When I decided to teach myself how to cook, I wasn’t hoping to create elaborate, show-stopping meals. I just wanted to be able to take a look at what was in the fridge and be able to whip something together like a functional human adult. But since I had no kitchen experience at all, making a tasty stir-fry seemed like a kind of magic.
Like many would-be cooks, I first took a top-down approach to solving the problem. I figured I could follow the step-by-step instructions in a recipe, and I’d end up with delicious dinners and learn basic cooking skills. But I quickly found that basic culinary concepts were beyond me: What’s a rolling boil vs. a furious boil? Which kind of spatula should I use? What does it mean to “mince” an onion vs. to “chop” an onion?
My “I’ll just follow the recipe” stab at Julia Child’s boeuf bourguignon ended in a destroyed kitchen, A$55 in ingredients down the tubes, and a pot of inedible sludge boiling away on my stove top. It was also bad for my self-esteem. The simple task of making a meal, a skill that hundreds of millions of people do several times a day, seemed beyond my abilities, even with step-by-step written instructions.
But then I hit on my personal pathway to becoming a functional cook: Eggs. I vowed to cook two eggs every morning until I either understood cooking, or decided to order takeout for the rest of my life.
Why learn to cook by exclusively cooking eggs?
Eggs are nature’s cooking school in a shell, a pathway to teaching yourself everything you need to know to become a passable home cook. They’re inexpensive, readily available, quick to prepare, and can be heated and beaten into an endless variety of meals. Achieving a truly great scrambled, fried, or poached egg is surprisingly difficult, but eggs are forgiving, and the failures are both instructional and delicious.
There are a million, often conflicting, ideas on how to scramble eggs, so you should probably ignore them all. Read up on the very basics if you must, but don’t learn how to make Gordon Ramsey’s fussy (and gross) soft scrambled eggs. Just take the concept — mushed up eggs and maybe some milk in a frying pan — and run with it. Try out different things. Maybe you like the different textures you get when you scramble them in directly in the pan. Maybe you like them slightly runny. Or maybe you’re one of those people who can’t stomach any egg-liquid at all. It’s all valid and all under your control.
As you progress toward being able to make your ideal breakfast, you’ll learn which pan of yours is the best for scrambling eggs; what the effects of higher and lower temperatures have on your food; how to keep from burning the butter; the difference between a slow and low, creamy egg and a make-it-quick-high-temp version; how much salt is too much; and a million other lessons best learned through doing.
With each successive breakfast, you’ll be a little closer to your own ideal scrambled egg, and once you’ve achieved that, you can move on to frying eggs. (Actually, you can move on to frying eggs whenever you want; I’m not the Egg Police.)
A fried egg is a little more difficult to cook than a scrambled egg, because you’re usually trying to keep the yolk semi-liquid without the bottom becoming too tough. But like scrambled eggs, there’s no real way to fry an egg “correctly.” Maybe you like them over-easy? Or over hard? Sunny-side-up requires using the lid of your frying pan to reflect heat back onto the top of the egg, which will come in handy later when pan-frying other dishes.
Poaching eggs requires technique and involves drama and risk — if you break the yolk of your fried egg, you can just scramble it in the pan, but if you mess up poached eggs, you end up with egg soup, and you have to start again. To learn the basics of poaching, check out a video or two on YouTube for this one. But even if you try and follow along with Jamie Oliver, you’ll screw it up the first few times out; it’s part of the process. There are a lot of different poached egg tools out there to make it easier, too. But that’s cheating. You’re trying to learn when the water is almost boiling here, as well as developing a little finesse with a slotted spoon.
Boiling eggs is more of a science than an art. While the exact boiling time varies based on the size of the eggs, your elevation, how old the eggs are, and other minutia, you can start with the basic formula posted by The America Egg Board and work from there. The most important thing I learned from boiling eggs came from the ice water bath: Learning that you sometimes need to stop food from cooking was a novel concept.
Final egg-boss: The French rolled omelette
There’s a reason fancy French restaurants used to use the omelette as a test for perspective chefs — preparing a rolled omelette reveals a chef’s skill level in moments. Unlike forgiving American-diner-style omelets, making a rolled omelette requires a mastery of technique, temperature, and timing, and any mistakes are readily visible on the plate. Plus, there’s no cheese to hide behind.
To get you started, check out this video of chef André Soltner turning out an omelette like it’s nothing. Looks easy enough, right? But give it a try; you’ll see.
You probably won’t have a snooty Michelin chef sneering at you during breakfast, and your career doesn’t depend on not fucking it up, so making French omelettes is a fun challenge that will put all of your new found egg knowledge to the test. I rarely get them right, but even the misshapen monstrosities that come out of my pan are delicious, and when I occasionally get close, it’s like a mini-Christmas.
Once you’ve made a French omelette, it’s graduation time, and you can move on to your next culinary challenge: The tuna fish sandwich.