Separation anxiety

January 3, 2011

Happy New Year everyone. I hope you are all still on languid holidays involving lying about reading, dozing, or foraging in the fridge for feasts of lazy food. And if you’re back at work, may the holiday feeling continue just a wee bit longer.

My first post of the year is yet another embarrassing culinary confession: I am crap at separating eggs. I’m even pretty crap at just cracking them, to be honest. This rather demeaning lack of expertise was brought home to me several times in the lead-up to Christmas. First, in the making of forty-five packages of chocolate brownies for Senor’s best customers and a few friends (that was a lot of egg-cracking), and second, in the making of 10 times the quantity of these spiced nuts, which I once again stuffed into the family food gifts this year.

Around the same time I was watching Nigella Lawson doing her Express cooking on telly (just to keep my outrage pilot light aflame, you understand – can’t abide the woman but it’s difficult to look away…) and finding my usual irritation rising tenfold when she seemingly effortlessly cracked an egg with one hand and then proceeded to go about her work without wiping her hands. Seriously, I watched for five more minutes just in the hope she would at some point run her eggy hand over something – her bosom, anything! – to wipe it clean, but no. Apparently The Goddess’s assets include spotless yolk-free fingers among her other skills.

So let’s talk about this – I want to hear how you do it. For myself, the method varies. I try to blithely snap the egg on the side of the bowl a la Nigella, but usually this results in me just efficiently dinting the shell into a minutely crazed patch, all ready for tiny bits of shell to fall straight into the egg once I do get it open. Then I spend long minutes chasing shreds of shell around the bowl with another bit of shell, which may or may not break and add to the problem.

Otherwise, I crack a sharp knife on to the egg held in my hand and hope it doesn’t go right through the shell into my palm. This does give a cleaner break (to the egg that is, boom tish), but lacks the panache of the side-of-bowl approach, and also leads to eggy hands if the blow is a little too sharp and cracks the egg more deeply than anticipated.

Now on to separating. I seem to have a deep anxiety about this, perhaps instilled in childhood. There is an almost pathological fear of escaped yolk infecting the white, and so I seem to spend inordinate lengths of time with held breath, tipping the yolk from one half-shell to the other –  a feat made more difficult by my hopeless cracking (see above), which often results in the ‘halves’ being most unequal, and thus I can be scooting an egg yolk from one cavernous bowl of shell on to a teeny jagged shell plate the breadth of a thimble, then back again, for long, terror-filled minutes.

I don’t think this is normal.

There is, of course, the method often favoured by lascivious folks like Nigella – plopping the whole lot into your hand and letting the white seep through your fingers into the bowl. Now, I’m all for the sensual pleasures of cooking, but quite frankly I find this disgusting. Not to mention inefficient – if you’re like me, half the white would end up dripping down your arm and into your apron pockets, and then how the hell do you measure whether you have enough white left for the recipe? And there’s the contamination factor – my cooking hands are always washed several times during the process, but if  a bit of yolk equals major systems failure, what about the inevitable oils or detergents or butter or other cooky stuff that must remain on the hands at least some of the time?

Now, I suspect that some of you will advise me to take the coward’s path and acquire one of these contraptions or even, God forbid, one of these (thank you Jules, I knew I’d get to use it one day…) but frankly I will take such advice as an insult. I want to know your best methods of unaided egg cracking and separation, and I want to know them now.

Please share! How do you do it? Are you an egg-all-over-the-shop cracker like me, or a spotless Nigella type? Do you share my separation anxiety? Any tips? I know that at least one of you has an intriguing shell-retrieval method passed down by her mother, so come on, share the love!

A wee announcement

This year is going to be a huge one for me, as I have not only my new novel Animal People to edit and get ready for publication in October, but I have managed to persuade the wonderful Allen & Unwin to let me write another book, which will be published in April 2012.  I am very excited about it, as it’s a complete departure from fiction (and may – shhhh – involve matters close to our hearts here in howtoshuckanoysterland!), but it’s going to take up an enormous amount of my time between now and the end of August when I need to have it finished. That’s started, middled, and ended. Yikes.

Now, I desperately want to keep this blog ticking over regularly, but I’m thinking the best way to do that without growing stressed and resentful about getting everything done is to pull back a little and post an entry here around once a fortnight. I very much hope you will stay with me, as your readership and conversation here are among the great joys of my life. If you can, maybe subscribing by email (fill in the bit at the right of the screen, headed ‘get email alerts’) will save the irritation of finding no new posts online when you visit. This function sends you an email alert only when there’s something new to read here – no new post, no email.

But now, back to the crucial questions: how do you crack your eggs?


  1. I was so excited to read in the weekend papers of your impending novel – and now another book as well! Joy of joys. But the egg thing – I’m all about a quick knock on the side of the bowl, a slurp back and forth and be done with it. I learned how to do it in year 10 Home Economics in preparing the dreaded souffle for the final exam. There’s no point in being anxious – the whites can smell your fear. Go hard or go home!

  2. Well, it depends where the eggs came from. Eggs from our chooks have very hard shells and very firm whites. Bought eggs will be staler, so the whites will be much more runny.

    I keep a little Chinese saucer handy, crack the egg on the side of the big bowl and use my thumbs to open out the shell. Then I pick up the yolk with my fingers and put it in another bowl. Much harder to do with an older egg. My mum was a separator fan, but to me it’s just something else to wash up.

    Very exciting book news, and I look forward to hearing more about your sekrit project.

  3. Cracking: Just give it a good decisive whack against the side of a bowl and prise the halves apart.
    Separating: I have gone the strain it through your fingers route quite often especially when I have a lot to do. It’s fast as the whites drain through very quickly and then you can fling your yolk in with the rest. If you’ve got the phobia about yolk ruining the whites, use a cup, crack and separate the egg over it and once you’re satisfied the white is clear, add it to another bowl. Nothing worse than half a dozen whites spoiled by a random yolk attack.
    Happy editing (is there really such a thing?) and congratulations on the new contract.

  4. I remember seeing another TV cook, Lorenza de Medici, crack a number of eggs into a bowl and then she scooped out each of the floating yolks from the eggy lake with her cupped (bare) hand, one by one, while she did her piece to camera.

    Me, I just use free-range eggs with sturdy shels and use the better of the two eggshell halves as my separator, but I don’t do it over the main bowl. I separate each one into a smaller bowl, as insurance against a calamity, and if it works OK the yolk goes into the main bowl. More washing up, yes.

    Good luck with the big writing/editing workload. Your fortnightly posting idea sounds excellent, too. I shall keep on following, as always.

  5. Too true, Shucker, too true.

    Picking the tiny bits of shell out of whites drives me mad. Hate those smug yellow smears.

    I maintain i)poultry breeders are economising on shell grit, thereby requiring an unreasonably high level of skill from cooks and ii) Nigella Lawson is blessed with unusually large hands and/or eggs, or uses a stuntwoman/hand creme model for close ups of egg action.

    Expecting the worst,I crack each egg over a separate vessel from the collected egg whites. If I stuff one up it doesn’t matter- I add the pure whites and use the others for something else. I also look kindly on cake recipes that use the whole egg and nothing but.

  6. I have used all the methods outlined above, but when I need to do multiple egg separation I use this little beaker specially designed. Yes, more washing up, but chuck it into the dishwasher with everything else…

  7. So very pleased that @crazybrave drew my attention to your lovely lovely blog. 🙂 Colour me a reader, even if I am a sometimes slow-to-the-post reader due to other life demands.

    On this post, I agree with all of the above, pretty much, but I also take the ‘don’t worry too much’ approach to most cooking, including egg separation. Sometimes you’ll get shell or yolk in the egg whites. Hence the advice above to break into a separate bowl saves you any worry about that. As for the shell, meh. Pull it out with a clean finger. I would lay money on the fact that Nigella sometimes gets shell in hers too, but we don’t get to see that in the cuts. (To be honest, I’ve never watched her show, but *nobody* can *never* get shells in their freshly broken eggs.

    Really looking forward to reading more from you, Charlotte. Love your writing, and obviously the topic. Good luck with the books!! 🙂

  8. Well hello all! What a juicy lot of advice we have here…

    life in a pink fibro, I am inspired by your lassez faire approach and resolve to throw caution to the wind from now on. I think you are absolutely right about the whites smelling the fear. Thanks for your lovely remarks too.

    Zoe (otherwise known, for Tweeters, as @crazybrave – you should follow her because only the Empress knows as much about chickpeas!), I am intrigued by this eggshell hardness factor, though I do get the point about freshness. Julie, you agree that the hardness of the shell is crucial, I see. But doesn’t a harder shell make the eggs more difficult to crack? Or do they crack more cleanly if sturdier of shell? Please explain!

    Jamie, Louise and Zoe, you are all making me reconsider my aversion to the fingers-in-egg tack – I hand’t thought about the option of picking up the yolk once cracked, which somehow seems less icky than the whole-egg-in-hand situation. I might have to try it.

    Reemski, that really is an elegant little beaker you have there. I do very much like it, and could definitely see myself with one of those… makes the snot one look even more revolting, doesn’t it.

    Tammi, welcome! And with talk like that I hope we see you round these parts very often; you’ll find that many howtoshuck readers are highly skilled and beautiful writers themselves. I just had a peek at your blog too, which is quite gorgeous and I absolutely agree re the potential pleasures of ‘banal’ chores (in fact was just writing about something quite similar myself yesterday!). Will pop over and comment shortly.

    Thank you kids – all this really makes me want to go crack some eggs, but it’s back to the books for now …

  9. Cracking eggs: I think it might be a question of bowl edges. Cracking an egg against the edge of a bowl, if it’s wide or blunt (I’m thinking of the Pyrex bowls with a lip, in particular) is likely to result in lots of little bits of shattered shell. A bowl with a thinner edge, however, seems to hit an egg cleanly enough to get it to break without too much shattering.

    For separating eggs: I find that freshness matters. The yolk holds together very well in a fresh egg – you can stab it with the sharp edge of a shell, and you won’t pierce it unless you’re really trying. If the egg is older, though, it takes only a little pressure to make the yolk pop. I try to buy fresh eggs if I’m going to be doing something that requires separate whites and yolks – the rest of the time, I turn them into scrambled or boiled eggs. (Older eggs are best for boiling – fresh eggs are a bugger to peel.)

  10. Hilarious post, Shuckin’. I can’t bear Nigella either – she suffers from that same sickness as those Sass & Bide women – all that nauseating touching of self drives me up the wall. As for the eggs, I’m a swift thwack at the side of the bowl kind of girl, before slopping the yolk into alternating halves. Some a times she work, some a times she no work… all part of the fun.

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