How to Temper an Egg
Many different recipes, including those for custards, soups, and certain pasta recipes, will require you to "temper an egg," which means that you need to raise the temperature of an egg gradually, essentially cooking it without scrambling it. A tempered egg will look basically like raw egg, but will be perfectly cooked, and useful as a binding agent or thickener. You can learn the basic process involved, as well as more specific instructions for tempering eggs for use in specific dishes. See Step 1 for more information.
Learning the Basics
Get the proper utensils.Whatever the dish you’re making, tempering eggs for it is a lot easier than you might think. As long as you work quickly and by adding only a small amount of hot liquid to your eggs, your eggs will be tempered in no time. To do it right, you’ll need:
- Heat resistant bowl. It’s important to beat your eggs in a tempered glass (like Pyrex) bowl, or a ceramic bowl, so it won’t heat up and cook the eggs from underneath. You want the liquid to do the cooking, not the surface, which will cause the eggs to curdle.
- Whisk. The technique requires that you aggressively whisk the eggs while adding hot liquid, making a whisk useful. In a pinch, a fork is a fine alternative.
- Ladle. You’ll need something to spoon the hot liquid from the pot, preferably a large ladle with a spout, so you can control how much you add.
Start by whipping your eggs in the bowl.Depending on your recipe, you might have anywhere between 1 and 6 eggs that you’re preparing to temper, but the process will be the same regardless of the amounts. Crack all your eggs into your heat resistant bowl, then beat them until thoroughly integrated.
- Continue whipping the eggs until they just become frothy. Beaten eggs, as you’d make for scrambled eggs, will be more likely to curdle, since the consistency will be thicker. You want more of an omelet consistency. When you start to see a foam appear on the top of the eggs, you’re in good shape.
- Let the eggs sit and come up to room temperature while you make the rest of the recipe. It’s more difficult to temper very cold eggs, so it’s important to let them come up to room temp gently before tempering.
Spoon in some hot liquid to the eggs while whisking vigorously.Whether you’re making a savory dish or a custard, the next step is basically the same. You want to add a small amount of the hot liquid you’re using to temper, while whisking the eggs vigorously at the same time. When you’re sure the eggs haven’t curdled, add a little more. Continue in this way until the eggs are tempered.
- Start with a tablespoon or two and wait until you’re sure it isn’t curdling to add more. Some recipes will play fast and loose with the instructions, telling you to add a whole ladle full of boiling milk to eggs. It’s safer to start with smaller amounts and gradually bring the heat up. Continue adding until you’ve increased the volume of the eggs by at least half.
Pour the tempered egg into the hot liquid, when it’s ready.Eggs are tempered when the mixture is steaming, and you can feel the heat in your hand holding the bowl. At this point, the eggs are essentially cooked without having scrambled. You can pour it all in at once, give it a few stirs, and the tempering is done. You don’t have to worry about the eggs curdling at this point.
- The mixture helps to thicken broths and custards, creating a rich sauce. When you pour it back in, you should notice the broth or the milk thicken somewhat, and take on a cloudier, yellowy tint.
Strain curds you make accidentally.If you rush the process by trying to add too much heat at once, you might notice a few curds start to form. Don’t panic, but stop adding the hot liquid and stirring the eggs. Get a spoon and fish out the curds, or run the egg mixture through a strainer if necessary and restart the process. If the whole thing as curdled, throw it out and start over.
- Alternatively, you can just ignore some curds if you don’t mind the texture. Keep whisking vigorously and you’ll hardly even notice the texture.
Tempering Eggs for Sweet Dishes
Heat milk just to boiling on the stove.If you're making eggnog, custard, pudding, or ice cream, almost all recipes will start with scalded milk, or milk brought just to a boil. Whip your eggs in a heat-resistant bowl and go about the process of heating the milk over the stove according to the recipe you're using.
Mix the appropriate amount of sugar into the eggs.For some recipes, you'll need to measure out the sugar into the eggs before you temper the eggs. If this is the case, measure it out and add it to the eggs. Whisk them together vigorously while the milk heats.
Start with a few tablespoons of milk.Remove the milk from the heat after it's scalded and add a very small amount of milk to the heat-resistant bowl with the eggs and sugar in it. Use your ladle and spoon out about a tablespoon into your whipped eggs, whisking vigorously while you add. Make sure the eggs haven't curdled before adding more.
- If it helps, count to ten in between additions of milk, just to be sure you're not rushing it. That's slow enough that you'll probably be safe from curdling.
Continue adding until all of the milk has been added.Keep spooning the milk into the eggs, a little at a time, until you've transferred all the milk over to the egg bowl. Depending on what you're doing with the recipe, you might add this mixture to dry ingredients or chill it down for ice cream. Either way, you've tempered the eggs and you're ready to move forward with the recipe.
Tempering Eggs for Soup
Don’t season the eggs.Adding salt to beaten eggs starts breaking down the proteins, releasing moisture and creating a less uniform consistency in the egg mixture. This means that the eggs will temper less evenly when you add broth. Season the broth after the eggs have been tempered and added into the soup, not before you temper the eggs.
Start with a very small amount of broth.Ladle out some of the broth, spooning in a small amount to the bowl with the eggs in it. Whisk the eggs vigorously while you add the liquid. Count to ten before you add another spoonful and allow the temperature to come up gradually.
- Try as best you can to only use broth to temper the eggs. Depending on what kind of soup you're making, it can be hard to avoid little chunks of vegetables or meat. It's fine if you get a bit of veg in there with your eggs–it's all going together anyway–but the eggs will whisk easier with just broth and egg, and the eggs will temper more quickly.
Continue adding until the bowl is steaming.Continue adding broth in small amounts and put your hand on the side of the bowl to check for the temperature. Look closely for steam. If you're doing it properly, the eggs should still be perfectly liquid, but should be steaming and warm, meaning that they're tempered properly. When you see steam, your eggs are tempered.
Pour the mixture back into the soup pot.When the bowl is steaming as much as the pot with the broth, you can pour the tempered eggs directly into the soup. Stir the eggs around to enrich the broth with the tempered eggs. The broth should thicken some–not much–and will take on a cloudier, slightly yellowish or milky color.
Tempering Eggs for Pasta
Temper eggs into dishes with long noodles.One way of tempering eggs common in Italian cooking is to add raw egg directly to hot pasta to create a rich sauce. Most famously, this is the technique used for making spaghetti carbonara, the simple combination of noodles, egg, pancetta (or bacon), and lots and lots of black pepper.
- Carbonara is typically made with spaghetti noodles, but also can be made with any noodle you like to eat. Technique-wise, it's sometimes easier to temper the eggs in the pan using longer noodles, which tangle together to create a larger surface and keep the eggs off the bottom of the pan, so they won't scramble. You can do it with any noodle, however.
Beat some shredded cheese into the egg mixture.While your pasta cooks, beat about 2 eggs in a bowl and add enough shredded parmesan cheese to double the amount. This can be more than you'd think–around a half cup or so of shredded parmesan. You can use other kinds of cheese, but drier, flakier cheeses like parmesan usually integrate more easily into the egg and melt more quickly than some other kinds.
- In a carbonara, you'll also add lots and lots of black pepper to the eggs before you add it to the pasta. The pepper is where the dish gets it's name–the pepper grains look like bits of "carbon."
Heat the pasta gently in the skillet.For most recipes, you'll fry up some kind of meat, onions, garlic, and spices in a skillet first, then remove the pan from the heat. Cook your pasta separately, then add it to the skillet with the other ingredients. Put the skillet on low heat, stirring the noodles in the meat and vegetables to heat it gently.
- The goal is to warm the egg on the top side of the pasta before it works through to the bottom of the pan, where it will likely start to curdle. It takes temperature control and good stirring to make it work correctly.
Stir the pasta vigorously while adding in the egg.Pour the egg over the pasta noodles in the skillet over low heat, using a wooden spoon to stir the noodles around vigorously. Continue agitating the noodles, moving them around constantly. They should cook very quickly, and you want to avoid letting them curdle on the bottom of the skillet. Remove the skillet from the heat when you see steam and fork the noodles into a separate bowl.
- Eggs cook much more quickly than most people think, so heating the noodles through gently and having them at the proper temperature when you had them should temper the eggs very quickly, coating the noodles in a rich and thick cheesy sauce. Season with chopped parsley and serve immediately.
To temper an egg, start by cracking it into a bowl and whisking it until it's frothy. Then, gradually add in the hot liquid you're using for your recipe and continue to whisk the egg. Be careful not to add the liquid too quickly or you could cause the egg to curdle. Once the egg mixture is steaming and the bowl it's in feels hot, you're finished! Add the tempered egg to your recipe and enjoy.
- Having your eggs out at room temperature will reduce the chance of your eggs scrambling and time as you temper the egg.
- Using a warm bowl and even a fork/whisk will temper the egg much faster.
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