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How to fry an egg

If I may be allowed a small boast, I think I'm greatly skilled at making both pancakes and grilled cheese sandwiches. Satisfied with my mastery of these staples of the griddle, I was feeling disappointed in myself that I couldn't make a better fried egg. I mean, they were OK, but nothing great. I tended to accidentally break yolks, and over- or undercook compared to what I thought I wanted. Even when things went smoothly, I still didn't feel like they were truly great eggs. Something was missing, and I wanted eggs that turned out as pleasing as my grilled cheeses tend to.

So I got to work. I read some articles about how to fry eggs, tried some different techniques, and over the last few months I've fried a lot of eggs and think I've learned a few things. I was pleased to find out along the way that, at least according to legend, Ferdnand Point used the humble fried egg as a litmus test for would-be chefs. I guess I'm not the only one impressed by the Point anecdote; it seems to come up in just about every article about how to fry eggs on the entire Internet. The best overall and most varied and detailed survey of methods I've found online is this Felicity Cloake piece in the Guardian from November last year. It covers most of the techniques and pointers I picked up elsewhere, all in one place – including telling the Point story.

As I say, I didn't end up sticking with any one method, but gathered all this advice (a lot of which, I must say, is pretty similar from one source to the next anyway) and found what works best for me through trial and error. I don't know whether my eggs these days would impress M. Point, but I confidently say they are at least finally worthy of my pancakes. There are three main lessons that I want to pass along here, along with one optional piece of advice.

  1. Use plenty of butter.

    Seriously, use more butter than you think you should, by a wide margin. Even now that I have already told you to use more butter, you probably have an idea of how much butter you think you should use to have as much as I'm telling you. Now, use even more than that. The thing to remember is that you want to be actually frying the egg in butter, not just using the butter to keep the egg from sticking to the pan. It's a medium, not just a lubricant. There should be enough melted butter in the pan for the egg to settle down into.

  2. Use low heat.

    Again, you should defy your own expectations here to the point where it makes you a little uncomfortable. As much as I've urged you to go overboard with the butter, you should set the heat under your pan in roughly inverse proportion. Point suggests the butter shouldn't even foam at all. I find I'm happier with the result if I allow the butter to foam, but only slightly. I do want some crisping of the edge of the white to occur. Still, better to err on the side of too low than too high. The biggest Ah Ha of this whole process came with the discovery that, while I'd learned to cook eggs over moderate heat long ago, I'd nevertheless been aiming at too high a heat for many years, leading to all sorts of difficulties. Everything about cooking eggs got easier and yielded better results when i started turning down the heat. My sense of 'moderate' had not been moderate enough.

  3. Crack the egg into a dish before putting in the pan.

    It gives you a chance to discard any broken yolks and try again, and gives you better control over how the egg goes in the pan. Since I started doing this, my fried eggs look tidier, and are more likely to keep the yolk near the center instead of off to one side.

  4. Cover the pan while the eggs are cooking.

    I'd have to say I consider this one optional, because I don't always do this myself. I must admit, when I don't cover, it's generally because I'm too lazy to find the lid in the cupboard. Which in turn, obviously points to I'm also too disorganized to keep my frying pan lids in easy reach. Everything turns out okay without covering, but I'm more apt to flip the eggs for Over Easy instead of leaving them sunnyside up. When I have bothered to cover them, however, I have never been sorry, and all my very best eggy results – including a couple of nearly miraculous, pro-caliber ones – have been cooked under a lid. I think it just helps the topmost part of the white gel more quickly and evenly.

The real trick, of course, is to get the whole white as completely cooked as possible while leaving the yolk as runny as possible. So, besides the points listed above, there's a timing issue, which I can't say I've mastered with the consistency I aspire to. I still tend to overlook more often than not, to varying degrees. Once they are out, of course, a little salt and pepper, and enjoy while they are hot. I usually dice mine up completely before I start forking them up. A lot of mornings, I just have eggs and coffee, but adding some buttered 9-grain toast and bacon is superb, especially on the weekend.