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Question Is it possible to fry an egg on the sidewalk if it's hot enough?

Answer

Yes, theoretically. But it doesn’t actually get hot enough.

Russell Lee, photographer. Faro Caudill frying eggs over camp fire the day he was moving his dugout. Pie Town, New Mexico. 1940. Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

This question comes from the saying “It’s so hot you could fry an egg on the sidewalk!” How many kids, hearing it, actually try? Most likely they end up with a mess resembling scrambled eggs more than one sunny-side up. So what’s the problem?

An egg needs a temperature of 158°F to become firm. In order to cook, proteins in the egg must denature (modify), then coagulate, and that won’t happen until the temperature rises enough to start and maintain the process.

Heat Index Map, La Crosse Heat Preparedness. National Weather Service, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA).

The sidewalk presents several challenges to this. According to an experiment reported in Robert Wolke’s book, What Einstein Told His Cook: Kitchen Science Explained, sidewalk temperatures can vary depending on the composition of the sidewalk, whether it is in direct sunlight, and of course, the air temperature. Dark objects absorb more light, so blacktop paving would be hotter than concrete. More often than not, sidewalks are concrete. Wolke found that a hot sidewalk might only get up to 145°F. Once you crack the egg onto the sidewalk, the egg cools the sidewalk slightly. Pavement of any kind is a poor conductor of heat, so lacking an additional heat source from below or from the side, the egg will not cook evenly.

Bathers on sidewalk–Anna Maria Beach, Florida, about 1920.   Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Something closer to the conditions of a frying pan would be the hood of a car. Metal conducts heat better and gets hotter, so people actually have been able to cook an egg on a car hood’s surface.

Still, the idea of cooking an egg on a sidewalk won’t die. It is so intriguing that the city of Oatman, Arizona, hosts an annual Solar Egg Frying Contest on the 4th of July. Contestants get 15 minutes to make an attempt using solar (sun) power alone. Oatman judges, however, do allow some aids, such as mirrors, aluminum reflectors, or magnifying glasses, which would help to focus the heat onto the egg itself. It turns out that eggs also have a bit of an advantage in Arizona, the land of low humidity and high heat. Liquids evaporate rapidly when humidity is low. The eggs have a bit of “help” while they cook, and they dry out faster.

New York, New York. Children escape the heat of the East Side by using fire hydrant as a shower bath.  Roger Smith, photographer, 1943.  Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

I bet you were wondering what the origin of the saying is? It’s not clear, although there is a reference to it in the Los Angeles Times on October 5, 1933, and even as far back as June 11, 1899, in The Atlanta Constitution–so the idea had captured the American imagination and become one of our common sayings by that time. And what about the other saying, “it’s so hot the chickens are laying hard-boiled eggs?” Well, what do you think?

View other unique ways to cook:

Battery Park on hot day.  Bain News Service, between 1910 and 1915. Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Published: 11/19/2019. Author: Science Reference Section, Library of Congress

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