Saturday, August 14, 2010

Matt Plays Food Blogger: Omelets and the Science of Cheese

The omelet is among the greatest breakfast foods ever conceived.  (Unless, you know, you're one of those anti-egg crazies, then you probably won't enjoy them so much.)  Despite the French moniker, there's no pretension with them--as long as it's made of fried beaten egg, it counts.  You can add nothing (though that seems like a waste), or as much vegetable, meat, and cheese as you can stuff inside.  And like any self-respecting breakfast food, it has the potential to incorporate bacon.

Aside from the technically demanding "sandwich," and the always complicated "bowl of cereal,", the omelet was one of the first foods I learned to cook on my own.  I've increased my recipe from two to three eggs as it's become my usual Saturday brunch food, but otherwise my recipe has remained the same: a few crumbled slices of bacon or a couple shredded slices of ham, a handful of cheese, and whatever vegetables I had lying around--particularly spinach and (as I've grown to appreciate them) mushrooms.

But one of my preferences while making omelets has always stricken me as a little bizarre.  I strongly prefer fake processed cheese, a la Kraft singles, to actual quality cheese like manchego, gouda, or cheddar.  I always regarded it as an odd food proclivity, perhaps a primacy effect--that's what I grew up eating in my omelets, so that's what I like today.

When I thought about it more, though, I realized exactly what I didn't like about "real" cheese like cheddar in my omelets: it was too rich.  I consider the cream cheese danish my greatest weakness in life, but aside from those, I can't tolerate too much intense flavor for breakfast.

"But cheddar cheese isn't that rich!"  No, not really, especially when eaten by itself.  In science-y terms, cheese is not as much a pure solid as a coagulated and solidified emulsion, consisting of a protein phase and a fat phase.  At room temperature, as a solid, these phases are mixed together, so when you chomp into a block of cheddar cheese, you get blended cheesy goodness.

However, as you cook cheese, it melts.  The catch is, fat and protein don't melt at the same temperature.  As you heat cheese--this is particularly evident with cheddar, though equally as valid with other cheeses--it phase separates, forming a greasy fat layer on top.  That's what's responsible for the head-buzzing richness you get when you eat too much melted cheese.  (But don't knock the fat in cheese too hard--it gives each its unique flavor, just as different fats make different meats taste different.)

To bring all this back to omelets, the reason that "real" cheeses taste too rich to me in them is because they have a higher milk fat content than do processed cheeses.  Compare cheddar at 33% milk fat to Kraft American at 23%.  To exacerbate the richness problem, cheddar and its ilk are denser than processed American, so if I add what looks like the same amount of cheese, I'm actually adding far too much.

The phrase "far too much" is not one that would usually be appropriate to describe "cheese," but it appears that it is when addressing the delicate balance of delicious that is the omelet.

Currently listening: "Guyamas Sonora", Beirut, from The Flying Club Cup


Steph said...

Hmm... Do I spy orange juice next to that delicious looking omelette?

Matt Pavlovich said...

You do, and how delicious it also was!