Best Laid Plans

In his 1974 book “On Food,” celebrated American chef James Beard wrote, “I have had, in my time, memorable meals of scrambled eggs with fresh truffles, scrambled eggs with caviar and other glamorous things, but to me, there are few things as magnificent as scrambled eggs, pure and simple, perfectly cooked and perfectly seasoned.” 

I have to agree—very few ingredients can stand alone as well as the simple egg, properly cooked, with a conscious amount of salt, pepper and the appropriate fat. Yet eggs offer much more than simply a divine one-man show. 

Eggs, in their whole form, are an almost perfect mixture of protein, fat and water. In recipes, they contribute lift, structure, moisture, richness and color. They give flavor and chewiness to pasta, cakes, cookies, quiches and more, and they help to create the crispy, crunchy crust on our favorite fried foods.

And even when whites and yolks are separated, the magic remains. Egg whites, when whipped to various degrees, add lightness to mousses, cakes, soufflés and sauces. They can be slowly simmered in stocks to capture impurities, resulting in a crystal-clear liquid that can be used as consommé or aspic. When yolks are added to dairy and sugar, crème brûlée, crème anglaise, ice cream and a slew of other custards can be made. And when whipped until light and fluffy over a double boiler, then emulsified with melted butter, yolks help create the beloved breakfast sauce, Hollandaise. These are only a few examples of how crucial the egg is to recipes and how its many contributions have expanded and evolved our palates.

When we talk about eggs, most of us think about chicken eggs purchased at the grocery store. But in many communities these days (Austin included), farm-fresh chicken and duck eggs are readily available directly from the source and at farmers markets. Though I prefer a fresh, locally produced egg, for the sake of convenience, let’s explore eggs from the grocery store and begin with the various information listed on the carton: the grade of the egg, the size, the use-by date, the code representing the processing plant and the Julian calendar date for the day the egg was laid and packed. 

For the consumer, the Julian date and size of the egg are the two most important identifying markers. The Julian date determines the actual freshness of the egg. Fresh eggs are easier to crack without all the mess and frustration of broken shells falling into your mixture, but most importantly, they also give the most consistent results because the white (albumen) is more intact. The fresher the egg, the more likely the path to the perfect poach or the fluffiest batter. The only exception to this rule is hard-boiled eggs. After years of experience and experimentation in the kitchen, I’ve found that older eggs peel much more easily and cleanly than fresh. And does size really matter? Well, in the case of eggs…yes it does! Many stores stock eggs in medium, large, extra-large and jumbo sizes. However, most recipes and ratios are based on a large egg, which is usually between 1.75 to 2 ounces. Also look for labeling that indicates how the chickens were raised (e.g. “organic,” “pasture raised,” and “vegetarian”) because eggs from chickens raised in a sustainable and humane way will have a higher nutritional value.

When storing eggs, remember to use them within a couple of weeks. The shell of the egg is porous and will absorb odors from other foods nearby so store eggs in their carton and away from strong-smelling foods such as cut onions or garlic. If there are leftover egg whites or yolks from a recipe, store them refrigerated in a sealed container. Whites can keep for four to five days but yolks are best if consumed in two to three days. 

Whether they’re the star of the breakfast plate, the perfect garnish for an already fat-laden cheeseburger or the success secret to many other dishes, eggs are practically indispensable. 

by Will Packwood  //  Photography by Melanie Grizzel