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Most of the fried eggs we eat are not really fried. I mean, they're fried, but they're not fried.
The first time I tasted eggs that were truly fried was in the streets of Thailand, where a lady with a mobile wok burner served me a plate of rice topped with phat ka-phrao (pork with holy basil). She handed the plate over, but held her hand up, indicating I should wait. As I held the plate, she added more oil to the empty wok, heating it up until it looked like it was just about to start smoking, before slipping an egg into it. The egg immediately started sputtering and spitting as she used her spatula to help the hot oil flow in waves over the top of the egg. Thirty seconds later, it was deposited on my plate with crisp, lacy edges, a tender center, and a runny yolk to mix in with my rice.
It was a revelation.
Fried eggs are one of the first foods people learn how to cook. They are easily the dish I've cooked most often in my life, and I've used many methods to do it, from the simple throw-'em-on-a-griddle-until-they're-done to the cover-with-a-lid-and-add-a-little-water technique my late grandmother favored. Nearly all of them are gentler than the high-heat technique that has easily become my favorite.
A few years after I had that egg in Thailand, I remember reading a passage in badass British chef Marco Pierre White's excellent voyeur's-paradise of an autobiography, The Devil in the Kitchen, in which he suggests taking this gentle egg-cooking to the extreme.
Visualize that fried egg on the plate. Do you want it to be burned around the edges? Do you want to see craters on the egg white?... The answer to [these] questions should be no. Yet the majority of people still crack an egg and drop it into searingly hot oil or fat and continue to cook it on high heat.... And the result...is an inedible destruction of that great ingredient—the egg. Maybe that's how you like it, in which case carry on serving your disgusting food.
Strong words, though not unexpected from an anti-iconoclast like White.
He then goes on to suggest that eggs should be fried in butter over extraordinarily low heat—if there is any sizzling, any sound at all, the pan is too hot. As the whites slowly set, he suggests you spoon some of that melted butter over the top to encourage more even cooking.
Eggs cooked this way are gorgeous. Picture-perfect. Golden-yolked and whiter than a polar bear blinking in a blizzard.* And don't get me wrong; visual appeal is important, and there are some rare circumstances in which these eggs are useful (think: on a croque madame), but for me, that's about the extent of the allure of slow-fried eggs. Even using the word "fried" to describe them is being generous.
In the words of my six-year-old self, they're pretty...pretty boring. Sure, there's plenty of good buttery flavor if you've been spooning butter over them as they cook, but do buttery, tender, pure-white eggs sound familiar? I believe that folks who like their eggs this way can't admit that they just want poached eggs with Hollandaise. A noble, delicious food, to be sure, but if you want poached eggs and Hollandaise, why not just eat it?
* Pro tip: If you happen to like eggs like this and want those eggs to have an even nicer, cleaner, neater, more sterile appearance, first drain the excess watery whites in a strainer, like I do for poached eggs, or cut off the excess whites with a knife or a biscuit cutter before serving.
For me, a fried egg should taste fried, with cratered, bubbly whites, crispy brown edges, and all. It's the built-in texture and flavor contrasts that really make it. Here's how I cook mine.
I start with a carbon steel, cast iron, or nonstick skillet, set over medium-high heat with a few tablespoons of oil. I typically use canola, but here's a case where you can use fancy extra-virgin and that flavor will come through in the finished dish. If you want to get even fancier, try sprinkling a touch of smoked paprika into the oil, the way Canal House recommends, as reported on Food52. Some chorizo or bacon fat is also a good idea.
Once the oil is shimmering-hot—just shy of smoking—I add my eggs, making sure to break them into the pan gently from just above the surface of the oil. You don't want that oil splashing up onto you! The eggs should immediately start sputtering and spitting when they reach the pan. Hit them with salt and pepper at this stage.
When the eggs are in the pan, I tilt it upwards, using a dish towel to protect my hand from any oil splatter. This causes the hot oil to pool in the edge of the pan. I use a spoon to lift that oil and baste the egg with it, aiming it wherever the egg whites seem loosest and making sure to avoid the yolk.
Here's where you'll actually find an advantage in using cast iron or carbon steel. Because both of these are slightly less nonstick than a true nonstick skillet, the eggs should stay attached to the pan at the top, allowing you easy access to the oil. With a nonstick skillet, the eggs have a tendency to slide down with the oil, making it a little more difficult to get a nice pool of it.
Once the eggs are puffy and crisp around the edges—about 45 seconds or so—I use a thin wooden or metal spatula to release them from the bottom of the pan, then transfer them to a serving platter.
They sure aren't the prettiest eggs around. These are the kinds of eggs you might describe to your friends as having a really great personality or being soooooo funny. Except you really, really mean it. They do have a great personality!
Just tell me that you wouldn't want to take that egg home with you and have it stick around for a nice one-on-one breakfast the next morning.