When I started writing these recipes a year ago, it was a struggle to decide what to write about; where to start?
My pal Freya wanted me to write about eggs. “Eggs! Eggs! Eggs!” she said. My partner Emily didn’t think that was interesting enough. I agreed with Emily and went in other directions. But then the derecho happened. After living the 19th century lifestyle for a couple of weeks here in Cedar Rapids, I’m feeling a hankering to get back to basics. The fancy stuff is great and all that, when you have time for it.
There are few things more basic, yet more tricky, than cooking diner-style eggs. Over easy, medium, hard. Sunny-side up. Basted. Emily reminded me of this today, so if any of this makes sense to you, you can thank her for the idea.
Egg chefs are a rare breed. Chefs either love or hate making eggs — there is little middle ground. It takes some concentration to get an over-easy egg that has no brown spots, has fully cooked whites, and a perfectly warmed, yet runny, yolk. Lucky for us, this is a lot easier to accomplish at home than in a restaurant, where you might be juggling six different sets of eggs at the same time.
Eggs are the champion of breakfast foods. So quick, so easy. But they also can be treacherous. They demand attention. Keeping on the sunny side: Even with a half-awake, “I haven’t had my coffee yet” span of attention, you should be good enough to cook a perfect breakfast egg. Watch and learn, that is the name of the game.
Some cooks thrive on being put “on the spot,” which is where you will be when cooking eggs. To other cooks, it is the bane of their existence. Really, it’s a matter of adapting to this stovetop, this pan, here, now. Repetition breeds familiarity and confidence.
This, here, now. That’s a useful attitude to keep in your head whenever you are cooking anything. Or doing anything, really. But when you are cooking eggs, “this, here, now” is a natural law. Your opinions don’t hold a candle to the reality of a fire under a pan with eggs on it. You can spend money or time, but to cook eggs without making excuses, you must pay attention. This. Here. Now.
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You must know your stove. Every burner is different. Whether it’s gas, electric, induction or whatever. It’s not “a stovetop.” It is “THIS stovetop.” You learn this quickly when you bounce around between restaurants. Every burner is different. Every pan is different. Chefs tend to jump to a new restaurant every few years. No matter how long they have been cooking professionally, every egg chef has to relearn how to make eggs HERE, at the new place. It can be a fun challenge, if you are into that sort of thing.
Take some notes when you start to figure out your egg routine. Write them down. Even if you don’t look at them later, just writing down the temperature and times will help you remember them. Run a timer. How many minutes and seconds before you flip them? How many seconds after you flip? Remember how it worked here, this time. Honestly, I absolutely love electric stoves with the pigtail burners for cooking eggs. Whenever I set a stove I know to “4,” it is always the exact same “4.” No guess work. Steady as she goes.
Know your fry pan. Every pan is different. Thicker or thinner, aluminum or steel, coated or cured; every pan behaves differently. The best pan to cook eggs in is the one you normally cook eggs in. It’s kind of like building a relationship between your egg pan and yourself. Most restaurants that do breakfast or brunch have specific pans that only ever get used for the eggs. After breakfast service is over, they put them away in a safe place, like the chef’s office, so they won’t get mistreated during the chaos of lunch or dinner service. As the old saying goes: Take care of your tools, and they will take of you.
Generally, a nonstick pan is going to be your friend when cooking eggs. That might be a paper thin non-stick-coated pan, or it might be a thick cast iron pan with an immaculate glassy finish. I prefer a cast iron crepe pan. Cast iron is the old school nonstick. The low edges of a crepe pan let you get under the edges of your eggs a lot easier than a high-walled sautee pan. Unless I’m doing scrambled. I use a regular cast iron pan for that. The edges keep the scramble in the pan where it belongs, not all over the stovetop.
• Over easy: A fully cooked white with a perfectly runny yolk
• Over medium: Cooked white with a half cooked yolk
• Over hard: Fully cooked white and yolk
• Sunny-side up: Fully cooked white with raw yolk on top
• Basted: Cooked white with a steamed top surface
GET FRESH EGGS
One of the biggest factors in making any style of eggs, like over easy, sunny or poached, is how fresh the eggs are. There is a thin membrane that separates the yolk from the white in a raw egg. As the egg ages, that membrane breaks down. The fresher the egg is, the stronger that membrane is. So fresh eggs will give you better easies and sunnies than old eggs. Old eggs will break their yolks when you flip them, those are best to set aside for scrambles and omelets.
PRE-CRACK YOUR EGGS
It’s always a good idea to crack your eggs into a small dish, instead of directly into your pan. Let them sit for a minute, and you can see how well the yolk membrane is holding up. Many eggs will start to “weep” after cracking them into a dish. Cracking them into a small dish first, and looking at them, will often tell you whether the yolk will break in the pan. Folks call these eggs “weepers.” Weepers cry out their yolks before they are cooked. They still are good eggs for eating, but are no good for delicate temperatures like over easy or sunny.
The other thing about cooking eggs is that you have to chill and hang out with them. Don’t walk away. Don’t have a long philosophical conversation while cooking eggs. Watch and listen to the eggs. Demand quiet time. It’s only for a couple of minutes, it shouldn’t be a big deal.
If you want to have clean white eggs, absent brown cracklins on the edges, you want to start your eggs in a cold pan. Getting the pan hot first is great for putting brown char on food. Avoiding brown on eggs is tricky, but easily addressed. I like to start my cast iron crepe pan over medium heat, with butter pats on it. Cold. I put the pan on the heat, and when the butter pats have just barely melted, I add the eggs. If you are using a neutral cooking oil, like canola, you don’t have to wait, just swirl it around until it evenly coats the bottom of the pan.
WATCH THE WHITES
After dropping the eggs into the pan, you want to keep your eyes on the whites. They will look clear at first. Gradually they will start to turn white on the bottom. The solid whiteness will creep its way up as it cooks. When it is about half or two-thirds of the way up, that is when you want to flip them. Slide a spatula underneath and turn them over.
KILL THE HEAT
After flipping your eggs, turn the heat off. The pan you are cooking in will stay hot enough to finish cooking the eggs. This is where you run a timer or start counting in your head. In my house, on my stove, it takes about 1 minute and 45 seconds for the whites to set before the flip. After flipping and killing the heat, it takes about 25 seconds for the egg to be over easy. For an over medium, it takes about 40 seconds after the flip. For an over hard, I let it rest for a full minute and a half.
SUNNY-SIDE UP & BASTED
Sunny-side up eggs, and their sister-style “basted” eggs, are a slightly different game. You still want to start them cold in your trusted egg pan, just like the “over” styles. However, since you are not going to flip them, it helps to take an extra step: separate the yolk from the white. Start the white by itself in the pan. When the white just starts to set — when it becomes opaque on the bottom — gently place the yolk on the center of the white like a bull’s-eye.
This serves two purposes. First, that membrane that separates the yolk from the white tends to cling to yolk, preventing it from cooking through with the rest of the white. So if you don’t separate the yolk for sunny-side up eggs, that membrane won’t cook until the yolk does. And the entire purpose of a sunny egg is to have a very runny yolk. I’ve seen chefs drop a whole egg into a pan for sunnies, and then pinch the edge of the yolk to achieve the same effect. This could accidentally break the yolk, though. I’ve always felt like separating first is safer, more of a sure thing.
For a “basted” egg, you start it just like a sunny, but you don’t have to separate the yolk first. When the white is halfway cooked through, you add a tablespoon of water to the pan and put a lid on it. This steams the top of the egg without having to flip it. Basted eggs can have the same gradients as “over” eggs: easy, medium and hard.
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Just like easy eggs, you want to get your routine down. Take notes on how hot the burner is, how much water you use, and how long you let it steam.
Diners do basted eggs because they sometimes don’t have a stovetop where they can boil water to poach eggs. It’s as close as you can get to poached on a flat top griddle.
And that’s that! Diner-style eggs. OK, so I didn’t get into scrambles, omelets or poached eggs. Those are entirely different processes that deserve their own articles. I hope this helps you dial in your breakfast game, and have a great morning.
Chef Tibbs, also known as Joshua “Tibbs” Tibbetts, is a Cedar Rapids native who has been cooking as a professional chef for 28 years. He now is in the banquet kitchen at DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Cedar Rapids Convention Complex.