Pitting Chef Against Tradition In Search Of The Perfect Fried Egg
A slideshow on the New York Times website recently caught my eye. Entitled "The Perfectly Fried Egg," it shows a step-by-step of Spanish chef, José Andrés, frying an egg in a pool of oil.
Like french fries. Or doughnuts.
Equally repulsed — an oil-immersed egg? "Perfect?" Seriously? — and intrigued, I had to try it for myself. And compare it to my family's long-standing tradition of frying an egg flat in a cast iron pan.
I'm not a "fine dining" home cook so, to be quite honest, chefs' techniques rarely interest me. Not they don't have anything to teach me — of course, they do — but simply because we operate in such different worlds. Sous vide? No, thanks. I'm sure it's awesome, but I don't want to commit that kind of time to cooking a chicken. Heat diffusers? Handy, no doubt, but it's just another gadget to store.
For us regular home cooks, it's also easy to get into technique ruts. I know I do all the time. (Undoing the poor knife skills I had developed in my early twenties was a project. Maddening and tedious. It was worse than a rightie learning how to write left handed.)
So when I come across a pro cooking a common dish in a completely different way, using the familiar tools of us mere mortal cooks with techniques that won't require months and a flow chart to master, I perk up. Something so simple as cooking an egg ... show me the way, Maestro! First, Chef Andrés' method (my photos below; view the slideshow on NYT):
- Heat 4 tablespoons of olive oil in a deep pan over medium-high heat.
- Crack an egg into a bowl. When the oil is hot, tilt the pan to form a pool, and slide the egg into it.
- Keeping the pan tilted, spoon oil over the egg and cook until the whites are golden, about 30 seconds or so.
- Remove the egg to a plate and sprinkle with sea salt.
My main concern with this method was all that oil, but once I measured out the 4 tablespoons, it didn't seem so bad. The entire process went very quickly — no more than a couple of minutes.
- I made a couple of mistakes here: I didn't have regular olive oil on hand, just evoo, so that prompted me to use a slightly lower heat than "medium-high" — just a tad above medium. Although the evoo flavor didn't infuse the egg (a good thing), it was a waste of evoo. In the future, I'll use regular olive oil.
- Backing off on the heat prevented, I think, the brown crust that's shown in the NYT slideshow from forming quickly enough. I overcooked the yolk trying to get that golden crust (which I didn't achieve because I removed the egg from the heat once I saw what was happening to the yolk).
- Despite the fact that the egg whites didn't "fry" to the point of browning, and despite the fact that I overcooked the yolk beyond is optimal runny state, the egg was still delicious. And amazingly so.
- Although this is a one-egg-a-time process, cooking 4 or 5 eggs would still go pretty fast. A dozen would require holding the finished eggs in a warmer or in a low oven, I would think.
Now on to my long-time go-to method, cracked into a cast iron pan:
- Heat a small amount of oil — just enough to form a thin film over the surface — in a cast iron pan over medium heat.
- When the oil shimmers, carefully crack an egg into the pan. As the whites cook, use a thin, sharp metal turner to loosen the egg from the surface of the pan, taking care not to pull the egg apart or tear the yolk.
- When the undersides of the whites are firm, gently but decisively flip the egg. Cook for 20 seconds more, then remove to a plate and sprinkle with sea salt.
- To fairly compare flavors, I purposely overcooked the yolk on this egg, and backed off on going for the browning on the edges (since the Andrés egg had no browning at all).
- Because I was particularly focused on cooking the egg — usually a fairly absent-minded activity frequently interrupted by other tasks — I noticed just how tricky it can be to flip that sunny-side up egg without folding over the whites. It was especially noticeable compared to the Andrés egg, which took no particular finesse at all to achieve the adorable little poached-egg-like package.
And the verdict?
Mr. Andrés' method is by far the better method. Not by just a little ... by a lot. The egg is somehow creamy all the way through, and the flavor transition from whites to yolk is smooth and seamless. I honestly don't know how that could be — there was no sharp "there it is" bite from the yolk — but I swear it's true. Straight up smooth eggy goodness. Comparing it to my favorite form of cooked egg — the poached egg — well, this is my new favorite.
As cool weather sets in, and eggs begin topping many of my favorite autumn and winter dishes, I'll be turning to this method again and again.