The Perfect Fried Egg

I love eggs, and I eat more than any man should. In fact, the principal reason I wanted to keep chickens was to have a ready supply of good, fresh eggs. Eggs are one of the most versatile foods: high in protein they provide structure to baked goods, high in fat they provide richness to sauces and cremes. They can hold a whip for a meringue and they can be hard boiled and shoved (gently) in a pocket for later consumption. Eggs can be eaten in just about any course of any meal. Fresh eggs are especially good poached or in frittatas. But for the connoisseur, there is no substitute for a simple, perfect, fried egg.

To make a perfect fried egg is to dream the impossible dream; I tilt at windmills at each attempt. I pore over books and make exhaustive searches of the inter-webs. I watch my eggs intently in the pan, like a hawk over her chick. I photograph the eggs in various stages, and keep notes on the final product.

But still the perfect fried egg eludes me; like Tantalus I find my goal perpetually out of reach. As I strive ever more for perfection, my eggs swing from one extreme (too raw) to the other (too cooked). To chase the perfect fried eggs is to set one’s self on the path of enlightenment. True, moments of brilliance occur along the way, however the goal evades.

I find too that, like enlightenment, no one seems to be able to show the way to a perfect fried egg. My favorite cookbook simply states, “Warm 1-2 tablespoons of butter over medium heat, crack egg into a bowl, then slip into pan. Cook until set.” Pithy at best. Others go to great length and effort to describe the recipe, including heat settings, cook times, and when to cover or flip. These descriptions are laden with horror stories. They include words like: rubbery, slimy, greasy, and overwrought.

Nowhere do I find the adjectives I’m looking for: “crunchy or brittle” for the whites, “creamy, rich, or oozing with goodness” for the yolks. But that is what I’m after. I want a white that is literally fried to a crisp. I want it to explode caramelized protein shrapnel everywhere. I want the yolk thickened but still fully liquid, its rich creamy gravy oozing out onto my toast. Yum.

Restaurant fried eggs rely on the fact that the white (albumen) sets at a lower temperature than the yolk. Those eggs are cooked in exactly 1 tbsp of butter, over low-medium heat, with the lid on. This is enough to set the white without touching much of the yolk. But that’s not enough for me!

For starters the yolk has a thin membrane of albumen over its top. If you simply cook the bottom of the egg, you end up with a snot-like covering of white over your yolk. Secondly, a *bit* of heat starts to set the yolk, while keeping it liquid. If the yolk is not heated just slightly, it is excessively runny and does not form the delicious gravy but rather creates a yellow mess on the plate.

So, the perfect fried egg has fully cooked white with exceedingly crispy edges and a yolk that has just kissed the heat enough to thicken up a bit, but has absolutely not set at all. When I fail to make this egg my whites are gelatinous instead of cooked, or my yolk is mealy and hard.

But when I do fry a perfect egg, it goes something like this:
Heat a large non-stick skillet on high heat until very very hot. You want to sear the whites when they hit the pan, that means having a hot pan. Once the pan is hot add a bit of olive oil, let it warm for a sec, then give the pan a swirl. The hot oil should easily cover the bottom of the pan, but not form a pool; if not add a little more oil and repeat.

Put the pan back on high heat and wait until the oil just starts to smoke. If you can get it just before the oil starts to smoke, you’ll be happy and I’d like you to teach me the trick. Crack the egg (there is much debate over curved vs flat surface, I use the flat counter) and open its contents directly into the pan. Reduce heat to medium-high and watch intently.

egg just past needing to be flipped

At some point the albumen will start to set and will actually start to pillow up around the yolk, this takes more than a minute but usually less than 2. This is really the critical part, where the doneness of the white and yolk is ultimately set. Flip the egg over onto a fresh spot in the pan (with oil coverage) and wait about 30 seconds. Then kill the heat, grab up the egg with a spatula, and place delicately onto your favorite toast.

You most likely will not have the perfect fried egg, but if you repeat 6-12 times per week, every week until you die, chances are good you’ll run across a few along the way.

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2 thoughts on “The Perfect Fried Egg”

  1. My dad was an innovator and a superb home chef when it came to anything breakfast, and he also experimented a great deal. If I recall correctly, his solution to the yolk/egg white consistency challenge you describe was to separate the yolk and add it intact later in the cooking process. He always washed his whole eggs and broke his eggs into a separate glass bowl or ceramic coffee mug first as an added precaution to avoid any egg shell (very rarely happened) or fertilized eggs.

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