How to boil an egg

Irfan Husain May 09, 2010

Eggs have long been regarded as cholesterol bombs by the medical profession and, until 2007, the British Heart Association recommended a maximum intake of three eggs a week. Fortunately, this myth has been exploded by more recent studies that show that it is OK to dig into your omelettes without fear of clogging your arteries: it is the saturated fats, smoking and sedentary lifestyle that cause your cholesterol level to rise. These findings have apparently not yet reached our shores as our doctors and dieticians routinely recommend a no/low egg diet to patients with any form of heart disease.

Luckily, I usually ignore my doctors’ advice unless it conforms to my own tastes and desires. In this case, I must confess my partiality to half-boiled eggs, a fluffy omelette, and a plate of slightly runny scrambled eggs. So, despite my decade-old heart-related issues, I have continued enjoying eggs in various forms, and my occasional guilt pangs have disappeared after the 2007 study was published. But before readers take this as a license to have threeegg omelettes for breakfast every morning, let me also say that I don’t smoke, do manage to get some exercise most days, and don’t use much fat when I cook.

One thing I insist on is fresh, free-range, organic desi eggs. The pale, battery-produced variety is devoid of flavour, and often has a slightly fishy odour from the cheap diet the poor hens are given in their cramped sheds. When I’m in England, as I am now, we often stop at farms to buy fresh eggs; here, I can usually see the hens running around happily in their large enclosures. Our local farmers’ market in Devizes is also a source of good, fresh eggs. And of course, supermarkets in the UK now stock organic, freerange poultry products.

Some of my earliest memories of food centre around eggs: hardboiled eggs sold in trains on a cold winter trip to Lahore, and the deliciously runny yolk of a fried egg on toast for breakfast. Even now, Sunday breakfast at home in Karachi consists of tikias, aloo ki tarkari and desi omelette. This is still my favourite morning meal in the world. A quick word about the desi omelette: I find that when onions are chopped into the beaten eggs, their flavour is too raw and kills the egg’s subtle taste. I prefer to gently fry the onion, garlic, ginger and chillies, together with a few chopped coriander leaves in a little olive oil first. Once the onions are soft (but not brown), I scoop the ingredients out with a slotted spoon and put in a knob of butter into the same frying pan. As soon as the butter is hot, the beaten eggs with salt and freshly ground pepper go in, and once they begin to set, the onion filling is gently eased into the centre. Now, the liquid eggs in the middle are drained to the side, and allowed to slide under the setting omelette at the edges. While the centre is still liquid but getting firm, the omelette is folded with a spatula and cooked until golden brown on both sides, but soft within. This calls for practise, but even if you break it up, it’ll still taste very good. Oh yes, do try and get a heavy frying pan so the heat is evenly spread.

Often, the words ‘he can’t even boil an egg’ are used to describe somebody devoid of culinary skills. However, even boiling an egg requires some basic knowledge. For instance, if you take an egg from the fridge and put it directly into a pan of boiling water, you risk cracking the shell due to the temperature difference. I start heating the water with the eggs already in the pan. Once the water begins boiling, lower the heat so the eggs cook in simmering water, avoiding the danger of the shell breaking in a roiling boil. For a soft-boiled egg, you need to cook it for exactly three minutes from the moment the water begins to boil. Remember to drain the hot water immediately, and pour some cold water over the eggs; otherwise they will continue cooking inside their shells. For a hard-boiled one, you’ll need around six minutes. If you suspect an egg is past its prime, just put it in a glass of salt water. If it heads straight for the bottom, it’s fresh. But if it floats, you can chuck it away.

One reason the return of eggs to a normal diet is such good news is that they are the perfect source of protein, apart from being wonderfully versatile. They are used extensively in a wide range of dishes, from sauces to baking cakes to making ice cream. Their usefulness in the kitchen is due to their ability to bind different ingredients. The Larousse Gastronomique, probably the best foodie encyclopaedia ever published, has seven pages on recipes for eggs, as well as 24 ways of making omelettes. Here is a small extract:

“Eggs are nutritious, inexpensive, and probably the most versatile ingredient in cooking. They are of prime importance in many branches of the food industry, especially those concerned with making pasta, ices, biscuits and cakes… But an egg is also a food in itself, which can be cooked in a great variety of ways and served with all sorts of garnishes…”
In a charming collection of essays, titled “An Omelette and a Glass of Wine”, the doyenne of British food writers, Elizabeth David tells us about a certain French bistro where the owner served the perfect omelette every day for years until the day she retired. Customers had long been speculating on her secret: some said she mixed in a little cream, while others attributed the dish’s delicate flavour and lightness to the quality of the butter. Finally, one of her admirers plucked up the courage to ask her how she made her omelettes. “Monsieur,” the retired owner said with a note of surprise in her voice. “I use good, fresh eggs and butter from the local farms, and cook them in my old cast-iron frying pan, and voila!”

In our dream house in Sri Lanka, we have six hens that cluck around the garden, pecking at food all day long. In exchange for this comfortable existence, they give us half a dozen or so fresh eggs in the morning. We had got tired of the battery eggs available and decided to do some poultry farming. So far, I am happy to report that the experiment has been entirely successful despite dire warnings from the locals. Our dogs and cats seem to accept the fowl and they all coexist quite peacefully.

Over the years, I have been fortunate in the number of very good restaurants I have been to, and the many memorable meals I have eaten with friends and family in their homes. But one culinary memory has stayed with me longer than most. On a cold winter evening in Istanbul many years ago, the friend I was staying with cooked me a simple meal of sliced spicy sausages sautéed with eggs. We each had a frying pan before us and used pieces of fresh local bread to scrape the bottom clean. Somehow, I have never recaptured the flavour of that dish.