Frying an egg is a little like making love. Just because you can do it, that doesn’t mean you’re doing it well…
BY NABANITA DUTT
You never really understand the full range of possibilities offered by the humble fried egg till you eat in Thailand.
Their fried eggs are not always like ours. Sometimes they deep fry them so that the edges of the white crisp and curl up. And they put them on top of all kinds of dishes.
A simple pork fried rice is crowned with a fried egg and you are expected to cut into the yolk and use the golden liquid that oozes out as the sauce for your rice. Or they will make a salad with fried eggs. And sometimes they’ll take a dish that already seems complete — say, Khaprow (pork stir fried with basil) with rice and add a new layer of flavor by topping the dish with a quivering, shimmering, silver and gold fried egg.
All over South East Asia, they do the same sort of things with fried eggs. An Indonesian (or Malaysian, depending on which side you support in this culinary war) Nasi Goreng or Mee Goreng gets its punch from the runny yolk of the fried egg that tops the rice or noodles. The Koreans do something similar with a Bibimbap and often they’ll create a full meal out of a single fried egg, adding rice, sesame oil and gochujang, their most famous paste.
In the West, where we are less keen on rice, we use potatoes instead. The best way to enjoy a Swiss Roesti is to put a couple of fried eggs over the potatoes. In Germany, they make the same dish with fried potatoes. And the English, who lack the imagination to combine fried eggs and potatoes in a single dish, simply serve chips on the side for that staple of the lorry drivers’ caff: ‘Egg-and-Chips’.
Americans are as lacking in imagination. McDonald’s has invented many egg dishes, none of which I find at all memorable and the US ranch-style breakfast of steak and eggs does nothing for either ingredient. To be fair, they stole the idea from European cookery, where anything with a fried egg on top of it goes by the name, Holstein.
The French, self-proclaimed masters of gastronomy, only eat fried eggs at breakfast. It is acceptable to order an omlette at any meal and indeed, the French make hundreds of kinds of omlettes (sweet, savory, with cheese, with ham, etc.) while giving short shrift to the fried egg.
Even Fernand Point, one of the founders of Nouvelle Cuisine, was unable to shake the French devotion to the omlette. Point regarded the fried egg and not the omlette as the best test of a chef’s talent. So, he rated his protégées (a list that included Paul Bocuse, the Troisgros brothers, etc.) on their fried eggs rather than their more complicated dishes.
At this stage, some of you may well pause and ask: “Can this be right? What is so great about frying an egg? Anyone can do it.”
Well, actually frying an egg is a little like making love. Just because you can do it, that doesn’t mean you’re doing it well.
But first: what is a perfect fried egg?
In the West, they disregard the deep-fried eggs of the Far East and treat them as ethnic curiosities. Western chefs look for an egg in which the white is firm without being tough and the yolk is runny without being raw.
If you work towards this goal, then you’re confronted by a scientific problem. A perfectly firm egg white forms at a completely different temperature from a molten golden yolk. So, how can you devise a method that allows you to cook both components of the egg at the same time?
The classic French technique is still Point’s. This involves cooking the eggs over the lowest possible heat (to keep the yolks runny) and then, as the whites begin to solidify, pouring a little melted butter over them. If you do it right, then the finished egg will have a quivering, buttery white and a trembling, liquid yolk. Do it wrong and you will end up with an under-cooked egg. (This is why Point used a fried egg to test the mettle of his apprentices.)
I yield to nobody in my respect for Point, but frankly, his recipe is a little too poncy for my liking. However, the principle of cooking fried eggs over very low heat remains the golden rule for most chefs.
Many experienced chefs will simply cover the pan to intensify the heat and distribute it evenly. Others may cheat slightly by adding a spoonful of water to the pan before covering it. As the pan heats up, the water turns to steam so the eggs are not just fried but are also steamed.
There are other methods. I dug up an old Guardian article in which Felicity Cloake tried out various recipes. I was intrigued to discover that Delia Smith went the other extreme from Point. Delia recommends cooking the eggs on very high heat for 30 seconds. Then, you turn the heat down to medium for another minute. Cloake tried Delia’s recipe and while the yolk turned out right, the white was tough. She also tried a Jamie Oliver recipe, which recommended medium to low heat throughout. She discovered that “the white takes absolute ages to cook through”.
As a general principle, whenever I need to think of an incredibly difficult way to cook a very simple dish, I turn to Heston Blumenthal. And sure enough, Heston’s method is extremely complicated – though it probably requires less skill than Point’s.
Heston’s starting point is the basic scientific reality that the white and the yolk both need different temperatures to cook. So, here’s his solution: cook them separately. First, you separate the white and the yolk. Then, you take the white and put it in an oven or in a pan till it is set. Then, you carefully drop the raw yolk on top of the white and place under a salamander or a grill for 15 seconds. That is just enough time to cook the yolk without ruining the white.
As you can see, it is not easy to cook the perfect fried egg. So, what is the home cook to do?
Cloake suggests a simple method to which I have added one or two things. First, always use free-range eggs (like Keggs). If you want to use the industrial kind, forget about cooking a perfect fried egg.
The eggs should be fresh and at room temperature (i.e. not fresh out of the fridge). Place a pan over low heat. Add butter (or butter and a little olive oil if you are concerned about burning the fat) and wait till it melts. Before it starts to foam, swirl it around to cover the surface of the pan. Break the egg into the pan. Now, cover the pan with a transparent lid so you can see how the egg is cooking. Wait for three-and-a-half minutes. That should be long enough.
Your white will be firm and your yolk will be runny. What you do next is up to you. You can put the egg on top of roesti, you can eat it with toast, you can sprinkle chopped cilantro, fried garlic or hot sauce over it, you can grate white truffles on top or you can pair it with crispy bacon.
That’s the thing about a perfect fried egg. The possibilities are endless…