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The Egg (and the Bird) and I


Omelets? Oh! They're freighted with trepidation, even when we order them in restaurants, not to mention when we're trying to cook one at home.

Will the exterior be cooked but not leathery, the interior moist but not gross? Will they fold properly or stick to the pan? And when the filling slides right out of them--what then?

And how do you ever get those floppy, unwieldy and already collapsing half-spheres of egg onto a plate without undue disfigurement? Engineers have struggled with this problem, designing special spatulas and pans that actually hinge in two. But nothing, nothing, nothing except acquired skill consistently produces a decent omelet.

At a short-order job in college, I learned how to cook omelets on a restaurant griddle, next to sputtering bacon and frying eggs. I'd ladle out eggs beaten hours before, corral their wanton spreading with a big, springy metal spatula, scatter grated cheese, chopped ham and/or pepper and onions down the center, then fold the side flaps of egg so that the finished product looked like a moist, plump legal-sized envelope. A summons to Denver, perhaps.

But real omelets--made in real omelet pans--continued to intimidate me. I'd try one occasionally, usually timidly, and sometimes I'd have a little luck. But I had no confidence, and I never would have attempted an omelet for anybody I might embarrass myself in front of.

Omelets, it seems, are among those commonplace dishes that require a certain technique to pull off. The truth of the matter is, just as in writing or painting or any of the arts, the only way to develop omelet technique is not through reading omelet theory but through practice, praxis, process. Making omelets. Breaking eggs, paying close attention to what happens each step of the way, being willing to fail--again and again--and asking for help when you get really stumped.

It wasn't until I started making a plain omelet almost every day for my parrot, Helen, that I began to build some confidence in my technique. Nothing like having a captive audience.

I commenced this outbreak of omelet-making with a few good ideas. I once had a boss who cooked memorable omelets. His eggs always had a desirable moistness and density and integrity. His secret, which I immediately co-opted, was to beat the eggs gently, with a rubber spatula, just until the yolks and whites were blended, being careful that the whites still retained their elasticity. I remember him saying, "You don't want to shred your eggs."

Other cooks--very good cooks--have advised me to beat the eggs for several minutes, until they are pale and foamy, infused with air. While many good cooks prefer this second technique, I've tried it some mornings, and I personally have to argue against it.

Eggs that are beaten tend to be thinner, to spread out more in the pan and cook more quickly. Even stirring and scrambling them rapidly can't restore the moist density and weight retained in barely beaten eggs. I also can say, with empirical certainty, that barely beaten eggs actually puff up higher than those allegedly infused with air.

I started out making omelets thinking I wanted their exteriors a golden brown, but it was the parrot, actually, that began to change my mind. Helen loves eggs and watches me with the proverbial eagle eye from the moment I pull an egg from the refrigerator, flapping her wings in spontaneous bursts of enthusiasm. She loves eggs so much she eats them shamelessly, her face buried in them, bits and flecks flying in her furious devouring.

Yet no matter how hungry she is, she leaves behind the blistery light brown skin--exactly that little filigree I had sought. Throwing away these pieces of refused egg, I realized how unappetizing they actually are. And I began to turn down the fire under my omelets, not letting the pan get so hot before pouring in the eggs--I wait until the butter just starts to foam--and then I cook the eggs at a slower, leisurely temperature.

I recently asked four French chefs to demonstrate their omelet-making techniques to me. What became obvious immediately is that there are no rules.

The first three cooks impressed me with an utter lack of fear: They broke eggs and set to with an intensity and sureness of movement that belied the queasiness I assumed was inherent in the creation of every omelet.

Annie Boutin, the director of catering for the Music Center and a noteworthy home cook, employs a technique precisely opposite to mine: She beats them with a fork because her mother used one.

She beats the eggs furiously for a long time ("to get some air into them"). She turns up the heat at the end of the cooking to make the outside golden. She isn't intimidated by a large number of eggs and unconcernedly stirs a huge fines herbes omelet until it begins to set. She slides the omelet halfway onto a plate and then folds it over--a good move for those intimidated by executing this step in the pan.

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