My Goals

  • Bold yet balanced flavor

  • Velvety consistency

  • Perfectly cooked chicken

When beaten eggs and fresh lemon juice are whisked together with a little hot chicken broth, the duo is transformed into the classic Greek sauce known as avgolemono (egg-lemon). Increase the amount of broth (homemade if you’ve got it) and throw in a handful of rice, and avgolemono becomes a creamy, comforting first-course soup punctuated with lemony tang. The chicken from which the broth is made, along with an assortment of vegetables, typically follows as the main course.

As lovely as the classic version of avgolemono is, it’s a more practical variation that interests me: Simply shredding the chicken and adding it to the soup, along with increasing the amount of rice, turns this starter into a light yet satisfying meal. I wanted a savory, citrusy soup, velvety with egg and studded with tender bites of chicken—all in a reasonable amount of time.

We started our recipe development by sampling versions that add chicken and broth to the traditional avgolemono sauce to create a hearty soup.

Chicken Soup with Rice

For the chicken, I chose boneless, skinless breasts. Their milder flavor would fit in better with the fresh, light nature of this soup than thighs would. As a bonus, the breasts would also cook faster than thighs.

Before poaching and shredding, I halved the chicken breasts lengthwise. The benefits of this small move were threefold: First, the extra surface area created would help salt penetrate more uniformly. Second, the smaller pieces of chicken would cook more quickly. Third, halving the muscle fibers ensured that the shreds of chicken would be short enough to fit neatly on a spoon. (I let the salted meat sit while I got the soup going, giving the salt time to both season the chicken and change its protein structure, which would help it stay juicy when cooked.)

A Neat Fit—And Well Seasoned, Too

We start by cutting each chicken breast in half lengthwise and salting it for 30 minutes. The increased surface area of the pieces allows the salt to penetrate the meat uniformly. The halved pieces cook more quickly; plus, they make it easier to shred the chicken after cooking to create bite-size pieces that fit neatly on a spoon.

My plan was to cook the chicken and rice in tandem to save time, but I knew that just dropping the chicken into simmering broth wouldn’t work. That’s because water simmers at approximately 190 degrees, and when a chicken breast hits this hot liquid, the exterior quickly overshoots the target doneness temperature of 160 degrees. The result? Dry, chalky meat.

To save time, we poached the chicken in the same pot as the cooking rice, employing a test kitchen trick that ensures moist and tender meat.

The test kitchen’s solution to this problem is to submerge the chicken in subsimmering water and then shut off the heat. The water immediately drops in temperature when the chicken is added; the chicken then cooks very gently with no risk of overshooting the 160-degree mark.

I brought 8 cups of broth and 1 cup of rice to a boil and then let the pot simmer for just 5 minutes. In went the prepared breasts, at which point I put a lid on and shut off the heat. After 15 minutes, the chicken was almost—but not quite—cooked through and the rice was al dente. I removed the breasts from the broth, shredded them, and returned the pieces to the pot, where they quickly finished cooking. Just as I expected, the shreds remained supermoist and tender.

In the Thick of It

Having achieved perfectly poached chicken, I turned to avgolemono’s namesake egg-lemon mixture, which thickens the soup. It’s the egg proteins that do the work: They uncoil, entangle, and form an open mesh that prevents water molecules from moving freely, thus increasing viscosity. Before being whisked into the soup, the egg mixture is typically tempered, meaning it is combined with a portion of the hot broth to prevent the eggs from curdling when they make contact with the rest of the liquid in the pot. Some Greek cooks so fear a curdled soup that they are known to chant the “avgolemono prayer”—“please don’t curdle, please don’t curdle”—or make a kissing sound while adding the eggs to magically ensure smooth results. I saw no need for such extreme measures, but I was curious and felt that some testing was in order. We found that tempering worked not because it raised the temperature of the eggs but rather because it diluted the egg proteins.

Tempering the eggs helped prevent curdling, and we found a resourceful way to give the soup a luxurious texture and full body.

The tempering step safeguarded against curdling, but I had another issue to deal with. As the proteins in egg whites unwind, they unleash hydrogen sulfide, a compound that can give off a lightly sulfurous aroma. To limit this smell while getting the same thickening power, I mixed 6 tablespoons of lemon juice with two eggs and two yolks (diluted with a little broth) instead of three eggs. This mixture didn’t provide quite as much body as I’d hoped, but I didn’t want to add more eggs lest the soup become too rich. Luckily, there was another thickener present: amylose, a starch molecule in rice. Similar to egg proteins, it increases viscosity by entangling and forming a matrix that slows the movement of water. To put this starch to work, I simply needed to release it from the rice grains. And I knew just the way to do it: I’d puree some of the rice.

Science: To Reduce Egginess, Ditch the White

To create just the right rich, velvety texture in our soup, we use two eggs plus two yolks. But there’s another reason to ditch some of the whites: They’re largely responsible for the “eggy” flavor of eggs. Though the whites are typically regarded as bland, they contain sulfur compounds that release hydrogen sulfide when the eggs are exposed to heat, producing that characteristic eggy taste. We tested this premise in our recipe for French Toast, dipping bread into milk mixed with whole eggs and with yolks alone. The toast dipped into the yolks-only soaking liquid tasted significantly less eggy and more custard-like. Similarly, avgolemono made with three whole eggs had an overt egginess that was absent when we switched to two whole eggs and two yolks.

I went back to the stove and prepared another batch of soup, this time using 1 cup of cooked rice from the soup to dilute the eggs. I put the rice into the blender jar along with the eggs, yolks, and lemon juice. After a minute of processing, I had a starchy egg-lemon-rice puree to stir into the broth. And there it was, a soup with exactly the luxurious creamy consistency I wanted.

Adding a pureed mixture of rice, egg, and lemon to the soup produced the perfect consistency and had a bonus when it came to reheating.

But there’s more. Reheating avgolemono is typically a no-no because the eggs will curdle when they are cooked a second time. In this version, though, because the rice has enough starchy bulk even after being pureed to physically interrupt the egg proteins from interacting with each other, the proteins had a hard time forming curds, even when the soup was reheated—a nice bonus.

Flavor Bundle

Maximizing the Lemon Flavor in Avgolemono

A trio of ingredients brings multifaceted lemon flavor to the broth: Lemon zest provides fruitiness, coriander seeds add herbal/citrus notes, and lemon juice offers tartness.

The sumptuous consistency of the soup was right where I wanted it, but its flavor needed attention. Although it was tart from the lemon juice, it needed some tweaking if it was to also boast more complexity. I chose garlic, black peppercorns, and lemony coriander seeds to add depth, along with dill for an herbal note. I also used a vegetable peeler to strip the zest from a couple of lemons. The intensely flavored oils in the zest would boost the fruity, citrusy notes without making the soup overly sour.

The complexity imparted by the herb bundle, in combination with the creamy soup and tender chicken, made this avgolemono outshine all the rest.

Keys to Success

  • Bold yet balanced flavor

    We use citrusy coriander and both lemon juice and zest to produce bright but balanced lemon flavor.
  • Velvety consistency

    Our soup gets its creamy texture from a combination of eggs and rice whizzed together with the lemon juice in the blender.
  • Perfectly cooked chicken

    By immersing halved and salted chicken breasts in simmering water and then shutting off the heat, we ensure that they are perfectly seasoned, juicy, and tender.