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October 3, 2012

Slate: The physics of cracking an egg

Sometimes the most useful cooking tips can be found in classic movies. Consider Billy Wilder's 1954 romantic comedy, "Sabrina." Suffering from the pangs of unrequited love, young Sabrina (Audrey Hepburn), a chauffeur's daughter, is sent to Paris to train as a chef at a Cordon Bleu-type academy. One day's lesson concerns the proper way to crack an egg. "An egg is not a stone," the instructor admonishes his charges. "It is a living thing. It has a heart. So when we crack it, we must not torment it. We must be merciful and execute it quickly, like with the guillotine."

It's all in the wrist, the chef insists. He proceeds to demonstrate, holding an egg gently between thumb and forefinger before rapping it sharply against the edge of a bowl with one swift stroke: "One, two, three, CRACK! New egg!"

This is the classic one-handed egg-cracking technique favored by chefs, if only for its virtue as a time-saver, given the large number of eggs the average Parisian chef must crack on a given day. (The French do love their soufflés.) But opening an eggshell between the fingers and thumb of one hand requires precision and practice, and most neophytes, like Sabrina, end up with a hand full of crushed egg.

Fortunately, there are alternative methods that get the job done perfectly well. My mother taught me to crack the egg on the rim of the mixing bowl before gently pulling the two halves apart with both hands, while my husband prefers to tap the eggshell gently with the dull edge of a knife. Others might favor striking the egg against the edge, or the surface, of a countertop. If a recipe calls for egg whites — a nice fluffy meringue, for example, or a vintage whiskey sour — extra precision is needed in whatever technique you choose: Ideally, you want two equal halves of the shell so you can pour the yolk back and forth from one half to the other, letting the egg white run off into the bowl.

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