It's a humbling experience to spend weeks developing a recipe only to conclude you're not equipped to do it. I had thought tamagoyaki would be easy. I'd eaten it countless times, at sushi restaurants and in bento boxes, including on its home turf in Japan. I'd watched videos, read cookbooks, and perused Japanese recipe blogs. I'd already mastered the French omelette, so surely I could add this simple rolled omelette to my repertoire.
I ordered a couple of the rectangular pans custom-made just for this. After several failed and mediocre attempts, I was forced to admit that I didn't know what I was doing, what my goals were, nor how to get there. Despite my experience eating tamagoyaki, I had no idea how to go about developing a recipe for it, what techniques to hone, and what standards to set. Context, as they say, is everything, and I was sorely lacking it.
This is a frequent challenge when developing recipes, especially ones from cuisines outside the developer's expertise. And eggs, so basic and delicate, have a way of laying those limitations bare. Sure, I could have hacked my way through it, using my experience as a diner of Japanese food to land somewhere in the zone of a dish that would be recognizable as tamagoyaki, but I didn't really understand what the parameters were in terms of flavor and form. Who was I to say what was good enough? An unintentionally heavy hand in any direction—too much or too little dashi, or sake, or mirin, or sugar—would signal to the real experts out there that I didn't actually know what the hell I was talking about.
I needed help, and I knew exactly whom to ask.
A Tamagoyaki Master Class With Chef Daisuke Nakazawa
I'm not sure there was a more memorable scene in the documentary film Jiro Dreams of Sushi than when Jiro's apprentice at the time, a young man named Daisuke Nakazawa, described his endless quest to perfect the sushi restaurant's version of tamagoyaki. He talked about making multiple batches per day for weeks and months on end, only to have each batch rejected by his mentor. Only after several months did he finally make one that was deemed good enough.
Chef Nakazawa eventually became a sushi master himself, moved to the United States, and opened very well-regarded restaurants of his own in New York City and Washington, DC. When I contacted him to see if he'd teach me the finer points of tamagoyaki, he bluntly said no. It had taken him years of intense dedication to learn his craft, he explained, and it would be an insult to his profession to even pretend he could teach me in a single session.
Fair enough, but my mind flashed back to the scene from Jiro when we saw him making tamagoyaki. It was a special version made using a different method—it isn't rolled—with more ingredients, including nagaimo, or mountain yam. Maybe Chef Nakazawa thought I wanted to learn that more advanced method. I got him on the phone to explain that I was merely seeking guidance on basic home-style tamagoyaki, not the impossible kind he spent years mastering. "I'll think about it," he said. Then I waited.
I don't know what convinced him to finally say yes. Maybe he just pitied a fellow cook who clearly needed guidance. When he arrived at the Serious Eats test kitchen, I pelted him with questions—which pan was best? How much dashi was too much and how much too little? What did he think were unacceptable flaws in a finished tamagoyaki? Big holes? Weeping eggs? Browning?
He smiled and reassured me that there was plenty of room for error at home. Then we got into the details.
Choosing the Best Tamagoyaki Pan
Before my lesson with Chef Nakazawa, I'd bought a couple different makiyakinabe, the rectangular pans used to make tamagoyaki. One was a large square lined with a nonstick coating; the other was a more traditional copper pan in a similar size and shape, lined either with nickel or tin, I couldn't tell which.
I failed using both of them. I couldn't roll my omelettes without breaking them in either pan, and in the copper one my eggs routinely stuck.
When Chef Nakazawa arrived, he brought a much smaller, rectangular nonstick pan, just big enough to make a 2- or 3-egg tamagoyaki. This was the one I should learn on, he said. Once I'd mastered the technique with it, I could scale up to the larger nonstick pan, and, eventually, the copper one if I wanted.
He pointed out that while traditional pans have four vertical sides, the easier nonstick ones have a sloped front edge, which makes flipping the tamagoyaki easier.
Note that round nonstick pans of the kind you likely have in your home will not work for this preparation.
One of my early stumbling blocks when trying to learn how to make tamagoyaki on my own was figuring out which flavorings—and how much of them—I should add. I'd already observed an important fact during my failed attempts: The more dashi I added to my eggs, the more watered down they became and the more difficult the tamagoyaki was to make. What I couldn't figure out without help was how little could I use to make tamagoyaki easier but still get an acceptable flavor.
Chef Nakazawa cleared it up for me. There was no minimum amount for the dashi, one could make tamagoyaki without adding any. That's the easiest way to get a feel for the rolling and flipping technique necessary for success.
The dashi makes the tamagoyaki more delicious, though, so he started me off with one and a half tablespoons of it in my maiden two-egg batch, an amount that injects the tamagoyaki with a deeper savory flavor while still keeping the eggs easy enough to handle. One could, he said, scale up the dashi until it's equal in volume to the eggs, but only if that's the flavor you want and you've developed the skill to accomplish it.
Other flavorings are up to the cook. Chef Nakazawa added a teaspoon each of usukuchi (light) soy sauce and mirin (sweet rice wine) to our two-egg batches, but you can adjust to taste, or substitute the mirin with sake and sugar. There's a lot of room for personal taste here.
The soy sauce, though, is essential, and usukuchi is the one he recommends. Don't let the translation as "light" soy sauce fool you. It's lighter in color, allowing you to season the eggs without staining them a muddy brown color, but it's saltier and, in some ways, more assertive than koikuchi (dark) soy sauce.
In our test kitchen, Chef Nakazawa made his own dashi from scratch, which is easy enough, but might still be an impediment for people who want to quickly whip up a tamagoyaki snack at home. I worked up the courage to ask him about hondashi—instant dashi—and braced for an offended reaction. Instead, he nodded and said, "Yes, I use it at home." Then, to make sure there was no misunderstanding, he shook his hands, "But not for the restaurant."
The Tamagoyaki Technique
Chef Nakazawa demonstrated the basic technique for making tamagoyaki, then asked me do it as he watched. It goes like this:
Start by mixing the eggs with the flavorings and preheat the pan. He holds the pan near his cheek to feel the heat coming off of it. There's no good way to describe how hot the radiating heat should feel, but if you practice you'll get a sense of it. What you really want is for the eggs to bubble and very gently sizzle as soon as they hit the pan.
Before adding the eggs, slide an oiled paper towel all over the pan, making sure to reach into the corners. For this two-egg version, the tamagoyaki is made in four layers, so you should add roughly a quarter of the total egg-mixture volume; no need to measure, just eyeball it. It should be enough to make a thin layer over the entire bottom of the pan.
Using your chopsticks, poke any large bubbles to collapse them. When most of the egg is set but it's still wet on top, it's time to do the first roll (the wet egg will act as glue to fuse the roll together). This first roll is the hardest, since the single layer of egg is still so floppy, but it's also the most forgiving, so don't worry if you mess it up a little.
Do your best to slide one of the chopsticks under the far edge of the egg layer, then with a quick and careful upward toss of the pan, try to flop it over on itself toward the handle to make the first fold, then repeat to roll it again, getting even closer to the handle. When you're really good at it, you can roll it all the way up like this, but as a beginner, there's a good chance that this is going to go sideways on you. That's okay—just use you chopsticks to push the egg toward the handle, scrunching it up into a wavy log.
At this point, the first layer will be rolled or bunched up near the handle. Take the your oiled paper towel and grease the far side of the pan, then push the egg log to the far side and grease the pan near the handle.
Add your next addition of egg mixture, using your chopsticks to lift the roll at the far end and allow the raw egg to run under it. This helps fuse the roll together, and prevents the already-cooked egg from over-browning with each new layer. Pop the big bubbles once again with the ends of your chopsticks.
About that browning: It's not like a French omelette where it's considered a fatal flaw. A little browning is okay, whether it happens by accident or whether you do it on purpose because you like the flavor. I happen to like the look and tenderness of the tamagoyaki with no browning, but that's just me. Sometimes it browns on me anyway. I'm still learning.
When your new layer of egg has set on the bottom and is still wet on top, it's time to roll it again. The procedure is the same as before, but it's slightly easier now that you have that log of egg to work with.
Slide one of your chopsticks under the far side of the egg where the first roll is, and...How do I describe the technique of the flip? Maybe like this: You know when you're in a car, not going too fast, and you crest over a gentle but noticeable bump, and you get that feeling in your stomach? That sensation of your stomach lightly tickling itself, like a milder version of how it drops when you descend on a swing or roller coaster? That's kind of what you want to reproduce with the pan—a smooth upward lift at the far end of the pan that floats right back down, and as you do it, your chopsticks follow, giving slightly more upward thrust to the egg as you guide it in toward the handle.
Or, you know, I suppose you could cheat and use a spatula.
And that's it. That's the technique. Repeat two more times, oiling the far side, sliding the egg log, oiling the handle side, adding more raw egg, flowing it under the cooked egg, rolling again. When you're done, if you want you can roll it in a bamboo sushi mat and leave it for a few minutes to help set its shape, then serve with some grated daikon radish on the side. You can also serve it, sliced, as an accompaniment for a larger meal, nestling it alongside vegetable side dishes in a bento box.
The technique takes some practice, you may mess up. As Chef Nakazawa reminded me, that's okay. Let him worry about perfection at the restaurant; at home, the bar isn't nearly as high. Of course I needed him to tell me that. It wasn't my place to decide it.