Better eggs through chemistry
On many Sundays, my wife and I luxuriate over three-egg omelets with grilled Texas Toast or English muffins and her homemade marmalade for breakfast. I have done a lot of experimenting over the years and at last I have made a breakthrough. This method makes absolutely the most wonderful creamy custardy decadent omelet (or scrambled eggs, if you prefer). Absolutely the effen best ever. And it is fast and easy.
This recipe is for a simple, pure, French omelet. No cheese, no peppers, no ham. The beauty of this is its sumptuous egginess unadorned, although I must confess I like adding a small shallot to the melting fat. There are several tricks that are vital, so please try this my way the first time with the ratios exactly as below to set your mental and taste standards. Then if you want to riff on it, go ahead. It calls for whole cream. I have tried it with half-and-half and milk, and they are very good, but you can tell the diff. It calls for butter. It is also good with bacon fat and duck fat but use butter the first time. Now for some science. Here are the ingredients:
- Eggs are about 75% water, 12% fat (mostly in the yolks), and 12% protein
- Cream is about 73% water, 20% fat, 4% carbs, and 3% protein
- Butter is about 17% water, 80% fat, and a small amount of protein
- Cornstarch almost all carbohydrates, it binds things together
Protein molecules in egg whites, mostly ovalbumin and ovotransferrin, float unlinked in the water, which is why the albumen, the “whites” are actually clear. As they are heated they change their shape and even link up, a process called denaturing, and form a coagulated mesh that traps moisture. The linked proteins block light and turn opaque white. As with other proteins, the longer or hotter you cook them, the proteins shrink and squeeze out moisture. So it is crucial to keep the heat down and take the eggs off when slightly runny. They will finish cooking by carryover.
We want to work with whole cream and butter because their fat helps keep the proteins from clumping. And then there is the secret ingredient: Cornstarch. Why the cornstarch? I got the idea from the blogger Mandy Lee via Food52 in her recipe for scrambled eggs. What is happening? The starch is an emulsifier which means that it helps the fat and water hang out together. It also helps keep the proteins from clumping. And it soaks up water and helps keep the egg mixture moist. Magic!
As it is heated, the molecular chains in cornstarch unravel and form a mesh with other starch chains, a process called starch gelatinization. It forms a custard-like gel trapping the water, fat, and protein in the eggs, cream, and butter. My friend Grant Crilly at ChefSteps, a far more accomplished baker than I, added that “as the cornstarch gels, it binds the water that is squeezed out of the cooking egg protein, really capturing moisture and adding some elasticity.” Lots of recipes take advantage of this by mixing egg and corn starch: cookies, lemon bars, brownies, pudding, and crepes. The AmazingRibs.com science advisor, Prof. Greg Blonder, said “Essentially it forms an internal sauce.”
As for the salt, some chefs perpetuate a myth that salting the raw eggs causes them to get tough. It doesn’t. Salt also promotes denaturing, but oddly, prevents them from bunching up too much and squeezing out water.
Here’s a short video of the process with special thanks to the late great pianist Don Shirley for his 1950s version of “At Last” written by Mack Gordon and Harry Warren in 1941. If you saw the movie Green Book, that was Shirley in the back seat.
- I make this in a non-stick 8 inch (203.2 mm) ceramic coated pan (the video says enamel, but it is really a ceramic coat). This is the exact model I bought: 8 inch GreenPan Valencia Pro. I also bought their 12 inch (304.8 mm). They are totally awesome and I am not paid to say so. This new breed of coating is very different from the set of non-stick pans we got when we were married years ago. They don't scorch and they have none of the drawbacks of Teflon which can produce hazardous vapors if it gets too hot. The eggs are easy to flip and they slide out like an Olympic skier. I strongly recommend you get one if you make a lot of omelets.
- 1 tablespoon cornstarch
- 2 tablespoons heavy cream
- 3 large eggs
- ⅕ teaspoon Morton Coarse Kosher Salt
- 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
These recipes were created in US Customary measurements and the conversion to metric is being done by calculations. They should be accurate, but it is possible there could be an error. If you find one, please let us know in the comments at the bottom of the page
- Whisk #1. Have all of the ingredients out and at the ready. Whisk together the cornstarch and cream in a medium sized bowl until there are no lumps.
- Whisk #2. Crack and add the eggs to the cornstarch mix, sprinkle in the salt, and whisk vigorously until it is foamy. You want some bubbles in there. Add the herbs now.
- Butter up. Melt the butter over medium heat in an 8 inch (203.2 mm) nonstick pan. I am extremely fond of my ceramic coated pan which is a s slick as a hockey rink. Resist the temptation to go hot unless you like rubbery eggs. Do not brown the butter.
- Cook side one. As soon as the butter is melted, give the eggs a final whisk and pour them into the pan. With the whisk, move the liquid around. The eggs will start solidifying on the bottom and sides. Push the lumps around and tilt the pan so liquid can flow onto the bare surface. You will think that you are making scrambled eggs. Don’t worry, you are making an omelet. Keep this up until there is very little runny liquid on top but don’t let the bottom brown.
- Flip out. If you like runny eggs, proceed to the next step. For a little firmer omelet, now it is time to flip it over and cook the runny egg remaining on the top. There are two methods. The pro technique is to make sure the eggs are sliding around in the pan and then, with a flick of the wrist, send it up the sloped side of the pan, into the air where it will do a half gainer. Watch out for any low hanging cabinets. If you lack the confidence to do the flick, there is an easier way: Slide the eggs out of the pan onto a plate, and then slide them back into the pan tilting the plate so the wet side lands facing the warm metal.
- Fold and serve. Let the wet side set for about 20 seconds and then slide it out onto a plate, folding it in half as it slides out. I like a few grinds of fresh black pepper, grilled Texas Toast or English muffins, and of course, coffee. My wife puts homemade marmalade on her toast.