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Eggs: Better Cooking Through Chemistry

Updated on June 30, 2010

It's hard to find a spring holiday that doesn't make use of the egg. Easter and Passover, certainly, make the most of the egg's inherent symbolism - the rebirth of the land and the cycle of life. And while eggs are one of the most useful ingredients you can keep in your kitchen, that has nothing to do with their symbolism. Eggs are chemistry.

The appeal of most foods comes from the flavor or texture, but with the egg, the magic comes from - are you ready for today's chemistry lesson? - protein. Egg proteins are tightly coiled molecules, and you can uncoil them through beating or cooking. Once they uncoil, they trap whatever's around them, either air or liquid. That's why egg whites hold their peaks and egg yolks thicken sauces.

Chemistry can be intimidating, but mastering the egg is easier than you'd think. Treat them well, and eggs will reward you with rich custards, light souffl├ęs, and fluffy omelets - not to mention symbolism.

Egg Basics

Beating them: Before you beat egg whites, let them come to room temperature. Beat them in a copper bowl, if you have one. (Copper reacts with egg whites and makes for a more stable foam.) If you don't have copper, use ceramic or glass. Make sure the bowl is clean, and don't let any yolk get into the whites.

Egg whites are about geography. Soft peaks (for souffl├ęs) look like ocean waves, bending gently over; stiff peaks (for meringues) look like mountains, standing straight up.

Heating them: Eggs give custards and sauces their silky texture, but the line between silky and scrambled is a fine one - about 10 degrees F. Cook egg-based mixtures over low heat, stir constantly, and watch carefully. If the phone rings, let the machine get it.

Scrambling them: The key to fluffy scrambled eggs is liquid: Beat in 1 teaspoon water, milk, or cream per egg. Cook the eggs slowly over low heat, and don't take that first stir until the egg begins to cook around the edges. Take the eggs off the heat before they look done; they'll continue to cook in the hot pan.

Eating them (safely): One in 20,000 eggs has salmonella, so there is a risk in eating them raw. Soft-boiled eggs are safe (according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture) if they've been cooked for 3 1/2 minutes at 140 degrees.

Chocolate Meringue Kisses

These low-fat candylike cookies feature a new ingredient for health-conscious bakers: reduced-fat chocolate-flavor baking chips. Available in supermarkets nationwide, these morsels have less than half the absorbable fat standard chocolate chips have.

3 large egg whites
1/8 teaspoon cream of tartar
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1/8 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
1/2 cup plus 40 reduced-fat semisweet chocolate-flavor baking chips
Confectioners' sugar (optional)

1. Heat oven to 375 degrees F. Cover 2 large baking sheets with aluminum foil. In large bowl, with electric mixer on medium speed, beat egg whites and cream of tartar until soft peaks form. Gradually add granulated sugar and salt, beating until sugar dissolves and very stiff glossy peaks form -- about 5 minutes.

2. Sift cocoa onto egg-white mixture and gently fold in just until blended. Fold in 1/2 cup chocolate chips.

3. Drop tablespoonfuls of batter, 1 inch apart, onto prepared sheets. Place one of the remaining chocolate chips in the center of each cookie and bake 30 to 35 minutes or just until cookies are dry. Carefully peel cookies from foil; cool completely on wire rack. If desired, sprinkle confectioners' sugar over cookies. Store, covered, at room temperature.

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