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Chefector

Let’s Cook Shakshouka, The Perfect Short-Notice Food

A pan of shakshouka, eggs poached in tomatoes and peppers
Photo by Albert Burneko/Illustration by Chris Thompson

It will not have escaped your notice that these are alarmingly uncertain times. This shows up in your life—in my life, anyway; in a person’s life—in any number of ways. If you are very fortunate, then the disruptions have mostly just been at the levels of logistics and mood. As an example, you’re terrified to go to enclosed public places, so you don’t do it nearly as often, and you’ve adjusted your day-to-day routines in order to avoid doing it any more often than absolutely necessary.

For me, one of the permutations of this is that when I go to the grocery store, I’m laser focused on the stuff that gives me maximal cooking flexibility. This is a roundabout way of saying that I have 72 eggs in my refrigerator right now, and that until a couple of days ago I had 84 ounces of canned tomatoes in my cupboard, and that now that I don’t have 84 ounces of canned tomatoes in there anymore, I’m honestly kind of stressed out about it. You know how the generation that grew up in the Great Depression wound up being stereotyped by their frugality, their hesitance to throw anything away? If I am lucky enough to be old someday, my grandkids will chuckle to each other about their granddad’s weird fixation on, like, always having 36 pounds of rice in the house at all times.

Anyway. Where was I. Ah right. Eggs and canned tomatoes. I am here today to encourage you to cook some shakshouka, a preparation of eggs poached in what’s basically just spiced tomato sauce, and which people have been cooking all around the eastern Mediterranean and North Africa for centuries. It’s a perfect weeknight food: At any given time a normal kitchen is quite likely to have both eggs and canned tomatoes in it, as well as pretty much all the other small number of ingredients in shakshouka. It comes together quickly and cheaply, looks fancy—even in the frankly not all that great photo up there at the top of this blog!—tolerates a near-endless range of improvisations, can be served for any meal of the day, and above all else is hearty and absolutely delicious. I hope you found all of that convincing, because I am moving the hell on now! Let’s cook some shakshouka!

Here are some things that you will need.

You will need some eggs. If your skillet is a wide one and/or you really like eggs, then you should plan on using six of them. I recommend large eggs. Which is to say small ones. At the supermarket the egg sizes go, in ascending order, large, then extra-large, then jumbo. The smallest ones are the ones labeled “large.” I recommend these ones.

The thing is, egg whites and egg yolks solidify at different temperatures. Annoyingly, egg yolks solidify at a lower temperature than the whites. If you use huge eggs in your shakshouka, all of that egg white is going to take a very long time to heat up and solidify, and by the time it does, the yolks are going to be sad dry wads. Smaller eggs are better.

You will need some tomatoes. Realistically we are talking about canned tomatoes, here. Once you have compromised that far I really can’t stop you from going farther and using canned diced or crushed tomatoes; for that matter I also cannot stop you from using ketchup, or from making scrambled eggs instead, or from ordering delivery pizza. My recommendation is that you use canned whole tomatoes, so that the eventual attributes of your shakshouka will express, as much as reasonably possible, cooking choices you made in your kitchen, rather than cooking choices somebody made in a processing plant many hundreds of miles away from your kitchen. I think a 28-ounce can of whole tomatoes will do just fine, unless your skillet is, like, larger than I’m willing to think about.

You will also need to have some other vegetal action. A couple of red bell peppers, diced or sliced into thin strips, will be great. A big yellow onion, diced. A few cloves of garlic, sliced thinly or minced, as suits your preferences. Some herbs, chopped. I recommend flat-leaf parsley and maybe a few mint leaves, but you can also go for cilantro. For that matter, I used oregano the last time I made shakshouka and it was fine.

You will need some spices. I am not going to be as flexible about these. You need ground cumin, probably a tablespoon of it. If you are the sort to toast your own cumin seeds and then grind them, I am very proud of you. But I also don’t give a damn! It’s fine to use pre-ground cumin powder that comes in a little plastic jar. You will need paprika. If it’s within reason for you to seek out some actual good paprika, that has aroma and flavor and isn’t just powdered red food-coloring, that’s what I recommend. On the other hand if the previous sentence struck you as pretentious and unhelpful and sort of weirdly at odds with the whole “I don’t give a damn if you grind your own cumin” thing, that is also fine. Probably I do not need to tell you that you will need to use some salt in the preparation of your shakshouka.

You will need some olive oil. Also, I don’t know that it quite rises to the level of “need,” but your shakshouka will be just a thousand times better overall if you can serve it with some bread. I am not talking about, like, some slices of sandwich bread, here. If you can get some crusty bread, or some good pita bread, then get some!

That is really all you need! You can make a perfectly delicious pan of shakshouka with these ingredients and no others, and you can be serving it, like, I dunno, probably 45 minutes from now. People do fun other things with shakshouka: The New York Times puts crumbled feta in it, and it’s delicious; another recipe I saw one time but have not actually tried included olives; and another included garbanzo beans. Probably half or more of the time, when I make shakshouka, I will either add a hot pepper or two to the vegetal action, or a hearty pinch of hot red chili powder to the list of spices, because I like basically anything tomato-y to also have piquancy. For that matter if you really want to lean into the tomato-sauciness of the enterprise, you can use tomato paste and some anchovies to umami the shit out of it. But you can also just not do any of that; from here on we’ll proceed as though you’re not doing any of that.

Are you ready to cook? Let’s cook. Heat up a big skillet or sauté pan over medium heat on your stovetop. While it’s heating up, it’s Decision Time.

Do you have a lid large enough to completely cover whatever skillet or pan you’re using? If you do, great, proceed to the next paragraph. If you do not, that’s fine, no one is here to judge you. I also do not have a lid large enough to cover my big enameled cast-iron skillet. The issue here is that you won’t be able to cover your shakshouka later on for the purpose of trapping a layer of heat above it and cooking your egg whites quickly before their yolks solidify. In that case, you will need to preheat your oven to 400 degrees, and you will need to make sure that you are using an oven-proof skillet or sauté pan.

When your pan is nice and hot, pour a glug of olive oil into it, heat this oil until it is shimmering but not smoking, and begin cooking your diced onion and peppers in there. Salt them generously to help sweat them along, and give them a rearrangement with your wooden spoon or spatula or whatever every couple of minutes. You can decide for yourself whether you want, like, firm lil’ onion bits in your shakshouka, or if you would like to practice the virtue of patience and give the onion the 15 to 20 minutes it’ll really need to soften and turn translucent.

Eventually your onion will be as soft and as see-through as you like it. Add the garlic to the pan and toss it around with your trusty cooking implement; within seconds you’ll be able to smell it cooking. Now sing the alphabet song to yourself at a normal tempo. When you’re done, add the tablespoon of cumin and a tablespoon of paprika, and move things around to mix them in. Soon they’ll be fragrant and your mouth will be watering. That’s a sign that it’s time to add the tomatoes.

We went over this two weeks ago with the tomato soup. You can just dump the can of tomatoes in there and use your implement to break them up, if you wish to walk The Way Of Cowardice and/or Not Having To Wash Your Hands Quite As Often. Or you can pluck each tomato individually out of the can with your bare damn hand and crush it horribly in your fist (over the pan so as not to send tomato guts spewing all over your kitchen), possibly while hissing You made me do this, before dropping its ragged remains into the pan as though dropping a murder weapon into a bog. Possibly there are other methods. I recommend the incredible violence of smushing the tomatoes in your fist. When you’re done, go ahead and add whatever leftover liquid remains in the can into your cooking vessel.

Move things around a little bit to mix the tomato in with all the other stuff. Taste it and add salt if it needs any. If it has come up to a steady, vigorous simmer, lower the heat a bit so it stays there, and let it go for, oh, maybe 15 or 20 minutes, checking in on it every few minutes to move things around a little. What you’re doing is allowing the flavors to come together and cooking off some of the excess liquid, so that your shakshouka will not be watery and thin but rather thick and robust.

Whenever your shakshouka is as thick as you’d like it, assuming your desired thickness is not “ash” or “my home has burned down,” it will be time to add your eggs. Using your trusty implement, press one cozy little concavity into the surface of the tomato stuff, maybe an inch or two in from the edge of the pan, and then gently crack an egg into it. Repeat this for however many eggs you’re using. You’ll want your eggs to have a little space between them—the surface of your shakshouka should not look like a weird white blanket of eggs—and this should inform how many eggs you decide to use. This really should have gone back up there in that section about how many eggs to use. Oh well.

Eventually you’ll have added your eggs. Now, if you have that lid handy, the one that completely covers your pan, cover your pan and set a timer for, oh, eight minutes. If you do not have such a lid, then you definitely followed the earlier instruction to preheat your oven, in which case stick the whole dang pan into that preheated oven and set a timer for, oh, eight minutes. Go set the table or something.

When the timer goes off, take a peek at your shakshouka (if it’s in the oven, haul it out altogether—with oven mitts!—so that you don’t lose all the heat in there). You’re looking for egg doneness here; in particular, you are looking at the state of the egg whites in the area just around the yolks. If they’re still translucent, then you will need to give your shakshouka another, oh, two or three minutes of heat, and then check it again. If they’re white but still seem a bit runny when you very gently prod them with your implement, that’s fine and your shakshouka is done; in the couple of minutes it takes you to dress this stuff and get it to the table, the residual heat will move those whites along just a bit more. The important thing here is that you are not aiming for fully firmed-up whites, because there’s really no scenario where you can have that and somewhat runny yolks; you have to choose one, and the latter are more important.

In any event, once it’s done, drizzle it with a little extra-virgin olive oil and scatter those herbs across the top. If your oven is hot, you can stick your bread in there for a couple of minutes to get nice and toasty; if your oven is not hot, because you used a lid to cover your shakshouka and therefore did not need to preheat your oven, whoops, ha ha, jeez, I guess I should have told you to preheat your oven so that you could warm your bread in it. You live and you learn! It’s time to eat.

Of course you can scoop little portions of shakshouka onto little plates or into little bowls and serve it that way. But look at how lovely this stuff is, in the pan! What a bummer it would be to section it out. The thing to do is to put the entire pan on an insulating oven mitt in the middle of the table, throw down some frickin’ bread, and let everybody just go to town on it with forks and bread, rolling their eyes, going Mmmmmm, possibly snarling at each other over the last egg, possibly menacing each other with sauce-drenched utensils if it comes to that. It’s just a suggestion, and none of my business either way.