In Underrated we review the ordinary rituals we build around food. Next up: cooking an egg.
Until last year I had never boiled an egg. Even now I can retain in the murky corners of my mind the full recipes for lemon meringue roulade, butter maple ice cream, and Catalan fish stew spiked with garlic and saffron, but I can’t for the life of me remember exactly how to cook an egg. I am always typing “Delia Smith soft- boiled egg” into Google, cutting straight to Britain’s authoritative voice of simple cookery. Are you meant to put the eggs into boiling water or cold? Do you boil them or simmer them or turn the heat down so low that they barely stir? I know that you absolutely should—or absolutely should not—put the eggs in the pan straight from the fridge. But I just cannot, will not, remember which it is.
(As it happens, I have just googled how to cook a soft-boiled egg for the millionth time and the trick is to put room-temperature eggs in cool water, bring to the boil, and simmer for 1 minute. Turn off the heat, put a lid on the pan, and leave to sit for precisely 6 minutes for a perfectly runny yolk.)
Somehow out of the gummy white and the rich yolk come buttery sandwich cakes, glazed brioches with a mahogany sheen, and omelets laden with French cheese and tufts of fresh spring herbs, not to mention marshmallows browning over an open flame, sweet-spicy shakshuka, and honey madeleines. An egg can bind, puff, gel, lighten, set, enrich, and garnish everything from chocolate éclairs to velvety crême brulée. Despite egg whites being almost entirely made of water, their 10% of protein makes them capable of whipping into a dense foam: the foundation of everything from sponge cake to meringue. The fattiness of yolks makes them luxuriant and delicious, while a protein in them called lecithin helps to bind oil and water together in mayonnaise, forming an emulsion. I was vegan for just under a year when I first started university, and it was eggs I missed the most: They’re in everything, and they’re magic.
There’s no knowing an egg until you’ve broken it. Inside could be two deep orange yolks or a single one as fat and yellow as a buttercup. When it’s boiled, there’s no way to tell if the egg is runny or set, with a yolk that’s smooth, fudgy, or the texture of a rubber boot. Food writer M.F.K. Fisher famously wrote: “Probably one of the most private things in the world is an egg before it is broken.” That’s just the trouble with eggs. As with so many good things, you never really know what blessings you’ve got until something, or someone, gets broken.
No wonder that egg is at the heart of some of our most healing meals. A boiled egg with soldiers is a panacea for the weak and weary, while scrambled eggs can soften even the bleakest hangover. Egg fried rice is an elixir for my girlfriend when her mental or physical health is waning. Some people even drink raw eggs, Rocky Balboa style, as workout fuel. (Those people are sociopaths, I’m sorry to say.) Cooking personalities from Julia Child to Delia Smith have schooled us in the ways of cooking omelets, poached eggs, and eggs en cocotte. The British Egg Information Service—surely the source of all glitz and glamor in the egg world—even ran a famous “Go to work on an egg” campaign from 1957 to 1971 in a bid to show that eggs were everything a salt-of-the-earth, good-and-honest person could need in the morning.
Follow an egg down the road less traveled—not to the plate but to the chicken coop, nestled safe under the bum of a doting mother hen—and a whole new story unfolds. When fertilized and incubated, a single, simple egg creates a whole new life. It is the sign of Easter rebirth, fertility, resurrection, abundance, and even life itself, depending on where in the world you’re from. Some historical forms of fortune-telling have involved “reading” the form of a cracked egg white. Certain Hindu cosmologies have it that the whole universe had its origins in a golden egg. If someone has cooked eggs for you, they have loved you, and it is impossible not to fall in love with them in return. The egg is all of life condensed into one smooth, ovoid shell.
It makes sense, then, given all the wonder that the humble egg contains, that it should also be a building block for things far bigger than omelets. The egg is where I turn when the kitchen has become a stale, stifling place, when I’m deep in the food rut and no longer see magic in the meals I cook. Eggs are a reminder of all the weird, fantastical chemistry contained within every bite we eat. Next time you’re flummoxed for meal ideas in the kitchen, think eggs. Hold an egg in the palm of your hand and remember that it is a capsule of pure potential: if you have eggs in the house, you have dinner, no matter how bare your kitchen cupboards. Often, when I’m raiding the fridge for a weekday dinner, I heat up whatever leftovers I have—whether it’s jollof rice or stewed eggplant with spices and spinach—and just serve with a fried egg on top. Somehow a single egg makes the whole dish sing anew.
From EAT UP!: Food, Appetite and Eating What You Want by Ruby Tandoh. Copyright © 2018, 2022 by Ruby Tandoh. Published by arrangement with Vintage Books, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.
Originally Appeared on Bon Appétit