A Culinary Exploration of the World's Most Versatile Ingredient


By Michael Ruhlman

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In this innovative cookbook, James Beard award-winning author Michael Ruhlman explains why the egg is the key to the craft of cooking.

For culinary visionary Michael Ruhlman, the question is not whether the chicken or the egg came first, it’s how anything could be accomplished in the kitchen without the magic of the common egg. He starts with perfect poached and scrambled eggs and builds up to brioche and Italian meringue. Along the way readers learn to make their own mayonnaise, pasta, custards, quiches, cakes, and other preparations that rely fundamentally on the hidden powers of the egg.

A unique framework for the book is provided in Ruhlman’s egg flowchart, which starts with the whole egg at the top and branches out to describe its many uses and preparations — boiled, pressure-cooked, poached, fried, coddled, separated, worked into batters and doughs, and more.

A removable illustrated flowchart is included with this book. Nearly 100 recipes are grouped by technique and range from simple (Egg Salad with Tarragon and Chives) to sophisticated (nougat). Dozens of step-by-step photographs guide the home cook through this remarkable culinary journey.


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Why I Wrote a Book about the World's Most Versatile Ingredient

I was on the phone with author and television personality Alton Brown not long ago, whom I first met while taping season one of The Next Iron Chef America. He asked what I was working on.

"I want to write about the egg," I said, "all the things you can do with an egg, and how if you knew everything about cooking with eggs, you would become a better cook in a hundred different ways."

He said, "Yeah, I've always liked to say that the egg is the Rosetta stone of the kitchen."

That is exactly what makes Alton Brown so good on TV—he cuts right to the chase with the perfect metaphor: an ancient stone that helped us decipher a little-known language. Like that Rosetta stone, the egg, far more ancient, unlocks the secret language of the kitchen. Learn the language of the egg—understand completely this amazing and beautiful oblong orb—and you can enter new realms of cooking, rocketing you to stellar heights of culinary achievement.

The greatest of all our foods, the egg combines beauty, elegance, and simplicity, a miracle of natural design and, as food, bounty. Containing all of the nutrients required to create life, eggs give our bodies a powerful combination of proteins, amino acids, fatty acids, antioxidants, minerals, and vitamins, a package unmatched by any other single food.

The egg represents food at an almost primordial level when we eat it raw, consuming the liquidy stuff of life itself, and is capable of being transformed into the most sophisticated of culinary creations. I think of my friend and collaborator Thomas Keller and his truffle custard—egg and cream flavored with white truffle, cooked and served in the shell with a potato chip garnish. It's one of the finest four-star dishes ever created, and it's nothing more than egg, cream, truffle, potato. Genius in its simplicity.

The egg's shell is delicate but sturdy, porous but protective. Inside, more than a dozen different proteins form the white, the albumen, each serving a specific function in the developing creature—some feeding the embryo, some fending off large predators, others disabling harmful microbes. It's evolution at its most elegant and offers the cook a range of culinary acrobatics that give us an airy cake, a crisp meringue, a pillowy soufflé, or a tightly bound seafood terrine.

The yolk, that rich and fatty orb—suspended at either end within the albumen by protein coils called chalazae—is the nutrient center of the egg, accounting for three-quarters of the egg's calories. It also contains iron, thiamin, vitamin A, protein, cholesterol, and lecithin (a badass fat-water-hybrid molecule that gives yolks the ability to emulsify a lot of fat into a small amount of water, for culinary essentials such as the humble mayonnaise and the elegant béarnaise sauce).

A miracle of nature ought to be rare, like a truffle, but the egg is abundant; it ought likewise to be expensive, but instead it is among the most affordable foods in the store, costing just pennies apiece for the mass-produced varieties. At their very finest—from free-range hens fed only organic grain—eggs still cost only thirty or forty cents each.

The egg, as an individual food item (say, a poached egg on whole-wheat toast), is excellent. As an ingredient the egg is also, to the chef, an emblem and test of a cook's skill. More than with any other ingredient, the way an egg is handled by a cook tells a chef 90 percent of what he or she needs to know about a prospective hire. Many chefs ask a young cook to put aside the résumé and make an omelet. That's all that's needed as a tryout, because cooking an omelet well requires skill, knowledge, experience, and finesse.

It's this fact that long ago started me thinking about the importance of the egg to cooking generally. I got down to the business of writing about the egg in Ruhlman's Twenty, devoting an entire chapter to it, beginning thus:

If you could choose to master a single ingredient, no choice would teach you more about cooking than an egg. It is an end in itself; it's a multipurpose ingredient; it's an all-purpose garnish; it's an invaluable tool. The egg teaches your hands finesse and delicacy. It helps your arms develop strength and stamina. It instructs in the way proteins behave in heat and in the powerful ways we can change food mechanically. It's a lever for getting food to behave in great ways. Learn to take the egg to its many differing ends, and you've enlarged your culinary repertoire by a factor of ten.

For this book I wanted to write about all those differing ends, working my way back to the egg. And in thinking about those ends, I began to break down the egg into its many uses. It quickly developed in my head not as ends, or single recipes, but as a unity, a single complex image in which everything is connected. Nature loves simplicity and unity: the hen's egg is an expression of nature's genius.

In the kitchen, the egg is ultimately neither ingredient nor finished dish but rather a singularity with a thousand ends. Scrambled eggs and angel food cake and ice cream and aioli and popovers and gougères and macarons and a gin fizz aren't separate entities, they're all part of the egg continuum, they are all one thing. The egg is a lens through which to view the entire craft of cooking. By working our way through the egg, we become powerful cooks.

Anyone familiar with my work knows my belief in the sanctity of technique. Recipes today are free. The world is awash in recipes. While there's nothing wrong with recipes per se, there's everything wrong with relying solely on recipes if you want to be a better cook. You've got to be very shrewd to disinter an unknown technique from within a recipe. But if you know a single technique, you immediately have hundreds of recipes at hand. That's why cooking schools don't teach recipes, they teach technique.

Recipes are a valuable resource for ideas, and I use them often. Sometimes they offer outright an unfamiliar technique. I love to compare recipes for the same finished product—Why does this quick bread use both baking powder and baking soda? Why does that one use considerably more egg relative to the flour? What are the resulting differences? When I'm writing my own recipes, I often compare various recipes, pick and choose elements from each that I like, filter them through my own particular nature (preferences, biases, practicalities, competencies), to arrive at a recipe that is more or less mine (I don't know that there are any truly unique recipes in traditional cooking). There are many wonderful recipes in this book, so even if you just want to get dinner on the table and have no desire to become a better cook, the preparations in this book will still make you feel like a star. The recipes have also been chosen because they are classic or distinctive examples of a technique made possible by the miraculous egg.

Within the universe of the egg are dozens of techniques. I'd wager that no other single ingredient has as many, not by a long shot. But shouldn't we expect as much from a little package that contains all the stuff of life itself?


THE IDEA TO PRESENT THE EGG AS A FLOWCHART CAME NATURALLY, FROM JUST THINKING about it, asking the question, "What can you do with an egg?"

The answer—after the obvious "all kinds of things"—is that it depends. Are you going to cook it in its shell or out? If you're going to leave it in its shell, are you going to cook it hard or soft? If you're going to cook it out of its shell, are you going to cook it whole or separate it? Are you going to cook it at all? Are you going to use it as a tool, to leaven a cake or emulsify a mayonnaise?

You could even make a game of it. Think of a dish that uses eggs—a quiche, a cake, a poached egg, pasta carbonara—and your opponent has twenty guesses. You'd begin with those same questions—Is it cooked in the shell or out? If out, is it whole or separated? If separated, is the white or the yolk used? If used whole, is it cooked as is or blended?

It occurred to me that to show, visually, how versatile the egg is, I'd have to make a flowchart. After thinking about how readily egg preparations would lend themselves to a graphic representation in this format, I sat down at our dining room table with a roll of parchment paper and wrote one out. It was sloppy, the kind of diagram a teacher at a blackboard would improvise. But it worked—the egg really did present itself visually as a flowchart, one that measured about a foot and a half long.

When I was ready to get serious about it, I asked my wife and partner, Donna, to write it out, since she's better at all things visual. I mapped the whole thing out, and she figured out how much space she was going to need to get it all in. The finished diagram required a five-foot length of parchment.

It was a thing of beauty. It mesmerized. I tacked it across a row of bookshelves behind my desk, and when we had a gang over for a New Year's Day brunch, people went into my office and gazed as if it were a museum piece. By twos and threes, guests stood staring at it, pointing things out to each other, and staring some more. A few stood for ten minutes before they could draw themselves away. "Michael," they asked, "what is this?"

The promise of the flowchart demanded to be fulfilled. A removable poster of the flow-chart is included at the back of this book.


MY DEAR EDITOR, MICHAEL SAND, SOMETIMES MAKES ME WANT TO PULL MY HAIR OUT. When I went page by page through his edit of the manuscript that would become this book, I saw that he was a comma freak. I kind of toss them willy-nilly onto the page after I've written it and hope they fall into the right places, and so am incredibly grateful for his fastidiousness. He is acutely attuned to confusing or lazy phrasings in a recipe and calls attention to them without making me feel like an idiot. His questions arrive with a delicacy that would please the famously decorous former New Yorker editor William Shawn.

But he continually asked me about butter (salted or unsalted?) and kept writing "large eggs?" in a book about eggs. Why do these most basic questions make me want to pull my hair out? Because it doesn't matter.

And because at the same time it does matter. (I could put three commas in that fragment but refuse to.)

And, finally, because it lasers in on the fundamental difficulty of writing about food: Cooking is so infinitely nuanced that to write completely about how to cook any dish would require a manuscript longer than a David Foster Wallace novel and include twice as many footnotes within twice as many endnotes. And then no one would be able to follow it, let alone cook from it—and just as well, because it would still be incomplete. That's how nuanced cooking is.

I'm not a chef but I am a cook; I've written with, and for, a lot of really talented chefs, and there isn't a single one I haven't learned something from—and then incorporated it into my own way of cooking or adapted it to my culinary personality, which is not fussy or detail-oriented, but rather exuberant and life-embracing.

Salt is the most valuable ingredient in the kitchen. Thomas Keller told me this sixteen years ago, when I asked him what he considered the most important thing for a cook to know. After thinking for a little bit he said, "How to salt food. It's the first thing we teach new cooks when they come to work at the French Laundry."

Michael Symon taught me to salt onions the moment they hit the pan (I used to wait till I got at least some liquid in there). He does it to get the seasoning process under way, but when I did it I realized it also pulls out water and gets them cooking faster. That's how my personality fits into what he taught me. And Michael Symon didn't come up with this idea, he got it from another chef early in his own career. Michael Pardus taught me how to salt pasta water ("till it tastes seasoned"), Eric Ripert taught me how to salt fish, Judy Rodgers taught me how to salt meat, and again Keller, who has taught me so much I don't know where he ends and I begin, taught me that it didn't matter what kind of salt I used, but rather that the critical factor was using the same salt every time so that my fingers got used to a specific quantity.

Probably the most important thing I taught myself, when I wanted to convert an older chef's ratios into contemporary ones for a book, was how important weighing your food is as opposed to measuring it by volume. It makes all of cooking so much easier and more consistent. So, if you have a scale, use it, especially for measuring flour and large quantities of salt.

See? I could go on and on about just salt and we haven't even gotten to how to use it in a recipe or how it affects butter (it's added for flavor), and it doesn't have anything to do with eggs (except that it makes them taste better). So Michael Sand's question about salted or unsalted butter requires an essay, but I'll try to boil it down to this: I use salted butter because it's what I've been using since I started cooking in the fourth grade; it's what I'm used to. And since even sweet preparations benefit from salt, salted butter works fine even in pastries. Most chefs use unsalted butter; this is because they want ultimate control over the salt level in their food. I have no issue with this. Indeed, salt levels are especially important in the pastry kitchen. On occasion it will be the butter I choose to use for this reason.

So what do we make of the fact that salted and unsalted butter yield pretty much the same results? We are to take from this a very important lesson: good cooking requires us to pay attention, to think, and to taste our food and evaluate it throughout the cooking process.

Which brings me to the "large egg" question. Large eggs, by definition in the United States, weigh 2 ounces. In his book On Food and Cooking, Harold McGee notes that large eggs weigh 55 grams (about 1 gram less than 2 ounces), with the whites weighing 38 grams and the yolks 17 grams. But the thing is, they don't all weigh exactly that—some "large" eggs weigh a little more, some a little less. Other sources will tell you that they weigh 50 grams and contain 70 calories, whereas McGee says they contain exactly 84 calories. Here's the truth: if you were to crack ten large eggs into a bowl, you'd find that they'd come pretty darn close to 550 grams total, 380 grams of white and 170 grams of yolk. (And if you have to worry about the calorie issue, you need to start eating smarter.)

Moreover, what if you're lucky enough to have a neighbor who raises hens and supplies you with really fresh eggs? They're going to be all different sizes, unless your neighbor has a government inspector living in the backyard to do the sorting. Either weigh them or just use your common sense.

If you want to be completely accurate, you do need to weigh your eggs, and many professional kitchens and bakeries do this. But for most preparations, this is neither practical nor necessary. So the rule is the same for salt, butter, and eggs, those most fundamental ingredients: it doesn't matter what kind you buy, what matters is that you always buy the same kind.

And pay attention.

For health and safety issues, see here.


LIKE ALL RECIPES, MINE ARE APPROXIMATIONS ONLY, AND SO REQUIRE THAT YOU PAY attention and adjust as you go. Food will behave differently in an arid Phoenix kitchen than it will in a humid North Carolina kitchen than it will in a mile-in-the-sky Denver kitchen. These recipes have all been tested, and they should work perfectly well no matter your location or equipment, especially since most are very simple anyway and allow for plenty of give.

As for the specifics, unless otherwise stated:

All eggs are large.

All flour is all-purpose unbleached.

All salt is coarse kosher salt.

All butter is salted; if you prefer unsalted butter, just pay attention to the flavor of the recipe you're cooking.

For successful and satisfying cooking, you don't need lots of equipment, but you do need good equipment. You need two good stainless-steel sauté pans (a big one and a little one), one big pot, and one medium saucepan. Occasionally a nonstick pan is useful, but usually it's not. You need a wooden spoon with a flat edge. You need a large, heavy cutting board. Many people hamper themselves by trying to cut up their food on a board the size of a sheet of paper. Give yourself plenty of room.

By far the biggest problem in home kitchens is the lack of a sharp knife. You need two of them, a big one and a little one. And they need to be sharp. A big knife block with forty-five knives of different sizes is useless if not one is sharp. Please, find a good knife sharpener in your area (preferably a wet-grind service, and not a hardware store that also does lawn mower blades) or buy a good sharpening stone (I swear by the DMT Diamond Whetstone sharpener). And learn how to use a sharpening steel to keep the edge.

After that it's all a matter of practice. And as far as I'm concerned, there's no better practice than that which results in a tasty, healthy meal for your family and your friends.


THIS BOOK IS DEVOTED SOLELY to chicken eggs, produced, packaged, and sold by the billions, a staple of kitchens worldwide, because laying chickens are the easiest and least expensive birds to raise in quantity for egg production. Were geese or ducks or turkeys on par with chickens, their eggs might be what we go to the store to pick up a dozen of. It just so happens that the hen's egg seems to be the perfect size for our consumption; two make a meal, and one makes a portion when it's part of a meal, whether topping a bibimbap or as an integral part of pasta dough.


On Sale
Apr 8, 2014
Page Count
256 pages

Michael Ruhlman

About the Author

Michael Ruhlman is the bestselling and James Beard Award-winning author of many classic culinary books, including The Making of a ChefEggRatioThe Elements of Cooking, and Charcuterie. He lives in Cleveland, Ohio.

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