The Great Scrambled Egg Debate

It took me a long time to realize that my mother overcooks her eggs. Badly. And compensates with boatloads of melted cheese. Now, this could be because my father has a slight allergy to raw egg. Or it could be because my mother has no idea what she’s doing. I’m not sure which. Either way, although I will always have a place in my heart for those overcooked, cheese-coated eggs…I also love learning the “correct” way to do things. There are many, many variables when cooking scrambled eggs. Much more than I would have thought of if I hadn’t dug more deeply into it. Heat level, type of cooking utensils, pots and pans, additions to the eggs, seasonings, timing, freshness and temperature of the eggs themselves, amount of scrambling, etc. So, as far as I can tell, there are two different camps in the Great Scrambled Egg Debate. There’s a “light and fluffy” side, which is sometimes referred to as the “broken omelet” version or “American scrambled eggs”. And then there’s a “dense and creamy” side, which is more European or French, specifically, and is known as “oeufs brouillés”. I’m more on the creamy, moist end myself, but I’m much more familiar with the “light and fluffy” side of scrambled eggs, as my mother makes them. “Broken omelet” implies that the cook was intending to make an omelet (which may be light and airy in order to serve as a vehicle for the filler and other ingredients), but failed, thus making the intended omelet into a scramble instead. They are two entirely different techniques. People often seem to be confused about the terminology, thinking that “light and fluffy” is the ideal with scrambled eggs. “Light and fluffy” means, to me, “dried out and rubbery”. I have a tendency to equate that with “overcooked”. Overcooked eggs can end up hard and watery, brown, or even green (a chemical change that also takes place in the yolks of overcooked hardboiled eggs). I prefer my eggs creamy to light and fluffy. “Creamy” means that the eggs are soft and slow-cooked, with small, tender curds and little to no air. They are smoooooth and delicious.

Moist, creamy ouefs brouilles.

Moist, creamy ouefs brouilles.

The level of heat that most Americans use when cooking scrambled eggs is much too high to achieve the smooth, creamy texture that I like so much. We tend to cook eggs on medium to medium high heat, when the goal should be to cook them on a lower setting. This takes more time, but yields infinitely better results. You want small curds to form slowly, gradually, over low heat, so that they remain tender and retain their moisture. This also makes it easier for you to tell when to remove the eggs from the heat. You want, of course, to remove them before they’re completely done. You have to factor in carry-over. If they’re done in the pan, they’ll be overcooked on the plate. High heat overcooks them and yields that “light and fluffy” texture. Low and slow results in the delicious, creamy goodness. Fluffy is NOT the goal, contrary to popular belief. You want tender and creamy, for “correct” scrambled eggs. I feel that we tend to beat the crap out of our eggs in the bowl and then leave them alone too much in the pan. Good scrambled eggs are constantly moving throughout the cooking process and they aren’t aerated as seems to be the goal for most Americans when they’re scrambling. You don’t want air in the scrambled eggs. This is why using a fork is preferable to using a whisk. It imparts less air into the mixture. You want to mix gently, just enough to combine the white and the yolk, but not enough to whip in air bubbles. Not to mention, according to “Cook’s Illustrated” magazine, “overbeating can cause premature coagulation of the egg proteins, thereby making the eggs tough before they hit the pan.” I’ve heard of whipping air into raw eggs with anything from a whisk to an electric mixer to an old-fashioned malt mixer. Or even going so far as to separate the whites and whip them to soft peaks before folding them back in. That seems like an awful lot of trouble to me. Another thing that seems rather over the top is using a double boiler (a set up with a pan or heat-resistant bowl within a pot of simmering water) for creamy eggs, to make the sensitive, slow-cooking process easier. An alternative option is using a saucepan instead of a frying pan, which has less surface area and higher sides. So far as I can gather, people add water, chicken broth, club soda, and cream of tartar in an attempt to acheive more airy, light eggs. Cream of tartar is often used for giving more volume to beaten egg whites. I’ve heard suggestions such as sour cream, cottage cheese, milk, yogurt, mayonnaise, whipped cream, mascarpone, cream cheese, and creme fraish to achieve soft, dense eggs. Some of these, such as mayonnaise and chicken broth, may also serve the purpose of flavoring the eggs. Adding water helps in the process of aerating the eggs if you’re looking for the light and fluffy option. However, milk has a higher cooking point than water and milk proteins will make the eggs heavier and tougher. Adding cold slivers of butter, splashes of cream, grated cheese, or dabs of creme fraish throughout the cooking process will slow it even further, if you’re seeking the creamy type, keeping large curds from forming. This tempers the heat and continues cooking at a nice easy pace. In the quest for tender, creamy eggs, some people even strain out the more solid strands of white, but I think that’s also little over the top and uppity. Not to mention unneccesary. The jury’s still out on whether you should salt your eggs before or after cooking. I’ve found scientific explanations vouching for each. Some say salting the eggs beforehand makes them tough and watery. Others say that it makes them more soft. That salt added before whisking the eggs helps to break down the proteins so that they come out smoother. I’ve also heard that the proteins break down too much and make the eggs watery. Perhaps it’s a matter of degree? Too much salt makes for hard, weepy eggs, while just the right amount makes them more tender? If salted before or during cooking, the proteins would dissolve and as they cooked pile together more closely than if they hadn’t dissolved thus making tougher eggs. Basically, what I’ve got is that salt helps the proteins to neutralize (rather than have a negative or positive charge) and allows them to fit closer together instead of repelling one another. The question remains whether these neutral, close-quartered proteins makes the eggs tough or tender. Cook’s Illustrated maintains that this helps the eggs to set sooner and at a lower temperature. However, it also says that the proteins can’t bind as tightly if neutralized…This seems contradictory to me. At this point, I’m thinking that salt may be a fairly minor factor compared to temperature and technique and will, for me, remain simply a matter of taste. So, whether you scramble your eggs in the pan or in a bowl, whether your weapon of choice is a whisk or chop sticks or a fork, whether you flavor them with cheese, tabasco, anchovies, fresh veggies, or bacon…You should try both techniques. 🙂 Oh, and P.S.! Always bring your eggs to room temperature. Apparently, this helps them cook more quickly and evenly. The French store their eggs in the pantry 😉 Americans are about the only culture to refrigerate their eggs! By the way…the fresher the eggs, the firmer the yolk, and the better the flavor.

Rubbery, dry, and overcooked!

Rubbery, dry, and overcooked!

Typical broken omelet, overcooked!

Typical broken omelet, made with too much heat.

((All photographs herein belong to their respective owners…None of these photographs are mine!))

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1 Comment

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One response to “The Great Scrambled Egg Debate

  1. I am often searching for new infos in the internet about this matter. Thankz.

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