Thursday, October 23, 2008

How I Fry Eggs: Method and Explanation

If there is anything I hate more than crispy, hard and stinky fried eggs, I'll be sure to tell you about when I remember what it is. Eggs that are fried too quickly in a pan that is too hot coagulate too fast and dry out. The result is hard whites and yolks and crispy brown or -god forbid- blackened bottoms. Moreover, such eggs end up stinking of hydrogen sulfide because, of course, they got too hot.

I prefer fried eggs that are tender, runny and with little to no browning on any surface. Now while the reason I prefer to cook eggs this way really boils down to a matter of personal preference (i.e., "That's the way I like them because that's the way I like them."), it's a preference that turns on a philosophical point. I'm of the opinion that if I am lucky enough to have food that is very fresh and of very high quality, the best thing I can do to it is the least I can do to it. My goal is to maintain the character of the raw product as much as possible and not transform it into something that bears scant resemblance to what it was before I cooked it.

Eggs are pretty subtle zygotes: no matter how good they are, their intrinsic flavor and texture is very easy to bury under careless technique. They are arguably best eaten raw, at close to body temperature. So if agree with me, then when you propose to cook an egg you would do well to ask yourself how you can preserve as much of the character of the raw egg as possible yet still regard them as cooked.

Now while the specifics of the answer you get will depend on what process you plan to put the eggs through (e.g. poaching, scrambling etc.), the basic technical challenge will always be the same because how an egg changes as it heats is ultimately determined by its physical composition -which varies very little from one egg to another. Sure, some eggs will be fresher than others (lower pH & more water) and of course, you can alter the physical properties of the egg by mixing in salt, or some other substance that affects the behavior of the proteins or alters the ratio of water to protein (as would be the case if you added wine or milk). But even then, if do not heat the eggs gently they will still become tough and squeeze out water. Here's why in a nutshell.

Egg whites and yolks are suspensions of protein in a watery and fatty (in the case of yolks) medium. When they heat slowly, the proteins open slowly, collide gently with the other proteins and form a loose spongy gel structure that traps the water. Heat the eggs too fast though, and the proteins open quickly, collide too often, bond too many times and create gel structure that is so tight that the water gets squeezed out resulting in a hard, dry cooked egg.

Of course there is a lot more to the story than this. For example, if you get the egg too hot, the water in the egg also gets too hot and evaporates too quickly. Also the proteins may "blacken " and begin to break down and release stinky amino acid compounds (similar to what happens in overcooked fish)...I could go on but I'm out of time.

Okay about this video.

I did it in one take because I only had two eggs. So it's a bit rough. My narration is unrehearsed and punctuated by really annoying coughing - the natural consequence of asthma and allergies. I'd love to be able to edit that stuff out but my software is not up to it. I also misspeak slightly when I say the pan needs to be pre-heated to 350 degrees F. That number only works for the kind of pan I'm using and the manner in which I cook. See, I heat the pan to about 350 and pull it off the fire, by the time I put the butter in the temp drops to under 250 degrees -which is all the heat you need to get the eggs to begin to coagulate.

The net-net is that if you don't have an IR (frankly, I mostly only use mine when I'm studying or teaching) just heat the pan so that when the butter goes in it melts slowly, bubbles but does not brown. Oils are another story for another time.

BTW If the heat is cranked the temp of the pan can exceed 600 degrees F! When you consider that whites coagulate at about 140 degrees, and that browning in eggs occurs at about 325 degrees, it's easy to understand why that is way too hot.

I'll eventually figure out how to elevate the qualities of these things, in the meantime I hope this makes sense!



cookworm said...

I really enjoy these technique videos. There's always something interesting to learn, even with regular old eggs. Keep 'em coming!

boberica said...

All egg cookery expertise aside........that is a friggin sexy pan! 10 or 20 years?

Joseph Bayot said...

Heh that's funny. I usually love my eggs the opposite way, the way you detest. But, I love the way my high-heat fried eggs turn out.

I like a very hot, tilted pan with a small pool of neutral oil almost to the smoke point. I put the egg (or two) in, let the white settle around the yolk(s) naturally, and then I take it out after a minute or so. Crispy and tender with a molten yolk.

The thing is, I never specify how I like my eggs when someone else is cooking for me. I always get a kick out of trying to guess how a person cooks or likes their eggs.

That IS a sexy pan, and I will not disagree with you that a black steel, well-seasoned pan is best.

french tart said...

if i'm not mistaken, that sexy pan looks not unlike a crepe pan.

redredsteve said...

Loved the post and video but I didn't have time to eat yesterday and I check your blog in the morning, so it made me really hungry. I'm kind of in the same boat as Joseph, I think I like my eggs the way you hate them. I actually like a little brown and crispy egg white, so long as the yolk is still runny.

Love the thermometer; gotta get me one.

Jamie Barger said...

Bob, I love the cooking videos/photo galleries from you and Pardus, please keep them coming! At the risk of sounding like a stickler... Just a quick note that with the rare exception, chicken eggs are technically gametes (unfertilized eggs) and not zygotes (fertilized eggs).

Jennie/Tikka said...

Hoping for an accompanying bacon video :)

Bob del Grosso said...

Since I got those eggs from the farm where randy roosters rule the roost (or try to) I assume that the eggs were zygotes. MF, what do you take me for?

Ok, joke over. My mistake, thanks for the heads up.

French Tart

That pan can be used to make crepe, but if memory serves me at all, crepe pans have sides that are more broad and less steep. This pan was marketed as an omlete/egg pan.

nhallfreelance said...


Just finished the McGhee chapter on eggs and egg cookery, so this post is quite timely for me. Have you ever tried any of the various super long cooking egg methods that McGhee recommends for tender eggs?

Kevin said...

I haven't had a fried egg in 3 or 4 years and I do love those suckers. But my favored lipid is bacon or sausage grease.

Bob del Grosso said...

I'm not sure what you read in McGee but yes, I have cooked eggs at below the coagulation temp for I forget how long. They were extremely tender as I recall.

Maybe I'll do a sausage grease demo next.

blondee47 said...

I hope one day before I leave this earth to go into a restaurant and order 2 poached eggs and have them delivered: without tasting of vinegar, without 4 tsp of excess water and cooked the exact 3 minutes I request.....I have never been able to get a poached egg in a restaurant that is absolute in its perfection

Scotty said...

My method of cooking eggs is remarkably similar, except I don't do the over easy route. Rather I go sunny side up and splash a bit of leftover hot water from the electric kettle (tea) in the pan and cover it.

But, I also scramble eggs in an improvised double boiler (metal prep bowl over hot water.

Linda said...

I never knew how to really make creamy, runny, scrambled eggs until I moved to north Idaho and that first winter (and every winter since) we lost electricity. Breakfast had to be done on the gas barbecue or the wood oven (for heating,not cooking). Because of the low heat it cooked the eggs so slowly but they came out better than any scrambled egg I had eaten before! And, waiting for the coffee water to heat up was a nice lesson in slowing down....

Robert said...

Great video, Bob. Your explanation really helped clarify a few things for me. And the video quality was fine, so I wouldn't worry about that.