The luscious egg-and-lemon soup is the perfect expression of Greek cooking philosophy.
It’s possibly the most luscious avgolemono I ever licked off a spoon. But I’ve never tasted the foamy egg-and-lemon sauce before while simultaneously watching a breathtaking sunset over the Acropolis. Maybe the ruins have clouded my judgment.
I’m at a cooking class on the rooftop of the famous King George Hotel in Athens. Seven floors above Syntagma Square, executive chef Asterios Koustoudis is demonstrating how to make yemista (stuffed vegetables), using zucchini blossoms from the hotel’s penthouse vegetable garden, and avgolemono, transforming the cooking liquid into Greece’s foundational sauce.
It’s the first time I’ve sampled avgolemono in its homeland, although I must have whipped up gallons of it while testing recipes for the recently published Modern Greek Cooking (Rizzoli, 2018). My coauthor, chef Pano Karatassos of the Greek-inspired seafood restaurant, Kyma, in Atlanta, grew up in a multigenerational household in the American South, where chicken noodle soup came automatically enriched with eggs and sharpened with lemon juice. Then he gained experience at some of the most acclaimed French restaurants in the United States—Le Bernardin, Jean Georges, and The French Laundry. Pano knows his sauces.
Tonight I’ve come on a kind of pilgrimage to the source. Not to pit one native Greek chef against a Greek-American fluent in three culinary languages. It’s not like there’s a single true recipe and the rest is inauthentic. Or that an indigenous version inevitably hews to tradition. Sometimes immigrants cling fiercely to their inheritance, while people who have never left home happily break the rules. My goal is to expand on what my personal Greek cooking guru taught me about this cultural lodestar.
1. Avgolemono isn't just a soup.
Pano had schooled me in the basic tenets: avgolemono is an expression of the zero-waste Greek cooking philosophy. Although most Americans know it only as a soup, in fact, avgolemono is a category of soup and sauces typically prepared with what many people pour down the drain. Leftover chicken poaching broth, strained bean stock, lamb or fish braising liquid, even the boiling water used to cook vegetables—combined with cheap and available eggs—become an edible bonus.
Having trained as a saucier at Le Bernardin, however, Pano usually starts with from-scratch stocks. His cabbage stock, for example, gives pure sweet brassica flavor to the avgolemono he serves with cabbage-wrapped salmon dolmas. But he’s a whole-food practitioner, too, so the liquor from freshly shucked oysters is reserved to make a briny avgolemono.
Technically, this oh-so-Greek emulsion is closely related to the cloudlike Italian wine-and-egg dessert zabaglione, but it’s pucker-y instead of sweet. And it’s in the same family as buttery French hollandaise and its piquant tarragon-and-vinegar-infused offspring, béarnaise, except butter isn’t involved. But unlike any of these sauces, to achieve maximum velvety loft, avgolemono doesn’t require whisking in a copper bowl above, yet just out of reach of, simmering water until your arm aches.
It’s prepared by “tempering” egg yolks with a little hot liquid, in the same way you’d make crème anglaise (custard sauce). Using this method, the temperature of the eggs rises gently, and they don’t curdle. Then, gradually, the tempered-egg mixture is whisked into the remaining barely simmering liquid until a silky sauce forms.
Aside from its roots in frugal cooking, avgolemono’s essential Greekness comes from the generous addition of tangy fresh lemon juice, the country’s acid of choice. Pano’s signature twist is to amp up the bubbles using a siphon (or an immersion blender) just before serving.
2. Using yolks only will make the dish even dreamier.
Now, about the eggs. Thrifty cooks use whole eggs to make avgolemono, which means cracking fewer eggs and not having surplus whites collecting in the freezer. But whites cook faster than yolks, as you probably know from frying eggs sunny side up, so this system risks tiny bits of coagulated white. A variation separates the yolks and whites, first tempering the yolks, then blending in the whipped whites before pouring the mixture into the remaining hot broth.
Given his fine-dining background, Pano opts for yolks only, using three large ones per one cup of broth. This is why his sauces are so heavenly. But home cooks can take that number down to two and still get a dreamy sauce.
The superfluous whites can be saved to make meringues. Freeze them in ice cube trays, one to a cup. That way you know how many you have without having to measure. And you can defrost only as many as you need.
Whether you go in the whole-egg or egg-yolk direction, you’re still dealing with microscopic droplets of whipped egg, broth and lemon juice in fragile suspension. Some cooks, in order to give the sauce an assist or to use fewer eggs, whisk a cornstarch-cold water slurry into the beaten eggs before adding the hot broth; cornstarch binds the ingredients so the sauce doesn’t separate. But Pano, not wanting to taint the pristine flavors of his stocks, avoids thickeners like flour and cornstarch.
So I know the fundamentals of avgolemono. This evening, Asterios Koustoudis, who presides over the elegant and sophisticated menus at both the King George and its equally glamorous next-door sister hotel, the Grande Bretagne, is preparing a piece of living history. The chef carefully spoons in just the right amount of bulgur mixed with finely chopped scallions, fennel, zucchini and dill, so the flowers don’t tear or burst during braising. Next he arranges them in an enameled cast-iron casserole on a bed of sliced red onions and herb and fennel stems and ladles in vegetable stock and a few glugs of olive oil.
When the big, steaming pot emerges from the oven, Koustoudis tackles the avgolemono. His version includes a few details that make me pull out my notebook. For one, the chef whisks a little cold water to the eggs (yolks only), to make them fluffier, he says.
3. Thick Greek yogurt is the secret.
Then he stirs in stand-a-spoon-in-it yogurt, not cornstarch. (All yogurt is Greek yogurt here.) I’ve never seen this maneuver before, but Koustoudis tells me, “It’s not my idea. In northern Greece, yogurt is often part of the recipe. For stability.”
I get what he’s doing. It’s like blending crème fraîche into the shallot-vinegar reduction before melting in pats of butter to give durability to a delicate white butter sauce. (Cream in a beurre blanc is a cheat, some would say.) Pano occasionally adds yogurt to a sauce, too, but it’s generally at the end, to calm down the flavor and smooth it out.
Koustoudis tilts the pot and ladles some of the cooking liquid into his sturdy base, whisking it in a thin, steady stream. The chef then wiggles the avgolemono into the pot, because whisking would break the stuffed flowers.
As I bite into this deliciousness, the unctuous sauce providing bright pops against the herbaceous zucchini, I admit I’ve pretty much never come across a version of this mother sauce I don’t like. Even if it doesn’t come with the Athens skyline for a backdrop. But what I had missed after writing a Greek cookbook in the U.S. was the experience of eating it in a place where the culture and geography came together to create it. Tonight I’m surrounded by people who know what they’re eating, who talk about it and prepare it at home and have been sharing similar food in basically the same way for generations. Now I have the food memory to match the recipe.