Origins of the English Breakfast
The traditional English breakfast of eggs, bacon, sausage and other ingredients is ubiquitous the world over. Cafés and hotels all around the world offer a version of "English breakfast", often far removed from what might be considered conventional!
The English breakfast as it is known today is based, like so many British traditions, on what became popular in the Victorian era. Victorian home economist Isabella Beeton gives the following advice in The Book of Household Management (1861) about breakfast:
|“||The following list of hot dishes may perhaps assist our readers in knowing what to provide for the comfortable meal called breakfast. Broiled fish, such as mackerel, whiting, herrings, dried haddocks, &c.; mutton chops and rump-steaks, broiled sheep’s kidneys, kidneys à la maître d’hôtel, sausages, plain rashers of bacon, bacon and poached eggs, ham and poached eggs, omelets, plain boiled eggs, oeufs-au-plat, poached eggs on toast, muffins, toast, marmalade, butter, &c. &c.||”|
Nowadays far too few Englishmen start their day with such a large meal. Surveys cited in The Magpie history of food (Audrey Ellis, 1977) indicate that in 1958 50% of British families still started their day with a cooked breakfast, but by 1976 it had fallen to 18%. More recent surveys (within the last 2-3 years) put the figure today at less than 1%.
The English breakfast is still a mainstay of boarding houses, hotels and cafés in Britain, however, and will always be found on the menu of most such establishments. There are also many varieties across the United Kingdom and Ireland, including the Full Irish, Ulster Fry, Full Welsh, and Full Scottish, among others.
What is in an English breakfast?
The key components of an English breakfast include:
- white egg
- sliced fried red tomatoes
- baked beans (in cans)
- fresh sauted mushrooms
- fried or roast potatoes
- fried bread
- black pudding
An English breakfast may also include:
- stewed prunes
- buttered toast, often spread with orange marmalade
- orange juice
Usually the eggs are fried, but for a lighter, more healthy option they can be poached. The bacon can also be fried, but traditionally it is more often grilled until slightly crispy. A fresh tomato, halved and then grilled until browned, is much nicer than the tinned tomatoes or tinned baked beans so often substituted, and hot toast completes the meal. Traditionally it is served with tea (with milk), although coffee and orange juice are usually also offered.
A variant on the above, called the "Full English Breakfast", is a more substantial version which additionally contains a selection of the following:
- one fried egg
- one English-style sausage
- two rashers of crispy fried bacon
- a portion of fried mushrooms (browned)
- two slices of fried black pudding (a type of sausage made with pig's blood)
- half a tomato, fried until brown
- one slice of fried bread (a slice of white bread fried in oil, preferably the oil used to cook the bacon)
By the time you have added in all these (and other fried items such as hash browns, bubble and squeak or beans), it can become quite a plateful. Really large full English breakfasts (often colloquially known as "fry-ups") are a staple of cheap cafés, themselves known as "greasy spoons" - a reference to the lack of quality and low standards of cleanliness of the establishment. True aficionados, however, often maintain that the best examples of a fry-up can only be found from such establishments, and many believe this is a result of the frying fat being reused and thus infused with the flavours of the dish.
Making an English breakfast
Like so many famous dishes, the English breakfast frequently suffers from being prepared badly and with poor quality ingredients. Often this means everything is fried in copious quantities of fat, making for a heavy and unpleasant meal. Cooked well, with high quality ingredients, it can be a delicious start to the day - although something to have more as an occasional treat, perhaps, than every day!
Preparing an English breakfast is quite easy; it is basically a matter of starting off cooking the items that take the longest to cook, and moving through to the things that take the least time so that it is all ready at the same time. It is made even easier by the fact that most of the ingredients can be kept warm for a while once cooked without spoiling; this fact allows for the common way of serving English breakfasts as a kind of buffet where diners can help themselves from warm serving plates.
To make an English breakfast for 4 people, you will need:
- 4 rashers of bacon (smoked bacon without too much fat is best, e.g. smoked back bacon)
- 4 eggs (although you could cook 2 eggs per person if your guests are hungry!)
- 4 English-style pork sausages
- 4 medium sized tomatoes, halved across-ways
- 400g mushrooms, sliced
- 4-8 slices of bread (traditionally white)
- tin baked beans (optional)
The following instructions are for making a slightly healthier version of an English breakfast, with the emphasis on grilling and poaching rather than frying.
- Heat the grill to a medium heat, and cook the sausages under it, turning frequently.
- Cover the base of a frying pan with about 1cm of water, and heat on a high heat until boiling. When it is boiling, carefully break the eggs into it. If you have cooking rings, you can put these into the water first and then break the eggs into the rings, to prevent the eggs from spreading too much - although really fresh eggs should stay together anyway. Once the eggs are in the pan, wait a few moments for the water to heat up again, then turn the heat down to a very very gently simmer. To ensure the tops of the eggs are cooked, spoon water from around the edge of the pan over the top of the eggs a few times during cooking. When cooked, the egg white should be soft but cooked through and the yolk still runny.
- Put the halved tomatoes under the grill with the sausages.
- If using, put the baked beans into a pan and heat through over a medium heat.
- Heat up a very small amount of oil in another pan, and fry the mushrooms until they are soft.
- Put the bacon under the grill along with the sausages and tomatoes. Cook on one side for about 2 minutes, then turn once and repeat. Cook longer if crispier bacon is preferred.
- Whilst cooking the bacon, use a toaster or grill to toast the bread until golden.
- Serve the eggs, bacon, mushrooms, sausage, tomato and beans onto piping hot plates, with the toast on a separate plate or toast rack. Serve with butter and jam for the toast, and hot tea with milk.
As a timing guide, here is how long (approximately) each item takes to cook:
- sausages - 10-15 mins
- eggs - 8-10 mins
- tomatoes - 6 mins
- beans - 5 mins
- mushrooms - 4 mins
- bacon - 4 mins
- toast - 3 mins
However, if you can't cope with doing it all at once (or don't have enough pans / rings), it is possible to keep all of the items warm in a preheated oven, so you can just cook each item in turn and keep it warm until needed. Try not to keep the eggs warm for too long before serving though, as the yolks may harden.
They use the same ingredients as above and are more in keeping with the spirit of the dish.
- While frying the other ingredients, toast the bread in a grill or toaster. Assuming 2 slices per person, you should have enough by the time you finish the fried food. Be sure to butter them heavily with real butter rather than low-fat spread. Place 4 plates on the bottom shelf of an oven, and one on the top. Set the oven to its lowest heat.
- Melt some lard in a large frying pan (enough to make a layer of fat around 1cm deep) and brown the sausage in it over a high heat. Lower heat and cook the sausage for around 4 minutes, leave it in the pan. A lot of fat will leak from the sausages. Add the bacon (2 strips per person rather than 1) and cook to taste, flipping regularly (2-3 minutes for pink, 4-6 for a darker red bacon with crispy fat). The bacon will also release a lot of fat. Transfer the bacon to the warmed dish in the top of the oven. Leave the sausage in the pan.
- Add the mushrooms and tomatoes to the pan. Add the tin of baked beans to a small pot and heat on a separate ring. After 2-4 minutes, transfer the mushrooms to the oven with the bacon. Transfer the tomato then too, or leave it a little longer depending on taste.
- The sausages should now be dark brown, push them to the side of the pan and break an egg into the fat. Using a spatula, push hot fat over the yolk until it begins to bubble but is still liquid. This should take about 1 minute or so in a hot pan. Set out the 4 warmed plates beforehand and add an egg to each. When done, add the sausage, bacon, and mushrooms. Add the beans last. Serve with the buttered toast on a separate plate.
- If you are using black pudding, add it to the fat with the bacon and remove it before the eggs.
- If you desire a fried slice, add a slice of bread (whole or cut diagonally, in half or quarters) and allow it to absorb some of the leftover fat and lightly fry, then flip over and repeat. Alternatively, you can just fry some bread in vegetable oil in a separate pan but it doesn't have the same flavour as bread fried in the leftover fat from cooking a full breakfast in lard. If a whole slice is used it is preferable to place the fried egg on top, so the yolk runs into the bread and can easily be absorbed by the fried slice.