The Food Lab: Building a Better Egg McMuffin

The Food Lab

Unraveling the mysteries of home cooking through science.

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Our homemade Egg McMuffin improves upon the original in every way. [Photographs: J. Kenji López-Alt]

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It was only a few short months ago that McDonald's announced that it would be serving breakfast all day, a fact that will give me and my ilk an excuse to nurse hangovers with steamed egg patties and crumbly biscuits well into the afternoon, while no doubt causing logistical nightmares for existing McDonald's franchise owners. But there was a time when fast food breakfast wasn't just unavailable after 10 a.m.—it was unavailable, period.

Even McDonald's owner Ray Kroc was skeptical of the concept. Here's what he had to say in his autobiography, Grinding It Out, about when a local franchise owner tried to convince him that a breakfast sandwich was a good idea.

He didn't want me to reject it out of hand, which I might have done, because it was a crazy idea—a breakfast sandwich. It consisted of an egg that had been formed in a Teflon circle, with the yolk broken, and was dressed with a slice of cheese and a slice of grilled Canadian bacon. This was served open-faced on a toasted and buttered English muffin. I boggled a bit at the presentation. But then I tasted it, and I was sold. Wow!

Despite Kroc's unfamiliarity, breakfast sandwiches weren't invented by McDonald's. There are references to fried eggs served in soft rolls as a worker's breakfast dating back to the 19th century. But McDonald's certainly popularized it for the white-collar drive-thru patron. According to this 1981 Time article, breakfast accounted for 18% of McDonald's sales by that year, a level of success that opened the floodgates for every other fast food franchise to start serving breakfast. (The same article also announced the first appearance of the McRib sandwich, which is another recipe for another time.) These days, the Egg McMuffin is more than a sandwich; it's a cultural icon.

But, for all its recognition and all that it gets right, it's an inherently flawed product. One that, with a little time and effort, can be improved upon at home. Here's how I make mine. Hopefully, we'll learn some lessons that can be applied to all breakfast sandwiches, not just Egg McMuffin clones.

Improvement #1: The Ingredients

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The first step to a better sandwich is better ingredients. An Egg McMuffin has four:

  • A standard-issue, pretty soft English muffin
  • A factory-farmed egg
  • A slice of perfectly round, chopped-and-formed Canadian bacon
  • A slice of extra-orange American cheese

I started by replacing the English muffins with super-high-end English muffins from The Model Bakery in St. Helena (the single greatest English muffin in the history of the world), but they were simply too good. The McMuffins lost their essential McMuffininess. Instead, I ended up using a good-quality supermarket brand.

The eggs were an easy upgrade. Although I know that in blind taste tests, factory-farmed eggs are indistinguishable from "better" eggs (even those laid in your own backyard), simply knowing that my eggs are coming from chickens that are treated better is enough to make them taste better to me.

Canadian bacon is essentially cured pork loin that has been sliced. The stuff McDonald's uses is perfectly round, which means that it is in fact more like a chopped-and-formed ham. It lacks the meaty bite of real Canadian bacon. I look for stuff that is sliced from whole pork loins, which has the added benefit of providing a little ring of fat around the outside that crisps up as you fry it.

Finally, for the cheese, American works great and is hard to improve upon for a sandwich like this in which the primary goal is easy meltability, but if you want a little more flavor in your mix, a slice of cheddar, Swiss, or jack (especially pepper jack) will do. Remember: The sharper and drier the cheese, the more poorly it melts. Plan accordingly.

Improvement #2: Toasting the Muffin

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McDonald's English muffins aren't bad per se, but there are few things in life that can't be improved with more butter and more browning. I tested toasting English muffins through various methods, including in a toaster, under a broiler, and directly over a gas flame. The best way to prepare one for a sandwich is to lightly butter the surface, then place it face down in a moderately hot nonstick or cast iron skillet.

The real key is that you can't just leave it there. If you do, as it starts to heat up, the outer edges will contract, causing the English muffin to cup upwards and away from the pan. You end up with a muffin that is toasted only around the outside edges. (I'm sure you've observed the same phenomenon with burger buns.) For optimal browning (and therefore optimal flavor and structure), you must gently press down on the center of the muffin halves as they toast, rotating and swirling them around.

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A nice, even golden-brown is what you're after, and moderately low heat with plenty of motion is the way to get there. (P.S. This is the same method I use for grilled cheese sandwiches.)

Improvement #3: Brown the Bacon!

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The Canadian bacon disk in a McMuffin tastes like it's been warmed over and placed in a plastic tray to rest. I have a good guess as to why. I prefer to fry my Canadian bacon in butter, giving it color and crispness on the edges.

Improvement #4: Better Egg Cooking Technique

Now, here's where things got pretty tricky. I wanted to make sure that my eggs were cooked better than they would be on a traditional McMuffin, but I didn't want them to lose any of the qualities that give the McMuffin its characteristic appearance and flavor. That meant that a few of my earlier iterations, with runny fried or over-easy eggs, were right out, as were poached eggs. I tried placing a ring mold directly into my skillet, using it to help the eggs keep their shape as they cooked—this is similar to how McDonald's does it in-store—but it was difficult to get them to cook evenly without browning. McMuffin eggs should be tender and white on both sides. I also tried microwaving eggs in ramekins, both with and without additional water. This was moderately successful, but it was difficult to nail the right consistency. (The eggs went straight from perfectly done to rubbery and overcooked.)

The ring mold technique is very similar to how dozens of Pinterest-friendly blogs advise you to cook eggs, recommending that you use the screw ring from a quart-sized wide mouth Mason jar in lieu of a ring mold. This got me thinking: Instead of just using the screw ring, why not use the entire lid?

That was the solution I was looking for. By placing the lid and screw ring of a Mason jar upside down in a skillet, I had a perfect English muffin–sized mold in which to cook my egg. Moreover, because the egg never comes into direct contact with the bottom of the pan, it stays tender and white as it cooks.

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To do this, I place the lid in the skillet, coat the inside with nonstick cooking spray, and break an egg into it, poking the yolk once to break it—otherwise, it stands too tall and ends up too liquid-y in the finished sandwich. I then add water and cover the whole thing with a lid. The water creates steam which helps the top of the egg cook while also building in a temperature regulator that prevents the pan from ever going above 212°F. This is good, as it keeps the eggs tender and moist. As mason jars are intended to be used for high temperature canning in a pressure cooker, I had perfect confidence that it would be safe to cook in them in a pan of simmering water.

About two minutes later, the egg is cooked, and I can slide it out onto a paper towel to absorb any excess moisture. Ideally, the egg will be cooked all the way through, but still tender and bright orange in the yolk. (McDonald's typically prefers to take its eggs to the yellow, crumbly stage.)

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The ring and the top of the Mason jar lid should slip right off, whereupon you must immediately start assembling your sandwich. That brings us to...

Improvements #5 and #6: Assembly and Preheating

If there is one true flaw in the way the Egg McMuffin is presented, it's the stacking order. McDonald's serves its sandwiches with cheese on the bottom, followed by the egg, followed by the Canadian bacon.* I never understood this stacking order. Shouldn't the cheese be at the top, where the heat rising from the egg and bacon will help it melt better? Don't you want those cheese corners draped around the other fillings to bind them as a cohesive whole, rather than sticking out of the bottom of the sandwich, as firm and stiff as the resolve of a McDonald's manager telling a pre–October 2015 patron, "I'm sorry, but we're no longer serving breakfast"?

* And before you wise guys point out that maybe I'm eating it upside down, McDonald's actually displays the sandwiches this way in the menus and advertising.

Think about it: Would you place the cheese underneath the beef in a cheeseburger? (Is it telling that the only burger I've ever seen pull this move is the Big Mac?) I've heard various explanations as to why the sandwich is stacked this way. Better cheese-to-tongue contact, maybe (a concept popularized by my friend Dan Pashman at The Sporkful), though I don't see why you'd want the cheese to touch your tongue before the egg or the bacon. An artifact of the ordering of the assembly line at McDonald's, perhaps—maybe the cheese dispenser simply comes before the egg-warmer as the sandwich is slid down toward the front counter. But this wouldn't explain why other McDonald's breakfast sandwiches are stacked with cheese on top.

Whatever the reasoning, let us all agree on one thing: It is a mistake, and one that is easy to rectify. I stack my McMuffin with the bacon on the bottom, followed by the egg and, finally, the cheese.

Once the sandwich is stacked, it may seem like it's ready for eating, but it's not. As any New Yorker who has ordered an egg sandwich at the corner bodega can tell you, there's something magical that happens between the time the cook pulls the sandwich off the griddle and the time that you pull it back out in the street, unwrap it, and start eating. That two-minute period of steaming inside its wrappings is absolutely essential for perfect breakfast-sandwich texture.

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I actually like to wrap my sandwich up in foil and place it back in the skillet with the heat off, letting that residual heat in the metal continue to gently warm the sandwich until it forms one grand, amalgamated vision. A sandwich that is truly more than a simple sum of its parts.

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Granted, this recipe would've been much more useful, say, last year, when it could have solved all of your post-morning McMuffin needs. Hopefully, the improvements it makes over the original are enough to get you excited.

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And there, look at that tender egg. When was the last time you saw a McDonald's egg do that?

I don't know whether that 18% sales figure for McDonald's breakfast has gone up or down in the last 35 years, but let's do our darnedest to put a dent in it by making more of these guys at home.