Levi Brown for Reader's Digest
In 1911, a newspaperman in Canada named Joseph Coyle overheard an argument: A hotelier and a farmer were exchanging accusations about who was responsible for the broken eggs found in the latter’s deliveries. It inspired Coyle to experiment with a sturdy solution—made, of course, of newspaper. A few years later, the Coyle Egg-Safety Carton had taken off.
You’ll find me tucked into a very similar model today, nested in fridges across the world, ready to start the day. And morning is when bleary-eyed humans are most likely to pluck me from that carton to coddle, bake, or fry. People have favored me for breakfast since at least 1620, when a British medical writer by the name of Tobias Venner suggested poached eggs with vinegar in the morning. Four centuries later, you awake to me in more wonderfully varied forms than ever: scrambled hard, scrambled soft, over easy, sunny-side up, en cocotte, in a hole, 100-year, Scotch, hard-boiled, basted, even astride a strip of steak.
At any time of day, cuisines the world over would fall apart without me. In cooking and baking, there may be no single ingredient as crucial as I am, with the possible exception of salt. You need me for custards and cream sauces, meringues and soufflés. Without me, you’d be bereft of mayo and hollandaise sauce, profiteroles, cream puffs, batters for your cookies and cakes, and certain pastas and breads. Breakfast would take a terrible hit, egg dishes aside: No true waffles, pancakes, or French toast. There are plenty of ingredients you could remove from the human diet without fundamentally altering culinary tradition. But remove me, and you’ve blasted a smoldering crater right in the middle of the kitchen.
I’m more than just the perfect culinary companion. I’m also as close to a perfect source of nutrition as you’ll find in nature. My yolk is replete with antioxidant plant pigments called xanthophylls (the very same ones that make the leaves yellow in autumn) and a payload of nutrients: protein, folate, B12, choline, and selenium. And then there’s my cholesterol. For years, the thinking was that humans should avoid it. No longer: Experts now say a yolk’s dietary cholesterol doesn’t necessarily translate to high cholesterol levels in blood.
My superlative nutritional content is no accident. Unlike meat or plants, which were living their lives until you decided to make them food, I was designed to be food. Not for you: I am sustenance, as well as the respirator and security system, for a chick, everything it needs to go from a single fertilized cell to a chirping fuzzball.
Start with my shell. Despite appearances, it is porous, filtering out carbon dioxide and letting in oxygen for the baby chick. For this reason, I’m likely to absorb strong smells. That’s why chefs will maximize their pricey truffles by placing them in a container with eggs—we absorb the aroma through our shells, resulting in a deliciously mushroomy scrambled breakfast without actually using a single truffle. Another note on my shell: It peels better if I’m hard-boiled a couple weeks after being laid rather than right away. The dozen you purchase—each laid by a different chicken, given that it takes 24 to 36 hours for a bird to produce a single egg—are typically no more than a week old, sometimes having been laid only a day or two before they made it to store shelves.
Beneath the shell, my chick-sustaining fats and proteins explain my alchemy in the kitchen. Present in my fatty yolk is a potent emulsifier called lecithin that chefs use to marry foes—vinegar and oil, lemon and butterfat—into smooth, silky sauces and dressings. Cook me, meanwhile, and invisible, curled-up proteins floating within me will unfurl and then interlock into a scaffolding that increases in rigidity with heat. This reaction is why an egg warmed low and slow will be custardy while one frizzled over high heat will verge on rubbery. A related effect happens when you get out the whisk: When my whites are beaten, the unfurled proteins interlock to form foamy peaks, first slumped, then firmer and pert. Beat them too much, and this scaffolding of proteins interlinks so tightly that water weeps out as if squeezed from a sponge, hence the puddling around overbeaten whites.
Together these traits make me both one of the simplest and most complicated things to cook. It takes almost no skill to hard-boil an egg or crack it into a skillet and fry it with some butter. Yet an exacting head chef looking to audition a prospective cook can gather practically everything he or she needs to know from how that cook prepares a classic French omelet. FYI, it should be set but not browned on the outside, moist and slightly runny on the inside—a perfectly oozy roll‑up. To achieve that takes finesse and long-practiced wrists—and yet the test takes just a couple of minutes, three eggs, a pan, and a fork.
Easy yet difficult, fragile yet powerful. That’s multifarious me—the ultimate food, contained in an unassuming carton in your fridge. Make sure you know that these “facts” about me aren’t true.
Homemade mayo in six easy ways
Basic: Using a blender or a food processor, blend 1 large pasteurized egg with 1 medium clove garlic, 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice, and a large pinch kosher salt until smooth. With the machine running, drizzle in 1 cup vegetable oil in a thin stream until a thick sauce forms.
Herb: Add 2 to 4 tablespoons chopped fresh chives, parsley, dill, or tarragon to the Basic recipe before blending in oil.
Mustard: Make the Basic recipe, adding 1 tablespoon of mustard before blending in the oil.
Extra-Garlic: Make the Basic with 2 or 3 cloves of garlic rather than 1.
Horseradish: After blending the Basic, add preserved horseradish 1 tablespoon at a time until desired taste is reached.
Chili-Lime: Replace the lemon juice in the Basic recipe with 1 tablespoon lime juice and add 1 tablespoon sriracha chili sauce; add more chili and lime, if desired.
Now, take a stab at these 55 other easy egg recipes you should try!
In consultation with: Tim Burkhead, PhD, professor of behavioral ecology, U of Sheffield; Mickey Rubin, PhD, executive director of the egg nutrition center; Marc Dresner, American Egg Board