the ultimate scrambled eggs

Rachel Walker on how you can get the perfect plateful every time.

I challenge you to find a more depressing dish than the cold scrambled eggs of a breakfast buffet. Insipid and synthetic-looking. They haven't had even a kind hand to turn them in the pan, just someone to punch in microwave timings.

Starting with foaming butter in a pan is a huge step in the right direction, but it doesn't guarantee success. This might be one of the first dishes people learn to make, but it's one that few master. This is why Gordon Ramsay uses it as a benchmark to judge a chef's ability. "Every time we get a new cook, we ask them to make it," he says: "If they can make the perfect scrambled egg, you know they know how to cook properly."

A cook's instinct might be innate, but there are tips and tricks that can be learnt to help make superb scrambleds - and stop you from getting egg on your face.

The eggs
"There are people for whom an egg is an egg," wrote Alexandre Dumas in the mid-19th century. This is a mistake." Wise words indeed. More than a century on, the debate still rumbles on, with eggs now ranging from small pale-yolkers, laid by caged chickens, to super scramblers with bright, sunny
yolks, laid by free-range hens.

I empathise with the home cook who struggles to be too discerning about eggs when making a sponge cake, but when a dish's main ingredient is egg, then it's worth the extra expense. I found free-range ones from my local city farm and supermarket-bought burford brown and chestnut maran had the deepest of orange yolks.

The classic recipe
serves 2
30g butter
4 eggs
2 tsp crème fraîche

Heat 20g of the butter in a pan until it's foaming. Use a fork to combine the eggs and yolk in a bowl then season with a pinch of salt and freshly ground pepper. Cook on a medium-low heat Use a spatula to stir every 5 seconds until 80% cooked. Remove from the heat, stir in the crème fraîche and remaining butter, and serve.

The ratio
Recipes usually recommend two eggs per person, often with an extra egg "for the pan". The connoisseur might add an extra yolk per person to enrich the flavour and intensify the colour when the eggs are scrambled. Nathan Myhrvold, author of Modernist Cuisine, recommends jettisoning an egg white: "So if you make scrambled eggs with three eggs, use two whole eggs and one yolk." The downside is that this results in a wasted egg white, unless you are planning on making a meringue, or are admirably disciplined about freezing (and remembering to defrost) pots of leftover whites. The upside is a more luxurious scramble.

The seasoning
Jamie Oliver, Delia Smith, Tom Kerridge = indeed, most British chefs recommend seasoning with salt and freshly ground pepper before cooking. Interestingly, Gordon Ramsay argues that adding salt at this stage turns the eggs watery. Other sources suggest that pre-salting draws out moisture and leaves the eggs rubbery. Culinary scientist Harold McGee refutes this and on testing, I struggled to taste any difference. The importance, it seems, lies in ensuring they are well seasoned, rather than when it happens.

The utensils
Use a fork, rather than a whisk, to mix the eggs before tipping them into the pan. It will stop you from getting too carried away. The aim is merely to break the yolks and combine, not to beat. A spatula or pointed wooden spoon is the best utensil for stirring the eggs in the pan, as they can reach places where a rounded spoon can't, and will stop overcooked egg sticking round the edge of the pan base.

The fat
The pious cook might hedge their bets with a nonstick pan and forgo fat altogether (or, heaven forbid, use oil), but anyone who prioritises taste over trimness will start scrambled eggs with butter. Recipes often use the vague terminology of "a knob", but it is generally agreed that 10g-15g (roughly 1 tbsp) of butter per person is right. The popular addition of a touch more at the end gives the eggs a nice sheen.

I tried to recreate buttery, restaurant-style scrambled eggs by rakishly adding more at the start and the end. Though it replicated the taste, my enjoyment was tempered by concern for my swiftly clogging arteries.

The dairy
Lots of recipes recommend whisking a splash of milk or cream into the seasoned eggs before tipping them into the pan. I'm inclined to agree with Oliver who says: "If you cook it right, you don't need any of that."

I've experimented with milk, cream and a splash of water but none enhances the taste or consistency.

A common trick is to stir in a dash of chilled cream when the eggs are almost cooked. This has the added advantage of helping to stop them cooking and becoming too rubbery. Ramsay uses 1 tsp (per portion) of crème fraîche instead, which is a winning addition, as is Delia Smith's low-fat suggestion of quark.

The heat
Even if you prepare your scrambled eggs using an identical quantity and ratio of eggs and seasoning, the way you heat and stir them will result in completely different dishes. The British method cooks them "slow and low". Oliver suggests stirring "every five seconds" to create medium-sized curds, while Ramsay repeatedly bangs the pan on and off the heat.

The French cook them even slower and lower, over a bain-marie, to create a dish that has such small curds it's more like a custard. Smith's method is closest to this. She beats the eggs continuously with a wooden fork on such a low heat that they thicken to a pouring consistency - what she calls "softly scrambled".

American diner-style eggs have bigger curds than British eggs, almost resembling a folded omelette. They are tipped into a slightly hotter frying pan and left for 15-20 seconds, until they just start to set. Then the egg is gently pulled from the edges into the centre to create long, curled folds.

The trick
Take the eggs off the heat when they are 80% done — the curds should be mostly formed, but still loose, with a little liquid round the edge. This will give you time to get some plates out and butter the toast while they continue to cook in the still-hot pan, but stops them becoming overdone and rubbery.

It will take only a few minutes to scramble eggs from start to finish. The consistency of traditional British scrambled eggs should be that they can be served on a slice of toast without making it soggy, and eaten with a fork without the mixture dripping through the prongs.

The twists
A dish as old as this has countless variations that reflect the food trends from the era in which they were conceived. The most impressive I came across was a recipe for scrambled eggs a I'ancienne, in Larousse Gastronomique. Diced mushrooms and truffles are folded through the mixture, and the scrambled eggs are then tipped into a blind-baked tart case and garnished with chicken kidneys cooked in sherry and fried cockscombs.

There are plenty more accessible variations. Nigella Lawson stirs green chilli, tomato, corn tortillas and spring onion through her Mexican scrambled eggs, and Kerridge uses a splash of truffle oil and chives for an extravagant twist. Mumbai's Parsi cafes are known for a spiced scrambled egg dish called akuri, popularised here by Indian restaurants such as Dishoom, which as a recipe featuring red chilli powder, ground turmeric, tomatoes, green chilli and coriander.

The easiest way to put a new twist on simple scrambled eggs is through the serve. Smoked salmon and an English muffin are a classic pairing, but other smoked fish go well, too, as does rye bread and pumpernickel. Take the fish out of the fridge before you start cooking, so it's not too cold, or stir torn pieces of smoked salmon through the scrambled eggs, along with the crème fraîche, to lightly cook it.
For a vegetarian option, look to greens, such as wilted spinach, asparagus and rocket, or stick with ground pepper and plenty of freshly cut herbs.