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I like my eggs Sunny-side up, and ideally, with runny yolk but fully firmed up whites (including a millimeter-thin film of cooked yolk/whites on top of the yolk - not sure if there's a technical term for that).

This seems like an incredibly difficult balance - either the whole yolk starts to harden (very quickly - enough to get distracted for 15 seconds), or the whites are still runny and the yolk top is not cooked.

What's the best approach?

I tried covering my frying pan with a cover (helped a bit) and cooking over lower gas for a bit longer (didn't help much).

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If it matters - I cook 4 eggs in a 12" enamel frying pan, regular gas stove. Same problem exists for any kind of eggs, but my current preference are extra large organic Whole Foods brown ones. –  DVK Dec 15 '13 at 15:32
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For one method, with lots and lots of pictures, see: thepioneerwoman.com/cooking/2012/03/perfect-sunny-side-up-eggs –  SAJ14SAJ Dec 15 '13 at 16:59
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Is over-easy out of the question? I just flip them after most of the white has cooked, and then immediately take them off the pan. You lose the perfect sunny side up presentation, but they taste the same and the yolk remains liquid. –  Doug Kavendek Dec 15 '13 at 17:14
    
@DougKavendek - I'm hopeless with flipping, so won't work for me –  DVK Dec 15 '13 at 17:47
    
@DougKavendek Work the breakfast shift at a diner for a while. The perfect egg flip technique is something you will acquire after your 100th broken yolk. –  Jolenealaska Dec 15 '13 at 18:06

3 Answers 3

up vote 16 down vote accepted

Moderate heat, eggs at room temperature, non-stick egg pan (8" is good, with gently sloping sides) with a tight lid. Melt butter in the egg pan until it stops foaming. Crack your eggs into a bowl so you've got more control when you add them to the egg pan. Cook uncovered until just the bottoms of the white are set, the tops of the whites should still be transparent. Add 1Tbs water for two eggs, cover, check after 45 seconds and give the eggs a jiggle to be sure they will slide neatly out of the pan. They may be ready at this point, they may need another 30 seconds to a minute.

EDIT: I'm hungry anyway:

mise en place

My pan isn't ideal, I'd rather have 8", this one is 10" but it has a lid. My eggs are at room temperature, I have butter ready and a tablespoon of water. A heat-proof rubber spatula is nice to have, but if everything goes right you don't even need it. I turn the heat to 1 click out of 10 below medium (YMMV [Your Mileage May Vary]). After giving the burner and pan a couple of minutes to heat up it should take room temperature butter about 10 seconds to fully melt and another 5 seconds to stop sizzling.

butter sizzling butter ready

One thing that I like about cracking eggs into a bowl first is that it allows me to better center the yolks.

eggs start

The whites should start to become opaque almost immediately, but they shouldn't take on any brown color or be sizzling hard, just gently. Once the bottoms of the eggs are completely opaque (this should take less than 30 seconds), add the water and cover immediately. Now the eggs are steaming.

steaming eggs

Fortyfive seconds and a jiggle later they're just about there! (This is when I'll add salt and pepper, I'll wait until they're plated for the hot sauce I can't live without.)

almost there!

10 more seconds under the lid, slide onto the plate. Voilà, completely set whites, completely runny yolks. OOPS, I forgot the tiny bit of white on top. That's easy, using a spoon, give the eggs a quick baste of the hot butter before placing the lid.

done

One more quick note: You may notice that I used quite a bit of butter. That's just personal preference when my jeans are fitting just fine. You may use much less butter if you prefer, another type of fat, or even just a spray of non-stick spray (Pam). If you use a minimum amount of fat, or even none, the "check and jiggle" step becomes even more important. Make sure you can slide the eggs around in the pan. If they're sticking at all, this is when the heat-proof rubber (silicone) spatula can be very helpful.

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Amazing answer! One question: is the water added to the top of the yolk, top of the wites, or the butter where there's no egg? –  DVK Dec 15 '13 at 17:49
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I pour the water towards the edge of the pan where there is no egg and tilt the pan to give me the probably totally incorrect illusion that the water is sliding under the eggs. –  Jolenealaska Dec 15 '13 at 17:53
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Covering the eggs while cooking is really the key here. Learning that trick a couple years ago has changed my life for the better. (as much as egg-cooking techniques can improve one's life) –  TJ Ellis Dec 15 '13 at 20:15

When you break the eggs into the pan, you will notice that the yolks are surrounded by a higher rounded portion of whites. The secret is to take your fingers and pinch this pile of whites gently until it breaks and the whites in this membrane will redistribute evenly in the pan. You will not have this rounded extra thick area of white that takes longer to cook than the rest of the whites. Once this is done I cover the pan and cook on a medium low flame until the whites are cooked. I think you will find that this solves your problem of the whites taking forever to cook.

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And, the fresher and colder the egg, the more prominent that thicker layer of white will be. –  Jolenealaska Dec 16 '13 at 3:48
  1. Turn up the heat. When the yolk is lying on top of the whites, the whites conduct heat to it while cooking. If you use a hotter pan, the whites won't have conducted much heat to the yolk.

  2. Use older eggs. Fresh egg whites are firm, older ones are more liquid. If you use fresh eggs, the whites layer will be thicker, and there will not only be a difference in the doneness between yolk and white, but also within the white itself. If you cook until the top layer of the white is done, the bottom layer will be overfried.

  3. Use colder eggs. Then you have a larger thermal gradient between the yolk centre and the pan-heated whites.

  4. If you don't mind using tricks: separate the whites from the yolk. Put a pinch of cream of tartar into the whites, and stir them until uniformly liquid. Don't use a whisk or a mixer with baloon beaters, you don't want to beat air into the yolks. Pour the whites into the pan, the whole yolks on top. The acid will cause the whites to firm up quicker, leaving you with a colder, so non-firm, yolk.

As for the thin cooked layer on top, I can't imagine it being possible in an open pan, you need heat coming from above for that. A closed pan is a much better idea. Frying the bottom in the pan first, then holding them for a few seconds under a grill or going over them with a gas torch will probably work better, but is also more hassle.

And yes, you recognized correctly that it is a difficult balance. All types of fried egg dish are quite hard to master (if you are looking for a specific quality, of course; a homogenous mass of rubbery texture is easy for everybody) and when you can do it, it will require constant watching without distractions. There is no way around that. Eggs are chemically complex, and cooking them is a very precise process with low tolerances.

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The cooked layer on top is from spooning over the hot cooking butter or other fat, much like basting. –  SAJ14SAJ Dec 15 '13 at 16:58
    
@SAJ14SAJ - I frequently manage the top layer even without basting - mostly, from steam when glass lid covers the pan. It's just not easy to get consistently :) –  DVK Dec 15 '13 at 17:03
    
That may also work, but Rumtscho didn't mention covering. –  SAJ14SAJ Dec 15 '13 at 17:07

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