unlearning what we know: how to fry an egg

The first recipe I want to share this year is like so many ones I've shared before - it really isn't a recipe at all. Instead it is an idea, a formula, a nudge to think about certain ingredients in certain ways. And this one in particular is about unlearning what we already know.

When I was in high-school my mind grew faster than my body. I never experience a physical growth-spurt, but I did go through several mental ones. I discovered the works of writers like Milan Kundera, Toni Morrison, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Mary McCarthy. I discovered feminist theory and queer literature. I learned about performance art and deconstruction. I could actually feel my brain growing. There was so much that I hadn't known existed and once I did, I wanted to know it all.

I still remember a lot from this period in which I was really starting to learn about the world and my place in it. One of the things I remember most is the importance of unlearning. Gloria Steinem says it best: "The first problem for all of us, men and women, is not to learn but to unlearn."

Unlearning is how we are able to confront and overcome the prejudices that society has handed down to us. It is how we are able to really think what we want to think instead of what we are told to think. In many ways, it is how we learn and grow the most. It ends bad habits and destructive rhythms.

Like many things, I don't remember ever learning how to fry an egg. I just knew. I had watched my family fry eggs. I had watched staff at dinners fry em'. It is something that you know and not necessarily that you learn. However, cooking is no different than other things we do and know. Sometimes the greatest lessons are to be found in unlearning what we know as opposed to learning something "new".

For years I mindlessly fried eggs without ever thinking about how I was frying them. Pan on stove. Temperature to medium-high. A smudge of Butter. Or, maybe some olive oil. Butter melts. Shake pan to make sure it is evenly coated. Crack an egg into the pan. Fry. It was even less mindless than setting an alarm clock. With an alarm clock you at least have to think about what time you want to wake up. Frying an egg, I didn't have to think about anything. 

But what about frying an egg in a pan that starts off completely cold? This technique/formula/suggestion comes from Sarah's very thoughtful and delicious blog: The Yellow House. I read her stories like I read her recipes. They are suggestions for how to live well, how to eat well, how to think well, and how to write well. 

Sarah says to use a cast iron skillet, but my smallest pan is just a regular ol' frying pan and for frying an egg in this way you really want to use a small pan. That regular ol' frying pan of mine works just fine, so use whatever pan you have as long as it is a small one. 

This is now my preferred way of frying an egg and I've been practicing it regularly the past few weeks. It yields an egg worthy of great praise. It is creamy and evenly cooked. The bottom is a pure white with no greasy bits or overcooked crispy parts. The yolk is soft and the whites are set.

I am tempted to say that I will never fry an egg in a pan that starts off hot, but in the spirit of unlearning I'm always willing to try a technique that challenges what I think I know.  

John Besh's Sunny Side Up Fried Egg


1 egg, preferably a good organic egg
1 tsp butter, unsalted
sea salt

 Liberally rub a small frying pan with butter. Crack the egg (or two) into the pan, gently and carefully.

Place the pan on the stove and turn on the heat to medium. Make sure that the butter doesn't brown much and that the egg doesn't sputter by adjusting the heat accordingly. Slowly the white will become opaque. Once fully white, gently touch the yolk. It will most likely feel cold. Continue to cook until the yolk feels warm.

Remove the pan from the heat and let it sit for a minute or two. The yolk will continue to cook. 

Sprinkle with sea salt and eat right away.


Rachel  – (January 13, 2014 at 7:07 PM)  

That is one splendid egg - I'll give it a go this week!

Eileen  – (January 13, 2014 at 8:23 PM)  

Hmm--I've never heard of starting fried eggs from a completely cold pan! I guess an experiment is in order. :) I usually make mine via the steam method--heat pan, butter, crack in egg, let cook for 30 seconds, add a splash of water, and immediately slam on the lid. The water steams up and cooks the whites on the top of the egg perfectly.

Emily  – (January 14, 2014 at 9:04 PM)  

Ah, this is beautifully written! It seems so much of early adult life is unlearning what we thought was right as a child. Aaaand I love cooking eggs but never heard about a cold skillet so I will be trying this asap.

Sasha  – (January 27, 2014 at 1:16 PM)  

Let me all know what you think! I am no doubt sold on this technique.

Eileen, I've tried the steam method-heat pan before, but my high-heat gas-oven doesn't seem to be too cooperative. Do you have any tips?

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