Saturday, January 23, 2016

The Crispy-Edged Fried Egg

Now, I promise that not every post will be about eggs, or even have eggs in it at all, but I thought I would be remiss if I didn't devote this first true post to the symbol of birth and beginnings that inspired this blog's name, so here it goes...


Specifically, today, the Fried Egg, Sunny Side Up because nine times out of ten, that's how I make them.  With Crispy Edges because crispy-edged things are almost always better than non-crispy edged things. I mean, these are fried eggs we are talking about.  When was the last time you heard someone wax poetic about mushy-edged fried chicken?  Or onion rings?  Or tempura?  But I digress.  Where was I?  Beginnings, yes...

First, let's put the whole chicken-and-egg argument to rest right at the start.  The earliest archaeological examples of what we think may be domestic chicken bones come from China and are dated to around 5400 BCE.  Eggs, well those have been around for several hundred million years.  So, just a smidge longer.  And while chickens certainly have a worthy part to play in our history, it's the egg that's really been the shining star, both in our diets and our culture.  It's not hard to see why, either.

For many cultures, eggs represent the mystery of life.  In the Hindu Upanishads, the world itself gets its start as an egg, which splits open to reveal two parts -- one silver and one gold, earth and sky.  The membranes become the mountains and clouds, the veins become the rivers and the fluid within, the ocean.

By around 1,000 BCE, the Ancient Egyptians had mastered the art of artificial incubation to have eggs available year round.  They also etched, painted, and hung them in their temples (ostrich eggs were a particular favorite for this) to ensure a good river flood, and thus a bountiful harvest, a practice which carried on into many Middle Eastern churches, mosques, and tombs.

Medieval Germans and Slavs had their own approach to harnessing the egg's mystical powers and boosting their soil's fertility, a method which perhaps lacked the finesse of displaying finely decorated eggs but had the benefit of brutal efficiency - they just cracked a few eggs on the blades of their hoes before they got started with garden work.

Eggs have also been used to promote human fertility --  upon entering their new homes for the first time, French brides break eggs on the threshold, a small superstition that's supposed to improve their chances of making lots of healthy French babies but one that I just see as a sad waste of a perfectly good snack.

Jews and Christians both feature eggs in their springtime holidays, Passover and Easter respectively, as symbols of sacrifice and rebirth, not to mention a tasty addition to the holiday meal.  And in some, in my opinion, unfortunate cultures, like the Mossi of Burkina Faso, eggs are considered so sacred that eating them is taboo, a crime against the community, and a form of petty theft.

In addition to putting them in or on our creation myths, churches, doorsteps, and farming implements, there's historical evidence that we've been collecting and consuming the eggs of domesticated fowl for at least 3,400 years.  As mentioned earlier, the Egyptians figured out artificial incubation and passed the knowledge onto the Romans, but it didn't make it into Medieval Europe's handbook of "How To Do Awesome Things That Make Your Life Easier" (somehow, indoor plumbing and concrete also didn't make the cut).  Europeans still ate eggs, just not as many of them, and usually only the ones they gathered from their own chickens.

It wasn't until the mid-20th century that technological and medical advances (namely, refrigerated transportation and antibiotics) allowed for eggs to become a fixture in the American diet.  Since then, our gastronomic love affair with the egg has grown so much that here in the U.S. we produce 75 billion (yes, with a "b") eggs a year.  And our 75 billion is only 10% of total world production.  It's probably safe to assume that a good portion of those eggs are served up fried, and just because the fried egg doesn't appear in historical recipes the way the souffle or omelette does, that doesn't mean it's any less deserving of attention.      

The Recipe

1 or 2 eggs
2 tbsp. cooking oil (preferably high temperature such as grapeseed or canola)
1 tsp. unsalted butter
salt and pepper to taste

Small non-stick skillet (8"-10") (can also use a very well seasoned cast-iron skillet)
Lid that will fit said skillet
Stiff spatula (one you would flip a pancake with as opposed to one you would scrape a bowl with)
Small bowl, teacup, or ramekin. (2, if you're planning on cooking 2 eggs)


1.  Put oil in skillet and heat over medium-high for 3-5 minutes until very hot but not quite smoking.  Crack egg into your bowl, teacup, or ramekin, being careful not to break the yolk.  Pieces of shell, while excellent sources of calcium, are not recommended for consumption.  If cooking 2 eggs, crack each into its own bowl.

2.  Once the skillet is plenty hot, add butter.  It should foam and start turning brown almost immediately.  Quickly (before the butter burns) but gently slide the egg or eggs into the skillet along the edge.  If you're making 2 eggs, you can pour them in right next to each other.  It's okay if the whites run into each other a little.  Tilt the skillet slightly to keep the egg white from spreading too much.  Sprinkle with salt and pepper on top and let it cook for around 30 seconds.  

3.  Place lid on skillet and count another 30 seconds, then turn off the heat.  Wait around 1 minute and then peek under the lid to check on the egg.  The whites should be set or nearly set and the yolk still runny.  If it's not quite there, put the lid back on and wait another 30 seconds.

4.  Slide onto your dish of choice, using your spatula to help it along, and consume immediately!

Some disclaimers:
I like my fried eggs crispy-edged and runny-yolked.  If you prefer more delicate whites, don't heat your pan so hot in the beginning.  If you prefer harder yolks, keep the lid on for an additional minute or two.

Salmonella warning -- The yolks in this recipe are not cooked enough to kill salmonella bacteria, so if you're concerned about that sort of thing or you're feeding this dish to small children, the elderly, or anyone immune-compromised, either use pasteurized eggs or cook your egg until the yolks are set.
Some Egg Science:

In addition to being delicious, eggs are pretty perfect packages of animal nutrition, chock-full of amino acids, essential fatty acids, minerals, vitamins, and antioxidants.  Rocky Balboa and Gaston were well aware of this when they used eggs to "help them get large", although by consuming them raw they actually may have been doing themselves more harm than good.  In addition to the obvious salmonella poisoning implications, some of the proteins in egg whites, in raw form, have anti-nutritional properties which block digestive enzymes and bind to essential vitamins and minerals in the egg to make them unavailable to any egg-stealing animals.  Lab animals fed a diet of raw eggs have been shown to actually lose weight!  

Fortunately for us fire-using mammals, when cooked, those protective anti-nutritional properties are neutralized.  Also, the egg becomes exponentially tastier.  In the 1950s, eggs started getting a bad rap for their admittedly high cholesterol levels, and for a long time they, and their yolks in particular, were demonized by nutritionists as artery-clogging, heart-attack producing killers.  However, they have recently been exonerated by scientists, doctors, and even the U.S. government, who have given us permission to eat up to three eggs per day, yolks and all, without fear.  

Temperature is absolutely critical to getting the type of egg you want.  The reason eggs can go from a viscous liquid to a flexible solid in a matter of moments all comes down to proteins.  When suspended in water, protein molecules are like little bundles of yarn, each floating around separate from the others.  When heat is applied, those yarn bundles start to move around, collide, unfold, and get tangled up with each other. These tangles create a molecular net that prevents the water from moving around freely -- and so the egg turns from liquid to solid.  There are many different types of proteins in an egg, and each of those proteins coagulates at a different temperature.  Thus, 145 degrees Fahrenheit will give you egg whites that are just starting to thicken, 150 degrees Fahrenheit will give you tenderly solid egg whites and thickening yolks, and 158 degrees Fahrenheit gets you a set yolk.

150 degrees, then, is the sweet spot.  However, since the white on top of the egg isn't getting any direct heat, it will cook much more slowly than the whites touching the pan.  If you just crack an egg in there and wait for it to be done, your yolk will be overcooked by the time all of your whites have set to a tender solid.  It's crucial, then, to find a way to apply more heat to the top of the egg.  Flipping it over is one option, but it's easy to break the yolk and it's not nearly as aesthetically pleasing as a sunny-side up egg.  Putting plenty of butter or oil in the pan and then basting the top of the egg is another way.  Or, we can put a lid on the pan and let the steam that's already being released from the egg help cook the top.  That's my preferred method, but feel free to try other ways.