I am an egg-salad snob. Let me just say that up front. Because to me, the best egg salad is a refined egg salad. I mean, if we’re exploring in the realm of protein-“salad” fillings, chunky is fine if you’re eating chicken, turkey, lobster or even tuna. But with egg salad, chunky seems clunky to me. A lightly-textured egg salad, on the other hand–one made with ultra-smooth whipped yolks, riced hard-cooked whites, home-made mayonnaise, very-finely minced herbs & pickle, and home-baked pain de mie bread—now that is a thing of beauty.
I imagine my preferences were borne of good memories of refreshments at countless Ladies Aid functions (I was a churchy kid,) plus innumerable engagement parties, birthdays and baby showers all including some form of egg-filled finger sandwiches, deviled eggs, or both. These snacks were served a lot because eggs are both economical, and stretchy—a little bit goes a long way. Anyway, after some hundred bite-sized snacks or so, the line between deviled egg and finger sandwich sort of blurred for me. With both, it was the smooth, tangy/spicy/piquant yolk filling that drew me, not the bland, bald-slipperiness of those flabby whites.
With that in mind, figuring out how to make the perfect egg salad sandwich meant coming up with the right ingredient combination for that yolk mash, and then putting it together with the best ratio of finely-chopped egg white, best bread and best contrast-providing vegetables. My research was a combination of gut instinct, and vintage-cookbook diving. About 150 cookbooks later, I learned a few things. Historically, egg salad morphed over the decades from an actual salad of sliced, hard-cooked eggs and other ingredients, dressed and served over watercress, tomato or greens, to become a popular picnic food, piped into hard cooked eggs and wrapped bon-bon like in twists of waxed paper, or, spread on bread as a sandwich.
While egg-salad works on a variety of breads, white bread—especially pain de mie, is optimal. This beautiful soft-textured, fine-grained white bread baked in a square, Pullman pan goes back to the early 18th century Europe when it was the bread of choice for everything from croutons, and canapés, to sandwiches and toast served with tea. In America its square shape (no dome to the bread) made it a tea-sandwich favorite, easy to trim & shape for hors d’oeuvres and finger sandwiches. As the vehicle for a lightly-seasoned, herby egg spread, it’s also perfect because it doesn’t overwhelm the simplicity of the filling.
So about those fillings! To begin, you’ll probably have to unlearn how you’ve typically hard cooked eggs. I say “hard cooked” rather than “hard boiled,” because you shouldn’t actually boil the eggs to doneness. Boiling the eggs will discolor the yolks (that icky greenish gray thing) and will give them that unpleasant sulfurous smell. Instead? Place the uncooked eggs in their shells in a heavy-gauge pot and fill it with 2 quarts of water. Set your timer for 25 minutes and heat the water to just below boiling. Maintain this “shimmering” simmer for 25 minutes. Drain the water. Rinse the eggs and cool them.
Once you have your hard cooked eggs, you can experiment with coloring them to celebrate Spring (see my post on making natural dyes for coloring eggs!) Then, it’s time to make the fillings. First, you’ll want to mash or blend the eggs to smoothness. Early renditions from the 20s, directed cooks to mash the hard cooked yolks with melted butter, cream or vinegar. Boiled dressings were another mix-in favorite. But eventually, mayonnaise took precedence in the cookbooks, first scratch-made, and then, store-bought. ( I did a taste test comparing 8 store-bought varieties of mayonnaise with home-made, and frankly, the taste of home made mayonnaise is SO much better!)
My best ratio of yolk to whites includes more yolks (6) than whites (4). Once you’ve created a smooth paste with the yolks and mayonnaise, either finely mince, or “rice” the whites using a potato ricer. Because of the awkward irregularity of their shapes, I find pressing the whites through potato ricer is easier, and has a more uniform result, then mincing.
To decide on the remaining ingredients, you’ll either want to steer toward a saltier or sweeter finish. Thinking Spring, my preference was toward a light, herbal blend somewhere in the middle (not too sweet; not too salty.) Also, to ensure no one flavor dominated over another, I chose chives (rather than chopped onion) very finely diced mild baby pickles (not garlic or sour cornichon), and a small amount of dill. I also included a pinch of celery salt, rather than adding diced celery. Other popular inclusions in many of the egg salads I found included: finely diced onion, pickle relish, Worcestershire sauce, prepared mustard, finely-diced green or red pepper, pimiento, or diced green olives.
Building the finished sandwich, I spread bread slices with a small bit of the mayonnaise, then a bit of the egg salad, then slices of crispy cucumber for crunch, frills of lettuce for color and texture, and more egg salad. Be sure to assemble sandwiches right before you serve them to keep the salad from discoloring, and the bread from becoming soggy.