The Humble Fried Egg
The humble fried egg, one of the staples of the first world breakfast. Have you ever wondered how your fried eggs measure up…
How to cook the perfect fried egg
If you can turn out exquisite fried eggs every single time you’ve got one over on most cooks. What’s your secret?
I embark upon this column in the full and certain knowledge that many of you already know how to fry an egg. Indeed, if you are completely confident in your abilities, and never find yourself disappointed by a sadly snotty white or tragically chalky yolk, then pat yourself on the back and then move along – I can teach you nothing. But if, like me, you can fry a perfectly decent egg but wouldn’t stake your life on your habitual method, then you are more than welcome to join this brave voyage back to the basics of cookery.
Those still reading should take heart from the fact that the great Fernand Point, feted as the father of modern French cuisine, is said to have judged a chef by the way he fried eggs. He’d interrupt hopeful apprentices at the stove, legends including Paul Bocuse and the Troisgros brothers, with the cry, “Stop, unhappy man – you are making a dog’s breakfast of it!” before demonstrating the only proper way to execute the dish.
Further reassurance comes from award winning Spanish chef José Andrés, who claims “my whole life I have been trying to cook an egg in the right way.” Andrés exalts in what he calls “the humbleness” of the dish, but that doesn’t mean he just slings it into a hot pan and goes off to make some toast – far from it. Both these culinary giants have very different ways of frying an egg – but who’s right? (Note here I’m aiming for the standard British fried egg, known in the States (and perhaps elsewhere?) as “sunny-side up”. There will be no flipping.)
The egg itself: when is an oeuf an oeuf?
Here I’ll be concentrating on the hen’s egg because, realistically, that’s what most of us cook up, but it’s worth pointing out that duck eggs have larger yolks, proportionally (and are also bigger all round) and, arguably, a better flavour than many commercial hen’s eggs. Be aware, however, that the higher protein content of the white will mean it cooks through more quickly, so it may take some practice to get right. (With ostrich eggs, you’re on your own.)
As ever, if you keep your eggs in the fridge, then you should let them come to room temperature before cooking – if you start with a cold egg, then you’re more likely to end up overcooking the yolk trying to get the white to set. Very fresh eggs are best for frying, because the stronger proteins will give you a neater shape (this may sound obvious, but older eggs are better for things like boiling, because they’re easier to peel).
The cooking fat
Delia Smith recipe fried egg. Photograph: Felicity Cloake
Frying obviously involves adding fat – that’s why it’s so popular. Bacon fat is the traditional choice in this country, and still advocated by Delia, but very few of us eat enough of the stuff to have any around: I often use it if I’m doing eggs and bacon for breakfast, but although the flavour’s good, it does make for a messy looking egg. Delia also suggests substituting groundnut oil, which creates the opposite problem – it’s clean, certainly, but deliberately neutral tastewise.
More popular are olive oil, as favoured by Jamie Oliver, the aforementioned Andrés, and American food writer David Rosengarten (“the unaccustomed marriage of fruity olive oil flavor with creamy egg defines anew the upper limits of fried-egg excitement”), and butter, beloved of Point, his culinary disciple Bernard Loiseau, and Cook’s Illustrated, among others.
Both lend their distinctive flavours to the egg, so it depends what you’re going to be serving the dish with – I’d default to butter, because I think the richness is a better complement for the yolk, but if I were plopping it on top of a pile of morcilla and chickpeas, I might go for olive oil instead. (For a fry up, however, I will brook naught but butter.)