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Add a Fried Egg to Your Leftovers and Blast Off to Flavortown

The best way to reinvigorate days-old sludge in your fridge? It’s all in the yolk

In 1968, the American Heart Association (AHA) attempted to cancel the egg. That year, they announced a dietary recommendation that people shouldn’t consume more than 300 milligrams of cholesterol per day, or in egg terms, no more than three yolks per week. The result: In subsequent years, the egg industry saw a drop in per capita egg consumption. 

The demonization of eggs peaked in 1984, when Time ran a cover with a picture of two eggs and a slice of bacon in the form of a sad face with the word “CHOLESTEROL” in bold yellow block font. “In addition, a number of non-government organizations had gotten on the bad egg, bad cholesterol bandwagon as an effective way to raise funds, and there was a virtual avalanche of new food products touting ‘low-cholesterol’ and ‘cholesterol-free’ (cholesterol-free peanut butter?) in print, radio and TV advertising,” writes Donald J. McNamara in his article entitled “The Fifty-Year Rehabilitation of the Egg.”

But in 1995, the egg industry struck back. Using their own Egg Nutrition Center to promote research and initiate health education efforts to address issues raised by the AHA, they funded studies to help change the public perception around nature’s most velvety miracle. As a result, after one of the largest and long-term population studies on egg intake and cardiovascular disease, in 1999, the folks over at Big Egg found “no differences in [cardiovascular disease] risk between those consuming one egg a week versus one egg a day,” writes McNamara. 

I remember these fateful years in the 1990s when yolk was largely considered fetal-persona non grata. Deprived of the sumptuous color of a yolk spilling onto a porcelain background, I largely consider those years tasteless. But thanks to some science-backed propaganda-lite, during the Obama years, eggs mounted a comeback, recapturing the hearts and souls of egg lovers like me who had grown disgusted with the artifice of egg whites. 

Finally, in 2019, NPR declared, “Eggs have made a big comeback,” reporting that “Americans now consume an estimated 280 eggs per person per year, according to the Department of Agriculture” — a significant increase compared with a decade ago. 

This reassessment of the egg industry couldn’t have come at a more apt era in human history. Why? Because without the egg, leftovers — central to the pandemic experience — are mostly austere. For example, nearly every day of the week, I open my fridge around lunchtime and eye the Tupperware of leftover quinoa, sink at the sight of steamed root vegetables from last night’s dinner and listen to my stomach groan at the thought of eating a piece of cold, dry and soulless chicken. Together, these three food groups, in their slightly sunken condition, are about as enticing as vegan cheese. 

But here’s where I tell you that there’s hope. With the addition of just a single egg — either fried or poached so that the yolk looks like a bubble of effusive orange light — these otherwise despondent nutritional elements suddenly emerge as supporting actors in a Michelin star chef’s culinary masterpiece. 

In the same way that ranch can often elevate the flavor of a shitty pizza, an egg mixed with whatever shit you’ve got in the fridge is immediately exquisite. An egg yolk has the unparalleled ability to take three otherwise unrelated food items and coat them in a thin layer of queso-like goo that makes the Franken-fare seem of the same gastronomical ilk. Add an egg and suddenly every consumable ménage tastes purposeful. As Thrillist noted in 2016, “What’s indisputable is that a runny-yolked Midas touch turns everyday food into edible gold.”

This is why the egg yolk is the perfect shortcut to enlivening a plate of leftovers — not only visually but psychologically. In his 2015 essay, renowned L.A. Times food columnist Jonathan Gold examines this bit of culinary sorcery. Though the essay is written as an indictment of the egg craze that continues to plague many ostensibly high-end restaurants, the core of Gold’s argument is that eggs are masters of deception. “In a restaurant, an egg is often closer to a cheat, less a thing in itself than an analog to the gob of brown gravy disguising the flavor of a questionable steak or the random squirt of Sriracha in an otherwise bland salad dressing,” writes Gold. 

In other words, for culinary professionals, using an egg is basically the equivalent of autopilot — no matter what you do, your dish is going to land safely. In the chef world, using an egg is like contracting a ghostwriter, where the egg is doing the work and you’re taking the credit. There is simply no denying, Gold adds, “a yolk, pretty and bright, looks good on the plate.” 

It helps too, according to Guy Crosby, an expert at the Institute of Food Technologists, when the egg is fried. “Eggs are generally fried with oil that develops flavor when heated with egg,” he says. “The flavor of the oil developed during cooking will add to the flavor of rice or vegetables.”

But Crosby also notes that you can’t just use any type of egg to enhance some leftovers. He insists that “adding a boiled, crumbled egg to rice or vegetables adds a very different flavor — generally a sulfur-like flavor” to your plate of leftover crudités. 

With a hot dish though, the egg, in the leftovers context, is best served runny. It’s a sauce and a food group. Ultimately, egg yolk is the greatest ally of a person with six items in their fridge, five of which were prepared by someone else. And on those days when you’re too lazy to prepare anything fresh but not bashful enough to inhale another box of ramen, consider frying an egg and adding it to the Brussels sprouts your mom gave you last week and the half carton of steam rice you ordered from the Chinese restaurant down the street. 

Puncture the yolk and watch as your drab, gray world is suddenly transformed into gilded fantasy.