All About Eggs
Basic Skills Unit III: Omelettes & More
Steven A. Shaw
Please post your questions for this class here -->> Q&A
(Note: Here is a listing of preceeding courses -- All about Eggs Introductory Material, All About Eggs -- FAQ, All About Eggs -- Hard Cooked Eggs and All about Eggs - Poaching eggs)
PART A: OMELETTES
It's unusual to encounter a properly made, traditional, French-style omelette in the US. We have something called an omelette that gets served in restaurants and in people's homes, but it's really just a gigantic sheet of overcooked eggs folded in half over too many fillings. It's so denatured that you could make it with that artificially flavored and colored egg stuff from a carton and it wouldn't make all that much difference. A real omelette is a much purer expression of eggs: both fluffy and moist (if you're sensitive about food-safety, stop reading now), it's a minimalist creation with just a small amount of filling for enhancement. Once you get the basic technique down and acquire the taste for real omelettes, there's no going back to the flavorless rubbery crap they serve at the local diner.
A proper omelette is small, at least in relation to the size of its pan. The ideal omelette size is in the range of two large eggs if you're using a 7-8" pan, and three large eggs if you're using a 10-10.5" pan. It's essential that the eggs have plenty of room to spread out, otherwise they can't cook rapidly enough to acquire the fluffy-moist texture of a good omelette. I prefer the smaller ones anyway, though, because it's easier to work with a smaller omelette and also because omelettes degrade so rapidly after being served. I'd rather eat two small ones than one big one -- a nice thing for a couple to do is each eat an omelette and then share another one.
When cooking an omelette, the only tool you need is the pan: no spatula required. All the necessary actions -- and this is what gives the omelette much of its character -- are performed by swirling and shaking the pan itself.
The non-stick skillet, shortly after its invention, quickly became the most popular pan for cooking omelettes (as well as for frying, scrambling, and other basic forms of skillet-based egg cookery). Even die-hard anti-non-stick folks usually keep one non-stick skillet around just for cooking eggs. Some hardcore traditionalists, however, prefer to use a "French steel" omelette pan. This kind of steel -- which is very much like a lighter, thinner version of cast-iron that hasn't been cast -- needs to be seasoned and as a result of the seasoning develops something akin to a non-stick or at least easy-release coating. I confess, I believe omelettes made in a French steel pan come out slightly better (there's something about the way the eggs interact with the butter and the steel surface that gives them a slightly nuttier taste), but non-stick skillets are so much more convenient I never use either of my French steel pans.
Of course, to beat the eggs you will want a bowl and a fork (for small quantities) or whisk (for larger quantities).
The egg mixture
Omelettes offend the food safety contingent not only because they need to be undercooked to be good, but also because and significant production (for more than, say, two people) requires "pooling" of eggs. You will need to create an egg mixture that you can scoop into the pan (or two pans, or even four if you're really good at it and you get a rotation going where two pans are reheating while two are in use) quickly so that you can get everybody served in just a few minutes. But if you crack a dozen eggs into a bowl, you have "pooled" your eggs -- the objection is that if one of the eggs is somehow infected then it will infect all the others. You will have to make a personal choice here. I suppose, if you're really committed to avoidance of pooling, you can use a lot of little bowls.
The egg mixture should contain four things: eggs, salt, pepper, and water.
Because an omelette is a relatively clear vehicle for the flavor of eggs, you will benefit from using the freshest and best eggs you can find. It's not going to make as much difference as it will with a poached or fried egg, but it will make some difference. What you don't have to worry about is the grade or size of your eggs: because you're going to beat them, all you care about is their quality and overall yield.
A little salt and fresh-ground (preferably white for cosmetic reasons) pepper will slightly enhance the flavor of your eggs. I use a pinch (maybe 1/8 teaspoon) of salt and two grinds of the peppermill per Large egg -- that's probably more than most people use.
One teaspoon of cold water per Large egg will make a difference in the fluffiness of the omelette. Though it would seem that the addition of water would dilute the egg mixture, what happens with much of the water is that it becomes steam upon hitting the pan. This steam rises through the omelette and acts as a leavening agent of sorts, thus making the omelette fluffier. The other nice thing about adding that little bit of water is that it almost invariably makes it such that two eggs yield 1/2 cup (four fluid ounces) of omelette mixture -- nice if you're making just one or two omelettes and you want them to come out the same as big-batch pooled-egg omelettes that you actually measure before cooking. (As you'll recall from the introductory material, a Large egg weighs roughly two ounces, but you lose the shell and some left-behind material when you crack it open.)
The final insult from a food-safety perspective is that, from a culinary-excellence perspective, your omelettes come out best if your omelette mixture is at room temperature or at least not ice-cold refrigerator temperature.
You remember how to crack eggs from yesterday, though, right? Maybe this will help offset some safety concerns.
For each omelette you make, you'll want to add a tablespoon of butter (1/8 of a stick) to the pan. Don't skimp here -- it's as essential an ingredient as the eggs themselves. Unsalted (sweet) butter is preferable here, and doubly preferable is "European-style" cultured butter. Still, overwhelmingly more important than type is freshness.
Although the word omelette is often understood to carry with it an implicit promise of fillings, you may find that your favorite omelette of all is a plain omelette. This is the bread-and-butter of omelette cookery: the minimalist ideal.
Fillings are nice too, though, but there are a couple of things to remember: First, the quantities you use should be very small. If you're using cheese, for example, you decidedly should not strive for the cheese-oozing-all-the-heck-over-the-plate effect of a standard greasy-spoon omelette. Instead, the cheese should just be an enhancer. Second, the fillings need to be pretty much completely cooked before you add them. Omelettes go from start to finish in 1-2 minutes, so you don't want to add anything raw unless it cooks very quickly. The things you do add raw need to be cut very small, such as finely chopped fresh herbs and grated (never sliced or chunked -- it won't melt quickly enough) cheese. And as with the eggs themselves, fillings incorporate better if they're not ice cold to begin with.
You can be as inventive as you like with fillings, but the classics I favor are gruyere cheese, fines herbes (fresh chervil, chives, parsley, and tarragon), and wild mushrooms. Not all together. I'm talking about three separate omelettes here.
Cooking an omelette
So now you're ready to cook some omelettes. Here's what you do.
Begin by making sure you're really ready. This is a very quick process. You need everything in its place: the egg mixture, the fillings if any, the butter, the (preferably warm) plates on which you're going to serve the omelettes, and any garnishes or accompaniments you may wish to use. In terms of your guests, as with risotto, you need people waiting for omelettes not omelettes waiting for people.
An omelette cooks over medium-high heat in a relatively hot pan. It's a quick process that you keep moving along quickly so as not to let anything burn or overcook. So begin by heating the pan, empty, for about a minute (until a few drops of water "dance" on the surface).
Add the butter and swirl it around so it covers the entire surface of the pan. The butter will melt, then foam up, and finally the foam will settle down. As the foam is settling down, your butter is ready. Theoretically, you're not supposed to let the butter brown, but as far as I'm concerned a slight bit of browning can contribute some nice flavors. It's up to you. Certainly, don't let the butter burn.
Without delay, add a thin layer of eggs to the pan. You may have to experiment a bit with your pan and your measuring cups. I find that the easiest thing is just to use a dry measuring cup as a scoop, but you can of course fill a Pyrex measuring pitcher to the right level or use ladles of various sizes -- or you can do it by eye once you acquire some experience. My 8" omelette pan (different from the one pictured here) holds 1/2 cup of egg mixture very nicely at what seems to be an ideal depth-of-liquid of about 1/4".
As soon as the eggs are in the pan, swirl them around a bit to make sure you've achieved an even coating and to make sure they don't set into a rubbery layer. The whole idea is to keep this process moving along so nothing sets in too heavily. Very soon after, you will notice some bubbling and quivering of the surface. This indicates that the bottom of the omelette is coherent enough for you to start shaking the pan around without fear that egg will fly all over the room -- assuming, that is, you haven't made your layer of eggs too thick to begin with.
(We are currently illustrating a plain omelette, but this is the stage at which you would add your fillings, if any, in a well-distributed even layer. This is not a folded omelette, so you don't want to just cover half. The idea is to get the fillings spread out so they heat quickly and evenly.)
At this point, you should firmly shake the pan several times. The motion you're looking for at this stage is not a flipping motion (full extension and jerk back) but, rather, a firm even shake. This will cause the omelette to begin to take on its final appearance. Once you've done that, you want to move into a jerking and upwards-flipping-back motion (as you would use, and as you've seen every TV chef use, to toss onions or vegetables around in a skillet) in order to get the omelette to roll over on itself.
Release the omelette onto a plate such that it rolls around on itself and makes a nice package, garnish (if you like), and serve.
One more plain omelette, to recap:
A fines herbes omelette:
And one with cheese:
PART B: MERINGUES
PART B: SEPARATING EGGS AND MAKING MERINGUES FROM THE WHITES
So far, we've concentrated on whole egg cookery. Another set of properties of eggs, however, emerges when you separate the yolks from the whites.
The yolks are wonderfully creamy and luscious. Among other things, they are the basis of the various "-aise" sauces. Those have already been covered extensively in the eGullet Culinary Institute curriculum. (Cream Sauces and Non Stock based sauces )
The whites have significant leavening power and are fundamental to the structure of many dishes. Tomorrow, Carolyn Tillie will walk you through the making of savory and sweet soufflés. Today, we'll look at one of the purest expressions of egg white cookery: meringues.
Separating the eggs
There are quite a few ways to separate eggs. We'll discuss three. The first two are the most popular methods among home cooks. The third is the way many professionals do it, and the way I recommend.
Method 1: Back-and-forth in shell
You've certainly seen this done: you crack open the egg and gently transfer the yolk back and forth between the two halves as the white drains away. This method works well enough but it's slow if you're doing large quantities and it's the method most likely to get bits of shell in your whites or yolks.
If you're not going to use them right away, you can store the yolks in cold water or you can freeze them (especially for mayonnaise, frozen yolks can work very well).
Method 2: Egg-separating device
Devices like these are widely available, and they work pretty well. But like the back-and-forth method they're rather slow.
Method 3: With the human hand
The human hand is the greatest of all kitchen tools, and this is a place where it really shines. Be sure to start with, as Julia Child says, "Your impeccably clean hands!"
Then just dump each egg into your hand and let the whites fall through your fingers.
The other way to do this, which is even more efficient though it requires a bit more practice, is to crack all the eggs, whole, into a bowl. Then you just reach in and pluck out each yolk.
The meringue recipe
Types of meringues
When I speak of meringues here I'm speaking of what would technically be known as "Swiss meringues" or "Hard meringues." These are hard "cookies" made from egg whites and sugar. "Soft meringue" is almost the same product, with somewhat different ingredient ratios, and is what you'll see in such items as lemon meringue pie. There is also "Italian meringue," which can be used in various applications soft and hard. It is made using sugar syrup.
Proportions for hard meringues
The basic rule is 1/4 cup of sugar per egg white, although there's some flexibility here. The following are the ratios that worked for me:
8-10 egg whites (this is approximately 1 cup of egg whites from Large eggs)
2 cups granulated sugar (in other words, if you're measuring by volume, twice as much sugar as egg whites)
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cream of tartar
2 tablespoons vanilla extract (this sounds like a lot, but I find that most recipes benefit from more vanilla than they specify)
We use egg whites for leavening, sugar for sweetness, salt for flavor balance and enhancement, cream of tartar to keep the whites stable, and vanilla for flavor.
There's virtually no limit to what you can add to meringues: chocolate, almonds, and coconut are three popular versions. There are even savory meringues. Since we're focusing on basic technique here, however, we're just going to make plain ones.
Preparation for beating the whites
Humidity is the enemy of meringues. If you're in a hot, humid environment and your kitchen isn't climate controlled, don't bother making meringues that day unless you really have to. It's much easier to make them when conditions are not terribly wet.
How to give yourself the advantage
Three things will help your whites whip up better:
First, if they're at room temperature, they'll be easier to aerate.
Second, if the bowl is very clean, you'll avoid possible failure. The best way to clean the bowl (which should be stainless or glass -- not porous plastic) is with a little salt and vinegar, wiped out with a paper towel.
Third, you want to be certain that there is no yolk whatsoever left in with the whites. Even a few drops of yolk will degrade the process.
Beating the whites
These photographs demonstrate the technique using a whisk, because it's the most elementary method, but you may use an electric hand-beater or stand-mixer.
Place the whites in the clean bowl.
Whisk the whites until they become a bit bubbly. This is the point at which you should add the cream of tartar and salt.
Then whisk the whites until you get very soft peaks. This means that when you lift the whisk out of the whites, they form little peaks that soon collapse back into the liquid. This is the point at which you should start adding sugar. It's best to add it in a few shots, whisking in between each addition.
Keep whisking until stiff peaks have been achieved.
This would be a good time to add the vanilla.
Note, if you're using an electric mixer, be careful not to go beyond this point. As soon as you have stiff peaks, stop. I don't have to tell you that if you're using a whisk: the whisk is a self-regulating tool -- nobody uses it more than he or she has to.
Forming the meringues
You don't have to get fancy with meringues. You can simply put a piece of parchment on a sheet pan (anchor the corners with a bit of the meringue mixture) and form your meringues with a spoon.
If you want a more slickly produced look, you can fill a bag with the meringue mixture and pipe it onto a Silpat. You can also use a variety of pastry tips if you want more professional looking results.
Drying the meringues
Meringues aren't really baked; they're dried. Around 200-225 F will get you where you need to be. Approximately 2 hours at that temperature followed by an hour of cooling in the turned-off, door-slightly-ajar oven should do the trick.
Please post your questions for this class here -->> Q&A
All About Eggs -- Omelettes and More
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