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How Do You Drop?
The secret to making Egg Drop Soup lies in how you handle the beaten egg.
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A reader recently asked for advice on the best way to drop the beaten egg into Egg Drop Soup. "Mine always comes out as a rubbery mess," she wrote.

I have to confess that Egg Drop Soup, also known as Egg Flower Soup, is not one of my favorite Chinese dishes. Generally, I find it tastes rather bland. Since I don't prepare it often, I decided to turn to the experts for help.

A quick look through several cookbooks left me sympathizing with my confused reader. As with most popular dishes, there are many ways to prepare this soup. The cook at home has to choose from a myriad of instructions - often contradictory - on how to handle the beaten egg. Do you simply pour in the egg, or delicately stream it from a height several inches above the pot? Once the egg is poured, do you leave the heating element on or turn it off? And what do you do after the egg is poured? Some books recommend beating it rapidly for at least a minute, while others advise giving one quick stir and leaving it to swirl slowly around.

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It doesn't help that there isn't even general agreement on what the finished product should look like. Depending on the source, the beaten egg strands are referred to as everything from streams and ribbons to tiny shreds.

I decided the situation called for a bit of experimentation. My first stop was to the Asian market to stock up on ingredients, particularly eggs. Next, I went to my favorite Chinese take-out for a container of Egg Drop Soup. Since I hadn't ordered Egg Drop Soup for awhile, I wanted both to refresh my memory on how it should taste and see how a professional made it. I arrived home a short time later with the groceries and soup (along with an order of Salt and Pepper Squid and Beef in Black Bean Sauce!) and started cooking.

At first I tried to create long strands or ribbons. One recipe called for pouring the egg into the soup around the rim of the pot and then working inward, gently stirring the strands with a fork. Unfortunately, in my case the streams or beaten egg strands crossed each other, forming large clumps. I was reminded of the movie Ghostbusters, where the ghostbusting crew is continually warning each other not to allow the streams from their machines to cross. In my case the effect of "crossed streams" was equally disastrous, and the final result bore little resemblance to the picture in the cookbook. I still think it's a good technique, but one I'd need to practice a few times.

After that I decided to stick with forming shreds, like the ones in my bowl of take-out soup (incidentally the best bowl of Egg Drop Soup I've ever had, seasoned with white pepper and loaded with vegetables). It soon became clear that simply pouring the egg into the pot wouldn't work. No matter how slowly I poured and how quickly I began stirring, the beaten egg formed unattractive clumps. However, I found that a technique recommended by Yan-Kit So in Classic Chinese Cooking - slowly streaming the beaten egg through a fork about eight to ten inches above the soup - worked quite well. This method ensures that the egg streams in very slowly, and the width between the fork tines is about the right width for the strands. (You can also use two chopsticks but a fork is easier.)

However, to get the best results I wanted to be able to add the beaten egg and stir at the same time. After a bit of trial and error, I came up with my own makeshift invention - a fork lying on a box of saltine crackers, positioned so that the tines were suspended over the pot. Why a box of crackers? It just happened to place the fork at approximately the correct distance above the pot (eight to ten inches). A paperback book held the fork in place to make sure it wouldn't move while I was pouring the beaten egg. Now I could slowly stream the beaten egg through the fork, while simultaneously using my other hand to rapidly stir the egg into thin shreds. Not the most technologically sophisticated solution, but one that worked!

Next came the question of whether to gently or quickly stir the beaten egg, and for how long. I found that rapidly stirring in a clockwise direction for at least one minute produced the thin shreds I wanted. One problem remained, however. The texture of the beaten egg was a little "rubbery" - nothing like the silken threads in my bowl of restaurant soup. Fortunately, a member of the Chinese Cuisine forum came to the rescue. She advised me to turn off the heat the minute I began pouring in the beaten egg. (It's the same principle behind scrambling eggs at medium instead of high heat.) Her tip worked: turning off the heat just prior to pouring produced strands that were truly silky.

Below are the results of my cooking adventure. I now follow these tips whenever I make Egg Drop Soup. On the next page, readers share their favorite techniques. As you can see, everyone has their own method - it all comes down to how you like your Egg Drop Soup.

Tips for making Egg Drop Soup:

Lightly beat the egg so that no bubbles form

Turn off the heat the minute you begin pouring in the egg (this produces silkier threads)

Pour the egg in a very slow stream (pouring it through the tines of a fork from several inches above the pot is a good way to keep the stream slow and steady)

Begin stirring as soon as you start pouring in the egg

To make shreds or threads, stir rapidly for at least 1 minute

Stir the beaten egg in one direction only

Once you're comfortable making it, you may want to try some variations. West Lake Beef Soup is basically Egg Drop Soup with ground beef added. Similarly, Italian Wedding Soup is a type of egg drop soup with rice, spinach, ground beef and Italian seasonings.

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