How a Pastry Chef Uses Egg Yolks to Elevate Literally Any Dish He Cooks at Home

You're already doing it with carbonara, so use this ingredient that you already have in your fridge to perk up everything from pasta to pan sauce.

Egg yolk
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"My home kitchen is usually only stocked with condiments, starches, alcohol, and eggs," says Daniel Skurnick, former executive pastry chef of New York's Le Coucou and Buddakan. This inventory probably sounds familiar to other chefs, who naturally spend way more time cooking magnificent dishes at work than they do cooking for themselves at home.

"Invariably, I have time to buy food, cook food, or eat food," Skurnick continues. "But it's rare that I get a chance to do all three of those things [at one time]." Fresh vegetables rot fast. As does meat. That's where eggs come in. They keep in the fridge and are quick to prepare, which is the same reason many of us depend on them for a quick dinner at home.

Eggs are as versatile as they are dependable, and Skurnick should know. He and his team blasted through 450 eggs per day at Le Coucou, where he applied his culinary school training and experience working at Jean-Georges, Bouley, and Gramercy Tavern to spin dishes like chocolate mousse and crème caramel. At Buddakan, elements from his extensive travel throughout Southeast Asia and China and the two years he lived in Thailand meant eggs made the base for soy sauce ice cream and mochi donuts.

"Eggs are an essential building block for so many basic pastry items," he says.

But when he's not turning out world-class pastry, Skurnick relies on a super simple but effective egg trick at home. Specifically, he uses egg yolks to "transform even the barest scraps of food in the refrigerator into something exponentially more pleasurable," he says.

The chef's pro-tip is simple: Stir an egg yolk into any dish that begs for an element of thickness or creaminess. That's it. To Skurnick, this flavorful, enriching trick is obvious. "Wait, not everybody does this at home?" he asks.

For dishes where you might make a roux, the combination of fat and flour used in French cooking to thicken a sauce, using just an egg yolk instead is a good alternative, especially for anyone with a gluten intolerance. You've seen it before, of course, in pasta carbonara, where whole eggs and additional yolks mix with grated cheese to create a luxurious pasta sauce. In Japanese cuisine, it's similar to how an entire raw egg is stirred into hot white rice for tamago kake gohan.

It works because egg yolks are an emulsifier, which means they contain particles similar to both water and oil and can thus also bind things with both (like vinegar and oil, for example). Yolks alone are particularly superb emulsifiers in that they have a low water and high fat content, and their lecithin protein makes a strong and stable bond.

Pasta Carbonara
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But yolks are also tricky because you have to watch the temperature: Too low a heat, and you've potentially got bacteria. Cooked too high, and you're welcoming a scrambled egg situation. Stir them into dishes at the right temperature, however, and you're literally golden.

Looking to add a little something-something to a dish that's simmering on your stove with a little excess liquid? "Any flavorful liquid can be enriched with an egg yolk," Skurnick says. "A stew, a soup, the braising liquid of a meat dish, or the jus from a roast."

Drop a yolk into the pan or pot just after it's come off the heat, so that it's hot but not boiling. Whisk or stir quickly to break the yolk. Progressively, the residual heat will cook the yolk as you mix it into the entire dish. Once it hits around 160 degrees, it should be glossy and thick. If the radiant heat isn't doing the trick, pop the pot back over low heat and keep stirring until the yolk is cooked.

Once fully cooked, the yolk will glaze whatever it touches — starch, meat, or vegetable — adding just a touch of richness to lighter dishes without overwhelming, and giving even more depth to rich, meaty ones.

When you want a super-quick pan sauce without flour or dairy, just slowly add an egg yolk (or two, for larger batches) to the jus and warm gently to desired thickness. The same technique goes for the residual cooking liquid from slow-cooked, hearty winter greens like collards, kale, or mustard greens. Whisk a yolk or two into the pot liquor to lightly dress the vegetables. The creaminess of the yolk pairs especially well with the flavors often matched with greens, like ham hocks or bacon, without being overwhelming.

You already know your instant ramen needs a yolk, but you can also add it to any other soup to thicken it without cream — Skurnick loves doing this with lentil soup. The yolk method applies to cooked breakfast cereals as well.

"The same tamago kake gohan technique can be used for any warm breakfast cereal — your quinoa bowl, your amaranth, your farina," Skurnick points out. But stick to warm cereals that will steam the yolk, he cautions. The fat and protein from the yolk provide satiation to fuel the day without added sugar or starch.

Finally, the application Skurnick probably uses the most when he's cooking for himself at home: pasta.

Reserve some pasta cooking water and assemble your dish through to the end. Make a well in the center of your pot or pan and fill with a bit of the water — about one-quarter cup per two servings — and drop in a yolk. Stir to work it in, continually coating more of the pasta. If it's too thick, add more water. Too thin, add another yolk.

As the chef puts it, you can't go wrong.

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