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Thursday, 30 December 2010

How to Cook Perfect Scrambled Eggs and Omelettes

These should be some of the easiest and quickest dishes any cook can create, but going by the instructions that some writers give, you would be forgiven for thinking that scrambled eggs and omelettes are mysterious creations beyond the reach of mere mortals.

There are a few basic rules to follow: get these right and the rest is easy.  I’ll start you gently with the recipes and method for scrambled eggs and simple omelettes, then take you further with a Spanish omelette and soufflĂ© omelette recipe.

The two most vital rules are: use good eggs, and use a good pan.  The best pan in the world will not help you if you use lousy eggs, and the loveliest eggs you can find are easily ruined in a cheap and nasty pan.

Eggs: you will surely only be using free-range eggs, as fresh as they can be.  Please do not bring the misery of battery farmed eggs to your plate; even if you could live with the moral dimension (you’re broke, and it’s you and your family vs. a chicken), don’t live with the taste.  Battery eggs are often of poor quality; they may not whip up properly or “hold” a decent texture.  They will also either taste of nothing very much, or worse, of the cheap feeds given to the poor birds.  In my younger, ignorant days, I once bought some “bargain” eggs which tasted distinctly of fish – they weren’t off, but the chickens had been fed on fishmeal.  I have bought free-range eggs ever since, and when really, really broke (and I have been) I did without.

I haven’t specified the size of the eggs in these recipes: I use large eggs, but my large may be your extra large, or medium.  It isn’t really crucial, just follow your appetite.

The pan: use a heavy-based non-stick pan.  I use an eight inch/20 cm frying pan for both omelettes and scrambled eggs – this is big enough for two or three eggs.  If you are serving more than one person, you could go a little bigger, but better to do the eggs in batches: it takes seconds, as you will see.  A thin pan will not conduct the heat properly, and you will end up with eggs scorched on the bottom before the rest is properly set.

So, you have a good pan, and some good eggs.  What else?  Simply, some good butter, and some salt and pepper.  No splash of water added to the whipped eggs (I really have never seen the point in this – the theory I think is that the water creates a blast of steam that helps cook the eggs and makes them lighter.  No, it makes for spongy or soggy eggs).  No cream, no milk.

Break the eggs, with a pinch of sea salt and a grind of fresh pepper, into a bowl, jug or mug and whisk with a fork, or, indeed, a whisk, until the eggs are just, and only just, amalgamated.  The less whipping the better, but, like me, you probably want to make sure that the whites are well mixed in, and won’t leave little white blobs in the finished result.  You are trying to get some air into the mix, but not smash the proteins to smithereens.

Put your pan onto a just-above-medium heat, and leave for a minute or so.  Put in a knob of butter, which, if you’ve got the heat right, will immediately begin to melt and run: after a few seconds, it will froth – now is the time to tip in the eggs.  Don’t let the butter begin to brown.

For scrambled eggs, stir, and keep stirring, using a wooden spoon.  The eggs should immediately begin to set and form curds.  Keep stirring, stirring and stirring.  The real trick is to tip them out of the pan just before they are quite done: the residual heat will keep them cooking.  Have a warmed plate, and/or your hot buttered toast ready, and spoon on the eggs while they are still a little moist.  You can stir in another knob of butter just before you turn the eggs out.

If you want to be really fastidious, turn them first into another warmed bowl, and stir and stir until the residual heat has done its job, before putting them on your plate.

The whole process will, for two or three eggs, take not much more than one to two minutes.

For omelettes, proceed as for scrambled eggs, but this time stir with a fork: you are trying to get some light fluffiness going here.  Drag the curds about, letting the uncooked egg reach the bottom of the pan.  When you have a nice balance between set and unset egg, you can let the “base” of the omelette begin to form.  Lift the edges here and there, and tip and swirl the pan so that the uncooked egg can run underneath.  Give the pan a good couple of shakes, and, provided that your non-stick pan is, er, non-sticky, the omelette should “come loose” in the pan.

Now fold the omelette.  You can simply fold it in half, so it forms a “half-moon” shape, or by a bit of judicious fiddling, pan-shaking, and fork wielding, you can form the traditional “three-fold” version by bringing both sides into the middle, so it looks more like a flat croissant.

There is great debate as to whether you let the omelette take on colour or not: many say it shouldn’t, many say it should.  Surely, the only really important thing here is to do it how you like it: for the record, I like a few golden tinges on mine.  The crucial thing, though, is to keep the omelette moist in the middle – as with the scrambled eggs, it will keep cooking through residual heat, so get it out of the pan before you think it is quite ready.

Again, total cooking time is somewhere between one to two minutes, and nearer one minute means that you’ve got the heat just right.

Nice things to add to scrambled eggs are perhaps some shreds of smoked salmon, some pre-cooked diced spring onions/scallions, or just a pinch or two of fresh herbs, chopped fine, such as parsley, chervil or tarragon.  Add any of these in the last few seconds of cooking.

Filled omelettes: well, where to start?  The suggestions above for scrambled eggs would be nice, but we can get a bit bolder here.  Most fillings, except, say, a little grated cheese, will need pre-cooking, or at least a little bit of pre-heating; mushrooms, garlic, bacon, ham, potatoes, tomatoes, onion, prawns, flaked smoked haddock etc etc. 

You can either add the eggs to the fillings in the pan for a kind of “mixed omelette finish” or put the fillings to one side, kept warm, and add them just before you fold.  The latter is a bit prettier, easier to control, and less likely to fall apart.

Which brings us to the Spanish Omelette, or Tortilla Espanola, which has nothing to do with the Mexican-style flatbread tortillas.  This is a thick omelette, slow cooked, and often served in wedges as tapas.  The classic, indeed, pretty much compulsory, filling is potato (pre-cooked, boiled spuds, cut into chunks – new potatoes, complete with their papery skins, although non-traditional, are good here too).  You will certainly want some onions, and probably a bit of garlic too – any additional ingredients are up to you.

You can continue to use the small pan as above, or use a bigger one here.  Gently sweat the onion and garlic in a little oil, and remove from the pan once they have softened and taken a little colour.  Raise the heat a little, and if necessary, add a little more oil.  Gently fry the potato pieces until they too have taken on a little golden brown colouring.  Take the pan off the heat, let it cool somewhat, and lower the heat on your hob.  Return the onion and garlic to the pan (and any other fillings you have prepared) and tip in the eggs, mixing well.  You could use six eggs or more, depending on the size of your pan: you are making a thick, cake like creation here.

Cook on the very lowest heat, using a heat diffusing mat if you have one.  You want the omelette to set, but the base to take on no more than a light golden brown colour.  After ten to twenty minutes (depending on your quantities) you need to cook the top.  Either: tip the omelette carefully onto a plate, then slide it back into the pan with what was the top side now at the bottom, or leave the omelette in the pan and place under a gentle grill, until the top has set and taken on a little colour.

You can serve this immediately, or just warm, or even cold.  Depending on your ingredients, this is almost like a quiche, but without the pastry: ideal for those of you who are on low-carb diets – well, except for the potatoes, of course.

SoufflĂ© omelette: three eggs, with one white separated and reserved.  Beat the two whole eggs and extra yolk as for a regular omelette or scrambled egg, with salt and pepper.  Whisk the reserved egg white until light and fluffy, and holding in peaks; use an electric whisk.  Carefully fold this into the other eggs, retaining as much of the air as possible.

Cook over a very gentle heat (no folding or forking in the pan here) until beginning to set, then either turn or finish under the grill as for the Spanish Omelette.  You could sprinkle some toppings of your choice just before grilling: don’t worry if it falls a little, it will expand again under the grill.

Whisking just one of the egg whites gives you a light but fairly stable souffle omelette: if you are brave, you could whisk two or even all of the whites, but you are more likely to get that dreaded souffle-deflation.  It’ll still taste good, though.

A note about pepper.  I prefer to use freshly ground black pepper in omelettes and scrambled eggs, and am not bothered about the black specks.  You could use white pepper instead, if that kind of thing bothers you, but you get more heat and less spiciness.

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