You can't make an omelet without breaking a few eggs -- but without breaking a few eggs, you can't make hundreds of other dishes either.
Both an ingredient and a tool in the kitchen, the egg knows no season. In recipes, an egg can be used in seven ways: whole and cooked in the shell, whole and cooked out of the shell, blended, as an ingredient, the yolk, the white, and separated but used together. The egg's incredible versatility is why Michael Ruhlman was able to devote a whole book, Egg: A Culinary Exploration of the World’s Most Versatile Ingredient, to the fragile, shelled ingredient.
“In the kitchen, the egg is ultimately neither ingredient nor finished dish, but rather a singularity with a thousand ends,” he writes. “The egg is a lens through which to view the entire craft of cooking. By working our way through the egg, we become powerful cooks.”
Here are two recipes from Ruhlman's book:
Jennifer Russell: You’re a cook and a master of technique -- why an entire book (this is a tome, really) on the egg?
Michael Ruhlman: I wanted to explore the notion that if you know everything there is to know about cooking an egg, you increase your skills as a cook tenfold.
JR: Your book is devoted to chicken eggs, and all of the recipes call for large eggs. Do you have advice for cooks about the eggs they buy? What kind do you prefer to use at home?
MR: All eggs are pretty much the same.
But if you have access to eggs from chickens that have roamed freely on organic pasture, free to graze on bugs and grass -- my preferred egg -- it only makes sense that this is going to be a better egg in every way than a factory-farmed egg. If you care about the chicken, look for eggs labeled "certified humane."
JR: What do you think is the most common mistake people make when working with eggs?
MR: People use too much heat, cook the eggs too aggressively. Eggs like gentle heat; they remain tender in gentle heat.
JR: How do you prefer your eggs? If you could only eat one egg dish for the rest of your life, what would it be?
MR: That omelet with the creamy morel sauce, without hesitation.
JR: I love the magical things an egg can do -- like meringue. What are some unexpected ways eggs can perform magic in the kitchen or bar?
MR: You mention meringue -- the egg white alone is such a powerful tool. It leavens a sponge cake; add sugar and it can be a nougat, an icing; poach it for floating island; bake it for a crunchy meringue; fold in flour and bake and it's angel food cake.
Egg whites clarify a stock, bind a mousseline, enrich and give body to a cocktail.
There seems to be no end to what it can do.
JR: What did you learn about eggs that you didn’t know before writing this book?
MR: That pressure cooking makes them incredibly easy to peel.
JR: And the whole “put an egg on it” craze?
MR: There is nothing that isn't improved when you put a well-cooked egg on top of it.
Jennifer Russell is a founding producer at The Splendid Table. Before coming to radio, she made historical and arts and cultural programming for public television. She claims to have come out of the womb a food lover -- when other girls played house, she played restaurateur. Follow her comings and goings on Twitter: @jenejentweets.