Spain’s professional and amateur cooks seem to have an instinct for frying eggs because they invariably get them right. But it’s not really an instinct — it’s just a sensible technique that mothers have handed down to their children.
One of the reasons Spanish professional cooks and housewives get such good results is that they use a frying pan that takes a single egg. The ideal pan is no bigger than a classic English tea plate.
I’ve been watching Spaniards fry eggs for decades and I have never seen anyone, professional or amateur, fry two eggs at a time in a same frying pan. It’s always a single egg in a smallish frying pan.
On the other hand I have frequently seen British and American housewives attempt to fry four eggs at a time in the same large pan — a method that can only lead to failure.
When someone is a real duffer in the kitchen we often say he (it’s usually a man) cannot even fry an egg, as if it were something that all human beings know by instinct.
The frying of an egg is theoretically simple but in practice it is beset with difficulties, one of which is that not everyone knows what a fried egg is — so they are handicapped from the outset.
A fried egg is not one that is done in a non-stick frying pan with little or no oil. It is not an egg cooked on a hot plate, such as those served in fast food outlets. It is not an egg cooked in a big frying pan after the bacon, sausages, black pudding and fried tomato halves have been pushed to one side. So what is a fried egg? A good one fulfils three conditions.
The yolk must be in a completely liquid state. If it has started to set around the edge it is not a good fried egg. If it is completely set then you should start gain.
The white must be set and no more. If it is cooked through the protein becomes hard. For the connoisseur, such an egg would be a failure.
The third condition is the most difficult to achieve and the one Spanish cooks do so well. Because of the high heat in which the egg is fried, the outer rim of the white becomes frizzy and crisp and looks like lace-work This effect is known as ‘puntilla’ in Spanish, ‘puntilla’ being the word for lace.
When did you last make a fried egg like that? If the answer is never, then don’t worry because the frying of eggs, like everything else, can be learned.
The best fried eggs I have ever eaten were undoubtedly those I had at Restaurante Jarana in Calle Cotoner in Santa Catalina. This was in the late 1980s and 1990s when it was run by Blanca Navarra.
Jarana specialised in Spanish regional cooking and was especially famous for its hot pot called cocido madrileño, which it served every day, and also for its fried eggs. At that time it was the only restaurant I knew of that had a special section on the menu for fried eggs.
One of their main course fried egg dishes consisted of two fried eggs, roasted red peppers, batter-fried onion rings, a sliced potatoes dish cooked in the oven and a choice of morcilla (black pudding), chorizo, sobrasada or chistorra, the spicy paprika-flavoured sausage.
Blanca’s eggs were always perfectly fried. The white was soft and just set and the yolk was always very runny — which is how yolks should be, but all too often aren’t.
But there was something else about Blanca’s eggs that you never saw in other Palma restaurants — she always served them with a golden to frizzy edge, the ‘puntilla’ effect mentioned above.
Many Spanish housewives can fry eggs with this lace-like edge but you don’t see it very often in restaurants — not even when you ask for it. And nowadays some young waiters and waitresses have never heard of ‘huevos con puntilla’.
It’s so much easier to do eggs on hot plates or non-stick frying pans that many people, including young cooks, don’t even know how to get the ‘puntilla’ effect.
As Blanca did such superb fried eggs — they were always worth a 10-rating — I wanted to see how she did it. The complete process from start to finish — plus an explanation of what she did did so that I could also do ‘huevos con puntilla’ and get it right every time.
So one day at mid-day I went along to Jarana and watched Blanca fry a couple of eggs. It was a masterly lesson I have never forgotten.
Blanca said that frying an egg ‘con puntilla’ wasn’t really all that difficult but that there were certain rules that had to be followed. The most important of all, she said, was that the eggs had to be free-range and very fresh.
It’s essential that the white be solid and the part round the yolk has to be raised, so that it resembles a horse’s collar.
If the egg isn’t fresh the white will be watery and when it goes into the frying pan it will spread all over the base and the fried egg will be a complete disaster fit only for the bin.
It is also very important that the egg be at room temperature — we should never use them direct from the fridge.
Blanca’s frying pan had a 13cms base and was deep enough for the eggs to float in 3cms of oil. Blanca always used olive oil. The temperature of the oil is another crucial part of the process. When a slight blue haze starts to come off the surface, said Blanca, the oil is hot enough.
When oil is as hot as this, the white starts to set instantly and the edges, which are thinner, turn frizzy. This gives us the ‘puntilla’ effect. Blanca speeds up the frying process by flicking oil over the white with a spatula.
When the oil is as hot as this, working at high speed is of the utmost importance. If the frying is prolonged, the protein in the white will harden and the egg will never get a 10-rating.
I timed Blanca when she fried a second egg. From the moment she dropped the egg into the frying pan until she took it out with the white softly set, the yolk totally liquid and the ‘puntilla’ in place, she took exactly 10 seconds.
That’s just a tiny bit more than Usain Bolt when he’s running 100 metres on his way to an Olympic gold medal.
Blanca’s performance was impressive…just like Bolt’s.