We’ve probably all marveled at how creamy long-stirred, perfectly scrambled eggs could be, then decided that 15 minutes of constant stirring is something we’d be willing to do only for occasions that call for the velvetiest of breakfasts.
My weekday scrambled eggs need to be done in the amount of time it takes to toast a slice of bread. With that in mind, I wondered: Is it still possible to cook scrambled eggs that are as creamy and tender as you’d like, and more important, creamy and moist whether you prefer them soft, medium or even firmly scrambled?
Like many simple egg dishes, scrambled eggs are prime for some heavy-duty testing (and opinions).
First things first, some basics: Eggs are mostly water, along with a good amount of protein and fat. As eggs are scrambled over heat, their proteins — mainly ovalbumin and ovotransferrin — begin to denature and become entangled, forming a spongy matrix that traps moisture. The hotter these proteins get and the longer they’re cooked, the tighter the matrix becomes, until eventually moisture begins to squeeze out, like a sponge being wrung. So, it seems, the key to keeping eggs tender and moist is managing the degree to which those proteins constrict.
A pan’s initial temperature can have a profound effect on an egg’s final texture. A hot pan will lead to the rapid creation of steam within the egg mixture, adding fluffiness and giving it a soufflé-like quality, while eggs started in a cold pan will remain dense and creamy as they cook. I like my eggs somewhere in the middle: mostly creamy with a few lighter, fluffier curds interspersed. However, without an infrared thermometer, gauging a pan’s temperature is difficult.
A workaround I’ve discovered is to preheat the pan over medium-high with a bit of water in it, swirling as the water evaporates. This water will draw energy from the pan’s surface until it completely evaporates, at which point I know the pan’s surface is just above 212 degrees Fahrenheit, water’s boiling point and an ideal temperature for scrambled eggs.
What about salt? Some chefs insist that you not salt your eggs until they are nearly finished cooking, while others recommend salting as you beat them. Salt can break down some egg proteins. (Try beating eggs with salt and letting them sit for 10 to 15 minutes. They will become drastically thinner and darker as a result of this breakdown.) In testing, I’ve found that this breakdown is advantageous: Eggs that are salted before cooking will, in fact, retain moisture better and stay more tender than unsalted eggs. Salting the eggs and letting them sit while you get the coffee going is good, but even salting immediately before cooking can help.
Fat, which is found in egg yolks, can also aid in tenderness. Fat molecules can act sort of like bouncers who physically separate proteins that really want to get into a tangle. In my days as a breakfast cook at No. 9 Park in Boston, Jason Bond, who was the chef de cuisine at the time, would have me add a dozen extra egg yolks for every two dozen eggs I scrambled, resulting in deeply orange, incredibly rich eggs. (At home, I don’t go through the trouble as I rarely have use for spare egg whites.)
Heavy cream or even crème fraîche can serve a similar function, but I prefer using butter. At his Brookline, Mass., sandwich shop, Cutty’s, my friend Charles Kelsey blends raw eggs with butter in a high-powered blender before scrambling them and tucking them into egg sandwiches. His technique is adapted from the chef Daniel Boulud, who, in a 2008 interview with Francis Lam, suggested incorporating small cubes of butter into the eggs when making a French-style omelet. On a recent phone call, Mr. Boulud told me that he learned the technique as a young cook in Lyon, France, and that it’s commonly used in restaurant settings, where butter can be added to manage the temperature of the eggs as they start to set.
The technique works brilliantly for scrambled eggs. As the mixture heats up, most of it will start forming curds as usual, but the eggs right around those cubes of butter are kept cooler, causing them to set more slowly. (At first, it may even appear that the butter won’t melt before the eggs are done, but confidence is key!) As the butter eventually melts, it mixes with that softer egg forming a rich, buttery sauce that mingles with and coats the firmer curds.
Still, even with all these techniques, there’s always the danger of accidentally overcooking the eggs, over-tightening the curds, and forcing out moisture, and this can happen in a matter of seconds. Is there a way to mitigate this?
Kristen Miglore of Food52’s Genius Recipes pointed me toward a 2015 recipe, “Magic 15-Second Scrambled Eggs” from Mandy Lee’s food blog, Lady & Pups. On a Zoom call from Taiwan, Ms. Lee explained she’d arrived at the process by accident, while trying to get her sick puppy to eat something. She’d resorted to a mixture of eggs, water and cornstarch. As she cooked the mixture, she noted how creamy it stayed, even as the eggs set. From there, she experimented and found that a touch of cornstarch slurry added to her own scrambled eggs kept them creamy and tender, even when cooked rapidly over high heat. (These days, she recommends using potato or tapioca starch, which activate at a lower temperature and produce marginally creamier results than cornstarch.)
The technique is truly brilliant, and the starchy slurry serves a dual purpose. Like fat, the starch can physically impede the linking of proteins. At the same time, starch granules swell when heated with moisture, binding that moisture and preventing it from escaping. You can leave these eggs on the stovetop for an extra 30 seconds, and they still won’t turn tough or dry the way scrambled eggs typically do.
Starch and eggs are not uncommon dish mates in China. The Malaysian-Australian chef Adam Liaw recommends thickening juicy tomatoes with a starchy slurry before incorporating lightly scrambled eggs in classic Chinese stir-fried eggs with tomato, giving the dish a comforting, silky texture. And, in testing egg drop soup, I’ve found that adding a cornstarch slurry to eggs before beating them and drizzling them into the hot broth will help keep the flowering curds more moist and tender as they set.
I reached out to my friends Steph Li and Chris Thomas of the YouTube channel Chinese Cooking Demystified, who use a similar technique in their recipe for Cantonese scrambled eggs (based on a dish called “Whampoa Eggs” famous in Guangzhou but relatively unknown in the West). They explained that starch is commonly added to traditional egg foo young recipes to keep the deep-fried omelets tender.
While this combination of starch and egg may be common in various Chinese preparations, it takes on new life when combined with Mr. Boulud’s cold cubed butter and my own modest evaporation method of gauging proper pan temperature. Lengthy stirring may be reserved for the weekends, but now even my weekday morning eggs can be as velvety and tender as I’d like.
Recipe: Extra-Creamy Scrambled Eggs