When I was growing up, the only idea I had of fried eggs was something my grandmother, who did all the cooking, referred to as “friedegg.”
I thought it was a Yiddish word. Actually, it was scrambled eggs, but as she made it in a frying pan and there could be absolutely no trace of runniness in order for me to eat them, the word “fried” must have lodged in her brain as the preeminent concept.
So when I encountered the “real thing” at a New England diner, served atop corned beef hash, ordered for me in error by my great Uncle Nat (I had requested a “normal” hamburger), I was shocked and disgusted by its runny yolk. I mushed it about, hoping it would disappear into the hash, which it obligingly did - mostly.
My second unavoidable encounter with the fried egg was the epiphany for me. It was at the start of my freshman year at the University of Vermont. My new boyfriend invited me to go deer hunting and set out to prepare our midday snack. I watched in fascination as he sliced the loaf of home-baked bread that a woman had given him as partial payment for mowing her lawn. I had never before tasted home-baked bread.
When asked what he was planning to put on it, he answered nonchalantly, “A fried egg.” Seeing my disbelief, he added, “Don’t worry. You’ll be really hungry, and it will be really good.”
It was an adventure for me. I shot a gun (at a tree) for the first time. I hit the designated knot bulls-eye and then fell backwards in a dead faint from the unexpected kick of the gun against my shoulder. We never saw a single deer (much to my secret relief).
After a few hours in the brisk autumn air, we were both cold and ravenous, and he unwrapped the suspect sandwich for us to share.
Was it new love, hunger or the quality of the ingredients, or a combination of the three? Whatever the case, it was the best thing I had ever tasted.
I said with surprised relief, “The yolk isn’t runny.”
He explained that the yolk had to be set so as not to run out of the sandwich. I saw the logic of this. And having been thus seduced, it was an easy leap to open myself to the discovery of how fantastically delicious and more flavorful the yolk is when still fluid as a golden sauce.
Now, three decades later, I have perfected the fried egg to the state where it is a special breakfast treat. The yolk is runny and the white crunchy.
The technique runs contrary to every theory about egg cookery (low heat and fresh eggs). The secret is the almost smoking-hot bacon fat and less than fresh eggs so that the egg whites spread out around the yolks and become tender and crisp. I’ve always heard that high heat makes the whites tough and rubbery, but not when prepared this way.
If the eggs are still fresh, the whites will stay more closely around the yolks so there will be less surface area to crisp, but it will still work.
With older eggs, you run the risk of breaking the yolks if you turn them over because they become more fragile. To be on the safe side, it’s fine to baste the yolks with the hot fat instead of turning the eggs. This technique is actually called basted eggs.
My grandmother would never have believed any of this!
Crisp Fried Eggs
Eggs cool faster than just about any other food, so place serving dishes in oven on low heat.
3 to 4 tablespoons bacon fat (use 4 if basting)
Freshly ground black pepper
Salt to taste, depending on saltiness of bacon fat
Heat 8-inch cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat until 1 drop water sizzles. Add bacon fat and heat until almost smoking. Break eggs into fat. Turn heat to low (if cast iron, the pan will retain heat). Grind pepper on top. Cook until whites are set. If basting with the hot fat, yolks will develop cloudy white coating on top; alternatively, gently turn eggs over and continue cooking about 10 seconds.
Use slotted pancake turner to lift eggs onto plate. Serve with toast for dipping into yolks.
Yield: 1 serving.
Nutrition information per serving, including 1 slice toast: 667 calories, 62 grams fat (84 percent fat calories), 13 grams protein, 13 grams carbohydrate, 415 milligrams cholesterol, 528 milligrams sodium.