All over the world, eggs are used widely for cooking, and while they have many auxiliary uses, for example in the making of sauces, cakes or custards, a really fresh farm egg1 on its own is a joy to eat ... provided it is prepared well! Fried eggs are an important feature of the full English breakfast, and of the egg banjo (which is a type of fried egg sandwich), but making a perfect fried egg requires some skill, especially as personal taste dictates what is considered 'perfect'.
Names for Fried Eggs
The usual generic term in English (and most other languages) is simply 'fried egg', with a large variety of names for the degree to which they are fried, as we shall learn in this Entry. In German, the picturesque name Spiegelei (pronounced shpeeg - erl - eye) means a 'mirror egg' - perhaps because the shape reminds us of a dressing-table mirror, maybe also due to the glistening surface of a sunny-side-up yolk. The French call it, comparatively prosaically: 'Oeuf au plat' - simply an 'egg on a plate', or, more pedantically, Oeuf(s) à la poele2 - 'eggs in the pan'. The Greek name is 'avgá mátia' (α υ γ ά μ ά τ ι α), which translates as 'eye-eggs'. As mentioned below (cf Scary) this similarity between the classic fried egg and the shape of an eye can have an unsettling effect on some.
How do You Like Your Eggs?
There is no right or wrong way to fry eggs. Individual preferences vary from the crispy-bottomed egg, via the crispy-frilled egg (a common feature of fried eggs from greasy spoon caffs, considered a delicacy by some), right through to the almost liquid. These preferences should not be ignored, for, although the cook may feel disgust at eating a mouthful of mucus-like albumen - his guest may feel that even a tiny part of the yolk being cooked until it is solid is a sacrilege and ruins the taste. However, all fried eggs have a general appearance of a pure white shape with a perfect circle of yellow yolk in the middle3, a cheering sight first thing in the morning and a colourful complement to the pink bacon and pale brown toast it is generally served with.
Of course, for purists, fried eggs can be served on their own or with toast; in their opinion, it would be considered almost a shame to sully them with any other accompaniments.
Nowadays, you can even have your perfect fried egg when away from home, as a number of hotels allow you to fry your own eggs at a side table, or will fry to order to suit your own taste.
There are a few people who have a fried egg phobia. This is so rare that there doesn't even seem to be a name for it4. The yolk is seen as an 'evil eye'. One woman is quoted as saying:
My friends think it is madness but I completely freak out with the sight of fried eggs. They look like an evil eye. The whole thing just looks evil, distrustful and greasy.
However, for the rest of the population, here is a selection of methods and recipes for finding exactly the right way to fry an egg to your own individual standard of perfection.
The egg should be as fresh as possible, especially if you prefer a 'runny' yolk. This reduces the risk of salmonella, and the white of a fresh egg is firmer and does not spread out all over the pan.
The fat should not be too hot when the egg is added.
The pan should be suitable to the type of heat you are using (eg an electric or ceramic hob requires an absolutely flat-bottomed pan). A heavy pan with a thick base will distribute the heat and fry the egg more evenly. A non-stick pan is a boon, but with practice, and with any good pan which has been treated well, the desired effect can be achieved: the eggs should not stick to the bottom and break. This would ruin the appearance of the eggs, and make cleaning the pan a messier job.
The fresher the egg, the thicker the white will be. Usually it will divide into a thinner layer and a thicker part, the latter surrounding the yolk. Sprinkling the thick part with a little salt should influence the speed at which it sets, so that the different consistencies then set to form a single homogenous white. This is a useful tip if the egg is to be cooked only lightly, but it gives the white a chewy, rubbery consistency. Some may prefer this, finding a non-salted white to have a gelatinous, slimy texture.
When finished, the egg should slide from the pan onto the plate, but if a fish slice (also known as an 'egg slice' in some parts5) is necessary to transfer the egg to the plate, this should be as thin as possible.
Timing is everything! The egg must be ready at exactly the same time as the bacon, toast, Scotch pancakes and all the other items which are being eaten with it. It goes onto the plate last, as it will cool off quite quickly. The eater (if it's not the cook) should already be seated at the table.
The choice of fat depends upon preference and what is available in the fridge/larder.
If, on doctor's orders, or for other reasons of diet, fat is to be avoided, then a well-kept6 non-stick pan will provide a fat-free fried egg, which slithers satisfyingly about on the surface of the pan. Alternatively, the pan can be lined with a circle of baking paper or special pan liners. Allow more time for this method, as the egg will be cooking at a lower temperature than those created by the conventional kinds of fats.
A small amount of oil will suffice, but do not use an expensive virgin olive oil, or one that specifies that it does not take kindly to heat. Apart from being too expensive, overheating these oils gives them an unpleasant taste and destroys their nutritional properties.
Butter gives that distinctive, well - 'buttery' taste. Take care, here also, not to heat to too high a temperature or leave in the hot pan for too long before adding the egg, as it will then go black and make unsightly black spots on the pristine white of the egg, as well as possibly even setting off the smoke alarm.
If serving the egg with bacon, the bacon should go into the pan first, and allowed to ooze some of its fat out into the pan, which can then be used to fry the egg in. Once you know the tastes of your breakfasters, it is quite a balancing act to have the eggs and the bacon both ready at the same time to the correct degree.
Lard or Margarine are also perfectly good options. Other spreads may also be used on condition that the packaging specifies they can be used for cooking.
The temptation should always be resisted to turn up the cooking temperature too high. The 'Medium' setting is an absolute maximum - on experimenting, you may find you prefer an even lower setting. Having said that, it is recommended to pre-heat the pan, then add the fat, if used, and then, after waiting for the fat to reach a suitable temperature7, to add the egg.
To avoid dropping a broken yolk into the pan, break the egg onto a saucer (or similar receptacle with no sharp edges) by sharply tapping it across the middle with the blunt side of a knife. With practice and finger-tip sensitivity, the strength of the 'tap' can soon be gauged: hard enough to make a good cut through the shell without breaking the yolk inside.
If the yolk breaks, get another egg - there's no point doing this if the yolk is broken. Broken yolks could be saved for making hollandaise sauce, scrambled eggs or zabaglione.
Slide the egg onto the hot but not smoking fat, hesitating a little to let some of the white harden before dropping the yolk on. This should prevent the yolk from breaking when the finished delicacy is lifted out of the pan (or if it should stick despite all precautions being taken).
Alternatively, try this method:
Gently pour just the white of the egg into the warm oil. Keep the yolk back using a spoon, or an eggcup, or separate the egg some other way. As soon as you've poured as much of the white as you can into the pan, immediately season the white all over with a little salt and freshly ground black pepper. Allow the white to cook almost completely for a minute or two, so there's very little runny stuff left.
Now gently tip the yolk onto the middle of the white, settling it in the centre. Don't wait too long to add the yolk, or it won't 'bond' with the white. Cover the pan with a pan lid, ideally a glass one you can see through, and allow the egg to cook for another minute or two at most.
Serve immediately, and carefully. The yolk will be warm, bright yellow, and runny, and you will have the most perfect fried egg you've ever seen.
Do not touch the egg for the first minute of cooking, so as not to break the delicate membrane surrounding the yolk. Test it gently by lifting the edges to see if it has set enough to be moved on the base of the pan.
If the egg is not so fresh8 or if you need extra space, try using a containment ring (a stainless steel or aluminum ring that sit in the bottom of the pan to keep the egg in a confined spot). This may keep the edges from getting browned, and allow the yolk to sit prettily in the center above the white. These are also available in other shapes such as stars and hearts. Allow a little extra time in this case, as the substance being cooked is now a little thicker.
The Fat Free Method
Here is a low-calorie method, taken from Anton Mosimann, a famous chef:
Simply place the serving plate over a pan of simmering water, and allow the plate to become hot. Crack the egg straight onto the hot plate, and it will immediately start to set. Cover with a cloche or lid - another inverted plate will do - and cook for 3-4 minutes, or until done to your taste. Season to taste. It takes a little longer than a conventional fried egg.
Of course, with this method, the times given below do not apply, nor can crispy edges be expected.
Five Degrees of Fried Egg
Depending on how long the egg is fried9, it can be served in the following different ways.
1. Just Done
The egg has the white fully cooked and not runny at all, the yolk warm but still mostly runny, and it is not, ever, flipped over in the pan before serving. The white of the egg is solid after about 1 minute 40 seconds, while the yolk is still completely liquid. No crispy bits!
2. Sunny Side Up
This is the American expression for an egg which has been cooked just a few seconds more than 'Just done' - a 'Sunny Side Up' person will probably not complain if the yolk is slightly cooked round the edges; comfort-food lovers will want to be able to dip their toast in it.
3. Over Easy
Again an American expression, this is an egg which has been fried on both sides. It's rather inappropriately named, as turning an egg over in the pan is anything but easy! However, for the brave: just before two minutes are up, the egg should be set enough for turning. Make sure the fish slice is under the whole of the egg, especially the yolk, and, without lifting it up too high, slowly turn it over. If the egg lands in a well-greased area of the pan, with some luck it will not stick and the yolk will remain whole. It only requires a very few seconds in this position, as all that should happen is that the thin layer of white covering the yolk should be cooked until opaque, after which you turn it back over and straight onto the plate.
Alternatively, how about basting the eggs with the hot oil? This is the way a chef may cook fried eggs, known in the trade as 'pinked' because the top of the egg goes pink when it's properly cooked. The yolk remains runny, but you don't get any 'mucus' left over the top, and the white is fully cooked.
Crack the egg straight into the pan and leave for the majority of the white to colour. Tip the pan slightly to get hot oil in a spoon, then pour it over the yolk till it colours and cooks to your preference. The top and bottom of the yolk is then evenly cooked and helps to get rid of the 'runny' bit between yolk and white. But be warned: basting with hot oil needs to be done in swift but controlled movements, else oil can be thrown out of the pan altogether.
4. With Crunchy Frills
After about three minutes, twenty seconds (3' 20"), the edges will turn brown and crispy. Opinions vary here, from crunchy frills are Satan's eczema to of course there needs to be a crunchy frill! and a frilly edge is essential.
At this point, the egg is much easier to manoeuvre out of the pan, and the yolk is in less danger of breaking.
'Crunchy Frills' can be found on both 'Sunny Side Up' and 'Over Easy' eggs.
5. With a Crispy Bottom
This is what happens to naughty fried eggs - they get their bottoms crisped! This happens when they are left in the pan for more than three and a half minutes. However, as in this case the yolk is cooked right through and is no longer runny, it is a practical way of serving an egg to people in a hurry, messy eaters, or those who enjoy eating lots of brown crispy bits.
Frying Large Numbers of Eggs
Coping with a larger number of egg eaters with normal household equipment might prove tricky, especially if the aim is to suit all tastes. Perhaps the group may agree to having their eggs scrambled, boiled, poached or coddled. If, despite these options, the challenge is on to serve six or more fried eggs, then there is nothing for it but to muster all the frying pans in the kitchen and follow the instructions above. Break two or three eggs at a time before adding them to the pan, to ensure that they are all cooked at approximately the same time. If each egg is broken and added to the pan individually, timing may get a bit frantic by about the tenth egg!
Fresh eggs will keep their shape, but more often, the whites will all join together. When cooked, these can be separated by cutting with the tip of the fish slice or a blunt knife. An attractive way to present them is to cut out a circle around the egg. Using a containment ring (described above), a small cereal bowl or a large cup, press through the egg white, as if cutting through pastry or biscuit dough, as near as possible keeping the yolk in the centre. Lift the circle of egg out onto the plate or onto the buttered toast. The rest of the whites can be discarded or chopped and mixed into a variety of dishes such as potato, egg or cheese salads or kedgeree.
When the number of eggs exceeds the space available in the pans, the resourceful cook can revert to frying the eggs in a baking tray in the oven. Here again, heat the fat first, break as many eggs at a time in preparation as possible. Bacon, mushrooms and toast can also be cooked or grilled in the oven at the same time, saving space and reducing mess and washing up.
In an oven set at 150°C, margarine takes over three minutes to heat up sufficiently. The egg white will be set after two minutes and a satisfactory 'sunny side up' takes a further minute. After this, the white on top of the yolk starts to turn opaque and the yolk will be cooked through but still fairly soft after a further two and a half minutes.
If the oven is set at 200°C, the egg will start sizzling as soon as it hits the fat and will acquire crispy, crackly brown edges straight away, while the white is setting. After one minute, 30 seconds, it is a 'Sunny Side Up' - albeit with brown crispy frills. Leaving it for a further two minutes will turn the surface of the egg yolk white, but, even now, after five minutes, the centre of the yolk is still runny. The bottom is appetisingly crispy and the egg lifts out of the baking tray very easily. Due to the consistency of the bottom, however, this is not suitable for cutting out into pretty shapes. It is, in fact, a classic, no-nonsense 'greasy spoon caff' type of fried egg.
What to Eat with Fried Eggs
Seasoning is a matter of individual taste. Remember you can always add more when eating but you can't remove, so have a light hand. Salt is the most popular, added at the start of cooking. Pepper is a close second, although some may prefer a very light sprinkling of paprika. Other non-traditional decorations include chopped fresh chives, parsley or other green herbs, a pinch of curry powder, ground cardamom or caraway seeds.
Traditionally a good fry-up, at any time of day, will contain a selection of the following items as well as the fried egg(s):
- Bacon, fried or grilled
- Fried, grilled or steamed tomatoes
- Chips - the edible kind
- Grilled or fried sausages
- Grilled or fried kidneys
- Fried mushrooms
- Baked beans
- Fried Spam
- Fried bread or toast
- Pickle or chutney
- HP Sauce
- Fried Onions