapas had just used free range eggs instead of the industrial ones that most hotels use for their breakfast service.

So with eggs, the quality of the ingredient is paramount. Even a great chef will fail if he uses an industrial egg.
As important is freshness. Some cooks believe that if you rub eggs in oil or butter (as the Irish do), you’ll keep them fresher for longer. Perhaps. But food scientists say that an egg loses 4mg of water each day of its life (even if it is oiled or buttered). As the egg’s insides shrink, the air within the shell expands till ultimately you get rotten eggs. So eggs must be fresh. Anyone can check this. Put your egg in a bowl of water. If it sinks to the bottom, it is fresh. If it floats, it is old and full of air. Cook only with eggs that sink.

Some hotels use reconstituted egg, that is to say, an egg powder which goes into scrambled eggs. Any chef who uses egg powder should first have his toque ceremonially confiscated.
Then, he should be shot.

The fried egg: You only understand the principle of a fried egg if you realise that your purpose is not just to fry an egg but to babysit a yolk. A fried egg cooked over easy or one with a coagulated yolk is a failed egg, a disgrace to the culinary arts. A proper fried egg should have a golden, runny yolk in the centre. The white should be solid but still shimmering and evanescent, fresh enough to pop in your mouth but soft enough to melt once it is inside, leaving behind a buttery explosion.

This is not easy to do so chefs cheat. One trick is not to fry at all. Simmer some water in a pot. Place a serving plate over the pot. When the plate is hot, crack an egg on it. Cover with another plate and leave for four minutes. You’ll get a fried egg – but one that’s never been fried.

A poncier and needlessly complicated method attributed to Bernard Loiseau, the celebrated French chef who committed suicide either because he thought he would lose his third Michelin star or because of the strain of inventing recipes like this one, is as follows: preheat an oven to 245 degree C. Put a pan containing butter and a spoon of water (to prevent the butter from burning) over a flame. When the butter begins to foam, add just the white of the egg. Now, put the pan in the oven for 90 seconds. Take it out. Put a raw yolk at the centre. Put it back in the oven for two minutes. And voila! You have a perfect fried egg.

If you have no time for all this nonsense, remember that the basic dilemma with a fried egg is that the white is nearer the heat, but the yolk is further away. This is why many chefs cover the pan so that the heat is reflected back to the yolk. There are variations to this. You can put the eggs in a pan containing very hot fat and cover them. Then, turn the heat off. That should give you perfect, delicate fried eggs.
Scrambled: Unless you are making akuri, remember that scrambled eggs must be soft, creamy and runny. If you can eat them easily with a fork, you’ve probably screwed up. Either you eat them with a spoon or you pour them over toast which serves as a sort of egg-plate.

How do you get them creamy? The usual trick is to use cream. But it is not so simple. The trick to a scrambled egg is a minimum of heat. You can do this either by using a very low flame or – as Gordon Ramsay suggests – by periodically lifting the pan off the heat to keep the temperature low.

The broad principle being low temperature, all chefs have their own ruses. Some pour the egg mixture into a pan containing a little fat and then, just as the egg starts coagulating, add cream. The cream will help with the consistency but because it is cold, it will also automatically lower the temperature of the pan and slow down the coagulation process.

There is, in most recipes, a point when you decide that you have to start stirring before you end up with shards of omelette. Quite when that point is reached depends on your egg mixture (has it been diluted with milk? Have you added cream? Etc.) But there are those who say that you should never stir. Heston Blumenthal says that there should be no thickening for at least ten minutes if the flame is low enough. MFK Fisher puts in lots of cream, uses a low flame and says that it should take half an hour, without stirring.

No matter which method you end up using, here are some tips: try and use butter – it adds something to the taste; do not bother to whip the eggs too much before cooking – it’s no help; remember that you while you can season with herbs, salt and pepper are usually enough; and if your eggs are solid, then you’ve done something wrong.
Accompaniments: Different people like different things with eggs. I believe that fried bread and the tomato, so beloved of the full English breakfast, are unnecessary. Nor am I keen on the blood sausage (black pudding, white pudding, boudin noir etc.) that many Europeans prefer.

A good eggy breakfast should include bread: good quality toast is enough, some pork, either in the form of a flavourful sausage or crisp good quality bacon; and ideally, potato. Chips may seem excessive first thing in the morning but a hash brown (now available frozen and therefore, easy to cook) is perfect. A more adventurous cook may want to try potatoes sauteed with onion but it’s not really necessary. A perfect breakfast forkful should mix fried egg white with a little bacon and some potato dipped in the runny yolk.

Opinions are divided on baked beans. If your yolks are moist, you don’t need them. Otherwise, they go well with fried egg, I reckon, but they are a waste with good scrambled eggs.

Some people say that coffee is the ideal breakfast beverage. I prefer Darjeeling tea but no doubt you will make up your own mind. My general rule is that if you want to go all French you can have coffee, croissants and cigarettes for breakfast.
For rest of us, tea and eggs should be good enough.