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My girlfriend, Kate, and I have an ongoing disagreement about scrambled eggs. She's in the crack-'em-into-a-hot-pan-and-stir-until-well-done camp, which produces firm eggs that have visible striations of white and yolk. Influenced by my days as a professional cook, I belong to the soft-scrambled-or-bust party. Ultimately, there's no right or wrong—in the world of scrambled eggs, it's all about your personal preference.*
* Ha, that's just the BS that I tell her to keep the peace. We all know soft-scrambled eggs are the only way to go. Also, anyone have a couch I can sleep on tonight?
Before I go any farther, I want to acknowledge one thing—yes, I realize that writing an article on how to scramble eggs treads dangerously close to "How to Boil Water" territory. It's such a fundamentally simple dish that an explanation almost seems absurd.
And yet there are some finer points worth describing when it comes to scrambled eggs, and even a misconception or two worth dispelling. So, with that in mind, here's what you need to know when scrambling eggs, whether you want them American diner-style, or as silky as you find them in the fanciest restaurants.
Let's Start With the Big Myth: Pre-Salting
Perhaps the biggest thing some people get wrong about scrambled eggs is when to add the salt. There's a common belief that salting the eggs in advance of cooking makes them watery or tough—some folks even refuse to add salt until after the eggs have cooked. It's easy to see why: Add salt to beaten eggs and let them sit for even a few minutes, and the eggs turn a darker shade of orange, become slightly translucent, and appear to be thinner than before. It appears that the salt is doing undesirable things to the eggs.
But after testing this, Kenji and I have both found that pre-salting is beneficial, helping the eggs retain their moisture and tenderness. The reason is that salt acts as a buffer between the proteins in the eggs, preventing them from linking as tightly as they otherwise would during cooking. The tighter they link, the more water they push out and the tougher they become, so this buffering property of salt helps to mitigate some of that.
The overall effect is fairly minor, so I wouldn't say that it's worth going to the trouble of pre-salting your eggs hours in advance, but at least you don't need to worry. Add salt whenever you want since it won't hurt a thing.
Milk, Cream, and Other Liquid Add-Ins
Next up is deciding whether to add any liquids to the eggs, if at all. It's pretty common to add a splash of milk or cream to the beaten eggs before scrambling, so I thought it would be fun to test it out.
To do it, I made several batches of 3 beaten large eggs each with different amounts and types of liquid: 1, 2, and 3 tablespoons of water; 1, 2, and 3 tablespoons of whole milk; and 1, 2, and 3 tablespoons of cream. I seasoned each with 1% salt by weight, added half a tablespoon of butter to each, and also prepared a control batch that had just the beaten eggs, butter, and salt with no other liquid added. To control for inevitable variations in cooking that would happen if I had made each batch in a skillet, I cooked all of these eggs sous vide at 167°F for 20 minutes, massaging the bags throughout to scramble them.
What I found basically corresponds to expectations: As the volume of added liquid goes up in the eggs, the eggs themselves become softer and moister. At the same time, as the fat content of the liquid goes up, the eggs become richer and firmer (so, three tablespoons of cream per three eggs will be firmer then three tablespoons of water, but they'll both be softer and moister than the eggs made with one tablespoon of either cream or water).
The batches made with cream, to my taste, were a little too rich and custardy, especially at the higher volume levels. Water, as would be expected, added moisture and lightness without flavor, which wasn't exactly appealing (stock or dashi, however, would be interesting additions, not too different from chawan mushi, the Japanese custard with dashi).
The control batch, meanwhile, was the most dense, bordering on rubbery. Ultimately, my preference was for whole milk with a ratio of 2 tablespoons per 3 large eggs. It yielded moist, light eggs that were just rich enough without going overboard.
That said, when you scramble eggs in a skillet, you have a tremendous amount of control over both moisture level and texture depending on the technique you use—while my sous vide control batch of plain eggs wasn't my favorite, it's possible to get a much different result with those same plain eggs in a skillet. The key is in how you apply heat to them, and how you agitate them as they cook.
One risk worth mentioning when adding liquid to eggs is that there's more of a chance for water to be squeezed out as the eggs cook, especially if you like them well done. A corollary is the weeping and pitting that can happen when a custard is overcooked: Loaded with cream (which is mostly water), a custard can break and weep if exposed to too much heat. The same can happen with scrambled eggs.
Overall, I'd consider liquid add-ins as a way to modify the texture, flavor, and moisture level of the eggs, though they're much less important than the cooking method itself.
Heat and Agitation
So now we get to the most important decision when scrambling eggs: the scrambling technique itself. There are endless possible variations, but I'm going to break it down into three overarching groups: very soft and loose eggs with barely perceptible curds (i.e., fancy French restaurant scrambled eggs); soft-scrambled eggs with small, delicate curds; and dry, fluffy eggs with large curds.
There are two factors that determine which of the three types you'll end up with: your method of agitation, and how hot the pan is. Let's take a look at each type of scrambled eggs more closely.
Fancy French Spoonable Eggs
These are the scrambled eggs made famous by the chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten, and the trick to making them yourself is using incredibly low heat and a whisk.
Start by adding the beaten eggs and a pat of butter to a cold saucepan.
Then set it over very low heat (you can also use a double boiler, but it's not required), and cook the eggs, whisking gently the entire time.
The goal of the constant whisking is to break up the curds as soon as they form; the whisk's multiple wires help with this, slicing through the eggs over and over as they cook. If done properly, it's a slow, boring process, at times leaving you to wonder if the eggs are cooking at all.
The whisking has another effect: It makes the eggs less fluffy. The fluffiness in scrambled eggs (and also soufflés) comes from the expansion of heated gas and water vapor that's trapped in bubbles within the eggs. By whisking, those bubbles are repeatedly broken and disturbed, allowing the gas and water vapor to escape. The low heat of this method also reduces fluffiness, since the eggs never get hot enough for the gas and water vapor to expand the way they would under high heat.
Eventually the eggs thicken to a custardy texture with tiny curds. They're not just spoonable, they're actually still pourable—the overall effect is very luxurious, though I have to admit this isn't a style of scrambled eggs I'd want to eat in large doses, or on a plate like in the photo below. This is the kind of scrambled egg that's more suited to being delicately spooned in small dollops onto toasts and topped with things like caviar or lobster.
This is my favorite way of scrambling eggs. It's similar to the fancy French eggs above, but not quite as extreme.
Once again, we work over low heat, though it's okay if it's a little more intense than the barely-there heat of the French eggs. And once again we stir constantly, or at least very, very frequently. We still want to break up the curds as they form to prevent them from becoming big and fluffy, but we don't need to pulverize them quite as much as the fancy French version.
I start in a cold nonstick skillet, just to prevent the eggs from seizing up they way the do when they hit a hot pan. Then I set them over medium-low or medium heat and stir, using a silicone spatula. The wider surface area of the skillet allows curds to form more quickly than they would in a saucepan, which is fine in this case. The spatula, meanwhile, is friendly on the nonstick surface, and breaks up the curds more gradually, allowing them to become slightly bigger.
Pretty quickly these eggs will start to set.
It's important to take the eggs off the heat a little before they reach the desired doneness level, since they will continue to cook from residual heat, especially while still in the hot pan. If you take them off the heat and find after several seconds of stirring that they're still not where you want them, you can always pop the pan back on the heat for a few seconds to nudge them in the right direction.
The resulting eggs are creamy and moist, but not wet or runny.
I may go with the method above, but a lot of people like their eggs cooked a little harder, with big, fluffy, diner-style curds. If this is your chosen scramble, start by melting butter in a nonstick skillet. Medium-high to high heat is our best bet here.
Once the butter is hot and foamy, we're ready to roll.
In go the eggs.
Once again we scramble with a silicone spatula, though this time it's okay if we don't break the curds up as much. Big, fluffy sheets should start forming pretty quickly on the bottom of the pan.
We just keep cooking, stirring those curds, until the last traces of wetness disappear.
The eggs come out drier (though, hopefully not dry), with curds that don't necessarily all stick together. They should be fluffy with a springy bite. Add ketchup if you must.
Herbs, Vegetables, and Solid Add-Ins
Once you've mastered your ideal scrambled eggs, you may start to wonder about adding cheese, herbs, or vegetables.
For the most part, we want to add anything solid near the end, just before the eggs are done. That way the add-ins can be incorporated and warm up or melt without interfering with the eggs. Vegetables that release water, like mushrooms, should be cooked first, so that they've already released their water and are fully cooked through before going into the eggs. (If you don't want the color of your add-in to affect your eggs, remove 'em from the pan for a minute while you get the eggs cooked.) In the case of raw tomato, such as in Tex-Mex migas, your best bet is to pre-salt the diced tomato to draw out as much water as possible before adding them to the eggs.
Now go ahead: Make my egg.