Discovering the golden egg as a cutting-edge concept
I know what you’re thinking…Since when are eggs trendy? Persuading culinary professionals that using eggs in cooking is a cutting-edge concept is like trying to prove the existence of Santa Claus to a 40 year old!
While the egg has always been a kitchen staple, there is no denying its sudden rise in popularity. In only five years, this household item has gone from widely overlooked to an exalted, featured ingredient on menus nationwide.
What has changed? Why so much attention? What has suddenly made the egg the most popular girl at the prom? While the use of eggs in cooking has always been universal, in recent years the types of eggs being used, the techniques associated with their preparation and their culinary applications have significantly changed, leading the egg to newfound fame.
A new breed of eggs
While the industrialization of egg production brought about a number of undeniably positive results, it is important to recognize that massive supply led many consumers to take eggs for granted. Recently, increased interest in organic, local and sustainable food movements has resulted in greater criticism of factory production, consequently bringing attention and praise back to the farm; a shift which has pushed the egg back into the culinary forefront.
The owner of one local farm, Alexis Koefoed of Soul Food Farms in Petaluma, noticed this shift about five years ago. “Synchronistic events in the food world led consumers to start asking restaurants where their food came from, paying attention to what they themselves consumed and placing value on how animals are raised.” The result? “Educated consumers began demanding quality ingredients.” The spotlight shifted from the uniform white supermarket egg to the multi-colored, thick-shelled “farm egg,” now the most admired breed.
Farm eggs are all they’re cracked up to be
A more accurate label than “farm egg” is “pastured” egg, one produced by free-range hens that live mostly outdoors. Alexis claims that, compared to “cage-free” or “organic” eggs, pastured eggs are unquestionably the best on the market. “The hens’ movement is not restricted, and they get to forage in the sunlight all day. Allowed to live totally naturally, their eggs have higher levels of omega-3, vitamin A and E, and beta-carotene.” A healthy hen produces a heavier egg with a vibrant yolk, a viscous, thick white and a thick shell. “When animals are treated well, you’ll taste the difference in quality.”
Many restaurants, like Il Cane Rosso in San Francisco’s Ferry Building, have adopted this philosophy and switched to pastured eggs exclusively. Chef de Cuisine Lauren Kiino, explains that it is not difficult to notice the difference in quality, “The yolk is dark yellow and the difference in fat content gives them a deeper, richer flavor that’s better than any other egg.” Her customers have also noticed the difference. “Customers tell me all the time that they usually hate egg salad but are blown away by our egg-salad sandwich. It’s become one of our most popular dishes, and it’s because of the quality of our eggs.” This encouragement has given Chef Kiino the opportunity to make eggs a permanent item on the everyday menu.
The superior quality of pastured eggs, paired with their versatility in the kitchen, has turned a common
ingredient into a powerful tool with which any chef can invent new dishes, update traditional preparations and expand their menus. So armed, chefs are discovering new techniques that redefine the modest egg as a sophisticated, luxurious ingredient, worthy of being featured on the menus of the country’s finest restaurants.
The fast rise of the slow-cooked egg
The most influential technique for cooking eggs appeared in fine-dining establishments a few years ago, when the mysterious “slow-cooked egg” started popping up alongside heavy-hitting proteins like lobster and veal. Although at first it was strange to see an egg, translucent and almost uncooked in appearance, as a featured course, after one bite the public’s verdict was in: the egg had been transformed into a culinary marvel.
At the forefront of this trend is Douglas Keane,
Executive Chef at Cyrus, who began experimenting with the kitchen’s circulator five years ago. Because the egg is left in its shell when placed into the water bath, Chef Keane was flying blind when learning how to cook the perfect egg. But through trial and error he ultimately found the perfect settings: “For the chanterelle ravioli with slow-cooked Bantam egg currently featured on our tasting menu, we cook the eggs at 61.5 degrees Celsius for 75 minutes.”
Chef Keane settled on this method because “that’s when the white has just set and the yolk is still slightly runny. The egg is right on the edge.” This consistency highlights the primary advantage of slow-cooking an egg: the yolk and the white cook almost evenly. Whether the egg is meant to be soft and barely cooked, or custard-like and creamy such as the texture of the slow-cooked egg yolks Chef Keane serves alongside caviar the egg’s texture can now be uniform. By controlling the egg’s texture with such precision, this technique creates a completely novel dining experience for the customer.
The efficiencies gained by taking it slow
Chef Keane also points out that, from a chef’s perspective, improvements in flavor and texture are just half the story. “The cool thing about it, is the consistency that it gives you in the kitchen, you can control it 100 percent of the time. If you have to poach 50 eggs every night during service, inevitably some are going to go wrong and need to be re-done. That takes time and costs money, so slow-cooking is actually an improvement to older methods.”
Chefs like Richie Nakano, of Hapa Ramen in San Francisco, agree that from a business perspective, this technique is a major advancement for the industry. “We add a slow-cooked egg to the majority of our ramen bowls, so in a single night of service I’ll use as many as 200 eggs. Without slow-cooking…it wouldn’t be possible.” And dropping 200 eggs into the circulator gives Chef Nakano time to concentrate on other tasks. “During service, I can just put them in the bath, leave them, and know that they’re not going to overcook. Even if I forget to pull them at the right time, they’re still fine after an extra 15-20 minutes.” Thus, slow-cooking is beneficial to both chefs and consumers: restaurants serve more customers, who in turn enjoy consistent, higher-quality food.
Breaking out of its traditional shell
While fancy new techniques have helped the egg garner more attention, using eggs to update classic dishes is another factor in their recent rise to stardom. Armed with high-quality eggs, chefs are more confident featuring them on menus, challenging the social norms surrounding traditional American fare.
Bacon, lettuce, onion, tomato…and egg?
When it comes to burger toppings, do consumers really need another option? Turns out, we do. For Joshua Spiegelman of Roam Artisan Burger in San Francisco, a casual restaurant focused on serving “better for you” burgers, the choice to offer eggs as a topping was easy. “Eggs taste good, and they go well with our lower-fat, 90/10 flavor profile. They have a nutritional integrity that provides an incomparable richness without weighing the burger down in saturated fat.” Despite having a clientele unaccustomed to seeing eggs outside of breakfast, Spiegelman claims that “customers are consistently
blown away. Just the fact that it’s on the menu encourages people to try.”
Move over pepperoni
The egg’s quest to overthrow tradition has reached another American favorite pizza. The tremendous rise in popularity of the Neapolitan pizza, commonly served in Italy with an egg on the top, has given the egg yet another platform to demonstrate its culinary versatility.
It is the way this type of pizza is cooked, at a high heat between 600 and 800 degrees, for a very short amount of time, around three to five minutes, that makes the egg a viable topping. Chef Molina from Pizzeria Mozza in LA explains, “The egg can be cooked until the whites are coagulated and the yolk is soft and rich.” His trick for maintaining the integrity of the egg under such heat? “We cook the pizzas half-way in the oven, then crack the egg on top to maintain its medium rare consistency without overcooking it.”
Because many Neapolitan preparations demand fewer ingredients and contain less fat than their American counterparts, the egg can provide essential balance. Molina’s farm egg, guanciale, escarole, radicchio and bagna cauda pizza uses the fat from the guanciale and egg to balance the bitter acidity of the greens, and temper the salty, spicy bite of the sauce. Despite the pizza’s lack of conventional ingredients such as cheese, it has become a customer favorite.
Don’t forget the most important meal of the day
Increased egg consumption isn’t just because of newfound, unusual preparations. The association between the egg and classic breakfast cuisine is as strong as ever and chefs have started breaking the rules by moving breakfast favorites onto their lunch and dinner menus.
Many chefs, like Mark Dommen of One Market, admit that they were skeptical at first. “Some people
visiting the restaurant suggested that I add a seasonal omelette to the menu. I just didn’t think it would work. But for three years now it’s been one of our most-sold lunch items.” Offering a three egg, open-faced omelette, served with squash blossoms, onions and ricotta cheese, proved to be a winning combination for One Market’s business-focused lunch crowd.
It is unquestionable that this trend has fully taken off: if you look closely, breakfast is everywhere. “Farm egg in a hole” for dinner at SPQR? Why not? A Hangtown Fry from Wayfare Tavern at 8 p.m.? No problem. How about poached scrambled eggs off of the tasting menu at Coi? Sounds delicious. With overwhelmingly positive feedback from diners, who revel in the comfort of such dishes, it is no surprise to see the egg get out of bed and start working around the clock.
Chefs unanimously agree that elevating cuisine through the use of eggs starts with buying the most beautiful, pastured eggs available. So even if dozens of novel ideas have hatched in your mind, don’t fly into the kitchen without grasping this fundamental rule:
to create an incredible dish, you have to start with an incredible egg.
Kelsey Elliott is a food snob of the highest degree, but in a loving way. A search marketer by day, food blogger and restaurant enthusiast by night, she takes her passion for market- driven menus from the plate to the paper on her Web site KelsEats.com. Here she conveys her enthusiasm for all aspects of the dining experience through delicate reviews that fill the mind and delight the palate. She also muses on the different aspects of California Cuisine in her articles for Examiner online. For more information, please visit her Web site, or contact Kelsey directly at Kelsey@kelseats.com.