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It tastes just like it looks.
HOW IT'S DONE

The scientific secrets to cooking a perfect American breakfast

Annalisa Merelli
By Annalisa Merelli

Geopolitics reporter

I am not an outstanding cook, but I can make a decent meal, which is my birth right as an Italian.

So you can imagine my shock when I discovered that my lunch and dinner skills were passable, but my breakfast game was really weak. And worse, Americans were much better than Italians at making their breakfast.

Nothing quite compares to a good cornetto (croissant) and cappuccino in the morning, but we don’t really make those at home. For most of us, a breakfast looks more or less like this:

When in food doubt, there are only two people I consult: my mom and my grandma. But I could not tell either of them that I wanted to learn to cook bacon and eggs for breakfast—and besides, they would not be of much help.

So I decided I should learn from the real pros and took a trip to America’s Test Kitchen (ATK), in Boston.

Established in 1980, America’s Test Kitchen is a culinary science lab where 50 cooks spend their days trying out recipes, which get published in their magazines (including the most popular, “Cook’s Illustrated”), cooking books, and also presented in their cooking show.

The cooks test recipes, over and over, to find the best way to prepare common foods like grilled asparagus, or garlic bread. They investigate the physical and chemical properties of ingredients to understand why something does or does not work, and conduct tasting to ensure their recipes are not only scientifically sound, but perfectly delicious.

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With the help of Dan Souza, executive editor of ATK’s publication Cook’s Science, I narrowed down the goodness of American breakfast to four classics: bacon, home fries, pancakes and my personal favorite, scrambled eggs. I approached my first-ever professional cooking class armed with a chef’s coat and a lot of questions.

Here’s everything you wanted to know about American breakfast but were too busy out brunching to ask:

1. Bacon in the oven

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We started with bacon because it essentially cooks itself and it’s good to get it out of the way.

We used thick cut bacon, because in recent years, as Souza put it, “it got popular and cool.” Thin or thick is really just a matter of preference, so everything I learned applies to both.

We cooked everything for four to six people, so this was our ingredient list:

  • 12 slices of bacon

Now—warning: your mind is about to be blown—we didn’t actually fry the fried bacon, or at least, not on the stove.

We baked it (and, while in the oven, it fried), because the test kitchen has found that there is no difference in flavor, consistency, or crunchiness between bacon cooked on the stove or in the oven.

Lay the bacon in a jelly-roll pan and put it on the middle rack of a pre-heated oven (gas or electric, heated from the bottom) at 400°F ( 200°C) for about five minutes, until the fat begins to render. Rotate the pan in the oven to make sure all of the bacon is evenly cooked. Once it is crispy and brown (this can take six to 10 minutes, depending on your taste and the bacon’s thickness) use tongs to transfer the slices on a plate lined with paper towel, and let the extra grease absorb.

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Et voilà. This was easy, next.

2. Home fries with baking soda

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Home fries (which are allegedly called that because they can be easily made at home) are in fact pretty simple, I found out. But the science behind making them is rather fascinating.

Traditionally, home fries are cooked on the stove. This is a technique that can be improved upon in several respects, including time required, risk of screwing up, and potato consistency. So ATK came up with a different method. It’s a combination of boiling and baking.

Ingredients (for four to six people):

  • 3½ pounds of russet potatoes  2

  • ½ teaspoon of baking soda
  • 3 tablespoons of unsalted butter
  • kosher salt
  • pepper
  • a pinch of cayenne pepper
  • 3 tablespoons of vegetable oil
  • 2 onions
  • 3 tablespoon of fresh minced chives

Put a baking sheet on lowest oven rack and heat to 500°F.

Peel and cut the potatoes in 3/4 inches diced, then peel the onions and dice in 1/2 inch cubes.

Bring a big pot of water to a boil, then add the potatoes and the baking soda, bring back to a boil and cook for one minute. And yes, I did say add baking soda 4 to the boiling water.

1

Because—ready?—uncured bacon is actually cured.

Cured bacon is generally treated with what's known as "pink salt"—a combination of sodium nitrate, sodium nitrite, and regular table salt. Not to be confused with the fancy pink Himalayan salt that's sold in grocery stores (which is just a pretty type of table salt), curing pink salt helps preserve the meat or, in this case, the bacon. What is labeled as "uncured" is also treated with nitrate and nitrites, except they are derived from celery juice and celery powder. So while the label says there are no "added" nitrites or nitrates, because they are naturally contained, in high concentration, in celery juice. This is not "healthier" or less healthy, just different—plus, it looks nice on a pricier label. 

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And why are we boiling our home fries in water and baking soda?

This is not to get the potatoes to rise, but to use another property of baking soda: Its alkaline breaks down the pectin (the substance that gives consistency to the potatoes) in the potato’s surface, making it easier to brown during the frying, and also softening it more quickly. This is a trick that can be applied to cooking beans or other legumes.

Once the potatoes are parboiled (just one minute, remember), drain them and toss with butter (cut in 12 pieces) and add cayenne pepper and one and a half teaspoons of kosher salt, mixing for about 30 seconds. Adding salt at this point makes the potatoes rougher, and dries them up—so they get crispier, faster.

Get the hot baking sheet out of the oven, drizzle two tablespoons of vegetable oil on it, transfer the potatoes to it and roast them for 15 minutes.

Use a spatula to scrape the potatoes from the bottom, where they’ll be nice and crisp, and push them toward the sides of the pan, leaving a hole in the middle. There, you’ll put the onions, mixed with the remaining oil and half a teaspoon of salt. Then it’s back in the oven for 15 more minutes. After that, scrape, turn, and mix the onions with the potatoes. Cook five to 10 minutes, until the onions are soft and the potatoes are well browned. Add thinly chopped chives, salt, and pepper to taste.

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And eat.

3. Whole wheat flour pancakes

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Pancakes are the quintessential expression of American optimism.

Having fluffy bites of syrup-covered joy, first thing in the morning, is essentially the eating equivalent of America’s No. 1 belief: that everything is going to be alright.

ATK knows a lot about pancakes. It has examined the following: How many times is too many to mix pancake batter? What is the optimal amount of gluten in pancakes? What kind of dairy does or does not belong there?

Ingredients for 15 pancakes:

  • 2 cups whole wheat flour
  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 1 ½ teaspoons baking powder
  • ½ teaspoon baking soda
  • ¾ teaspoon salt
  • 2 ¼ cups buttermilk
  • 7 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 2 large eggs

You read correctly—whole wheat flour. Unlike what common sense might suggest, whole wheat pancakes are softer 5, and the batter can be stirred literally 100 times without significant changes in fluffiness; batter made with refined flour starts to go flat once it’s been mixed over 25 times.

2
Russet potatoes are very common in the US. They are large and with dark skin, and readily available in grocery stores. For those outside America, a few varieties of potatoes compare pretty well. This is important because ATK tested several types of potatoes before deciding the russet was the best to use for its home fries, because they are very starchy, which helps in obtaining the desirable consistency.
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Get a medium bowl and mix flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, and salt 6.

3

There is no trick.

Souza says ATK has tried everything, goggles and frozen onions included. Nothing really worked (except, maybe, goggles), but having a very sharp knife helped. Which begs the question: why? And related: what makes us so emotional about onions?

Syn-propanethial-S-oxide is the villain. It is essentially a compound that forms when acids that are contained inside the onion cells are liberated in the air, as the onions get chopped, combine with specific enzymes that, too, are freed during the chopping. Syn-propanethial-S-oxide irritates our lachrymal glands, which causes tears to come out. The more the knife hits the onion surface, the more tears—which is why a sharp knife that cuts in one go makes things better.

In a separate bowl (I always mess this up), whisk buttermilk, 5 tablespoons of vegetable oil, and eggs, then make a well in the flour and add the buttermilk mix. Buttermilk is used here instead of regular milk because, by raising the acidity of the mix, it reacts better with the baking soda. This also means the taste is better. Mix until it’s smooth.

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Now, whenever I have tried to make pancakes I find cooking the first few to be very difficult (the others, too, but the first in particular). At ATK, we used an electric griddle to cook them six at a time. But because I live in New York and normal people who live in New York don’t have space for griddles, a nonstick pan will have to do.

Heat 1 tablespoon of oil and heat it until it shimmers, then wipe it out leaving just a film of grease all over the pan. Pick up the batter with a 1/4 cup and make three pancakes at a time. Flatten them out a little, let them cook until the bottom is golden brown and set, and bubbles appear on the top and begin to break (two to three minutes). Turn them with a spatula, and remove when brown.

Repeat with the rest of the batter.

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Seems easy enough, but I always messed up the cooking until I discovered the ultimate American wonder: cooking spray. Cooking spray is essentially a greasy spray you can use so that things don’t stick to the pan or, in this case, so that the batter doesn’t stick to the cup. It works like magic, although you never want to know what’s in it (some type of oil, lecithin, and a propellent to make it spray—not all that bad, really).

If you’re not eating immediately, you can keep the pancakes on the middle rack of a 200°F oven, on a wire rack set in a baking sheet. Use some cooking spray on the wire rack, too.

4. Scrambled eggs with extra yolks

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And finally: scrambled eggs. Scrambled eggs are delicious. They also are absurdly easy to mess up—and if you disagree, you probably make terrible scrambled eggs and don’t even know it.

Ingredients:

  • 8 full eggs
  • 2 large yolks
  • 1/4 cup of half-and-half
  • salt and pepper
  • 1 tablespoon of chilled unsalted butter

Put the eggs and yolk in a bowl with 3/8 teaspoon of salt and 1/4 teaspoon of pepper (yes, this is a recipe for math champions).

The extra yolks are rather important because the fat in them raises the temperature needed to cook—which in turn helps to avoid overcooking. And overcooking is the ultimate scrambled eggs mistake. The half-and-half (which is not as fatty as it sounds) is also important: The eggs need more fat than is in milk to get to the perfect consistency, but enough liquid so that it adds steam during cooking.

Stab the yolks with a fork before you start beating the mix of eggs and half-and-half—that will help avoid over-beating, which is the second-worst scrambled eggs mistake. Beat until the mix is pure yellow, with no visible egg white.

Kieran Kesner for Quartz

Next is the really hard part, the cooking. Everything here is important but temperature is really important—we made the eggs with a technique called dual-heat—which as the name suggests uses two different cooking temperatures. Cooking scramble eggs on high heat alone would make them rubbery, and on low heat alone would make the curds too small. So we used both.

We used a 10-inch pan instead of a traditional 12-inch pan because it cooks the eggs in thicker layers, making it easier to form nice, big curds.

Put the butter in the skillet over medium-high heat it until the bubbles subside (but before browning), and make it coat the pan. Add the eggs and, with a spatula, scrape the bottom and sides of the pan until the spatula “leaves a trail”—which is the technical term for, leaves a clean strip behind, that doesn’t disappear in liquid eggs (it takes about one and a half minutes.) Reduce the heat to low, and gently keep folding the eggs for another 30 seconds.

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Transfer to plate and add salt and pepper to taste. And that is all.

We ate our perfect American breakfast at 6pm on that day and it was, as expected, perfect.

What’s more, I have since tried this at home and made myself a full American breakfast before work a number of times. It came out just as well.

No, of course not.

I made the eggs a couple of times, and they were almost as good as the ones I made with Souza—where “almost” really is the operative word.

But, this breakfast is still what I sometimes dream about as I run to grab my coffee and breakfast chocolate chip cookie (they don’t have oatmeal raisin down the street) before getting on the subway to work.

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