When a dish is as simple as poaching eggs in tomato sauce, you can’t be shocked when you come across countless variations on it. Tossed back and forth across the Mediterranean for centuries, it’s peasant food at it’s finest, and allows for endless interpretations using whatever is on hand. In Italy it is called uova al purgatorio—better known as eggs in purgatory here in the States. In places that had at one point been a part of the Ottoman Empire, it’s known as shakshuka, but each country (and there’s a lot of them) managed to put their own spin on them. How do you get to be one of those folks that has their own “special” version? Let’s get the basics down pat so we can riff away like we’re the Miles Davis of breakfast.

Pick your pan

You’ve got two ways to go here. You can do everything on the stovetop with a skillet: stainless steel, with a cover. Don’t use cast iron or aluminum, neither of which like tomatoes. 

If you want to make something you can present as a centerpiece, then go for some sort of dish/ramekin/whatnot that can go the oven. It’s an extra pan to clean, but that’s a small price to pay for being fancy before noon.

Start with tomato sauce

This is very easy: Saute aromatics and vegetables, add tomatoes and spices, then simmer. Simple tomato sauces don’t need hours of simmering, so no worries here about waking up at the crack of dawn when 10 minutes will do. You can also use (sacre bleu!) jarred tomato sauce if you’ve got no patience.

It’s also when we’re going to decide the destiny of this shakshuka—your first chance to get crazy is before the tomatoes go into the pan. Heat the skillet up to medium high heat, coat it with some oil, and saute things in order. Here are some ideas:

Italian

  • Start with onions

  • Add garlic

  • Add a pinch of crushed red pepper

  • Add tomatoes

Israeli

  • Start with onions and red bell peppers

  • Add garlic

  • Add pinches of paprika and cumin

  • Add tomatoes

Spanish/Moroccan

  • Start with crumbled chorizo or merguez sausage 

  • Add onion and garlic

  • Add paprika

  • Add tomatoes

See how easy that is? Put whatever you’re in the mood for into that process before adding the tomatoes, sliced fennel, red curry paste, or diced chili peppers. Make your own theme and blow your own mind.

Heads up: If you’ve opted to bake your shakshuka, now is the time to preheat your oven to 350°F and pour your tomato sauce into the baking pan or individual ramekins. 

Deploy the eggs

Do not crack the eggs straight into a pan. You will mess up and get shells in your tomato sauce, then try to fish them out forgetting the tomato sauce is hot. Don’t think you’re smart enough to avoid this mistake. No one is immune. 

First, if you’re using a skillet, turn the heat to low. Crack eggs one at a time into a small teacup or measuring cup. Using the back of a spoon, push a little tomato sauce out of the way while sliding the egg into its place. Repeat until you get all your eggs arranged into a beautiful pattern. This is also a good time to scatter some cheese around the pan, if you’re so inclined.

For a skillet: Cover, turn heat to medium, and simmer until the eggs are set to your liking, about 10 minutes.

For the oven: Put it into the oven and take it out when it’s done. I don’t know what else you want me to tell you there. 

Serve it

Just because the cooking is done doesn’t mean you can’t continue dressing it up. Drizzle on sauces like pesto or harissa, sprinkle on some nice spices or flaky sea salt, or garnish with chopped parsley or herbs. Serve with bread like pita, French, or ciabatta. Anything goes.