Eggs in Cookery – The Magic of Eggs

The domestic chicken originally probably arose in the Indian sub-continent as a result of selective breeding from both the Red Junglefowl (which chickens most resemble) and the Grey Junglefowl (which give chickens their yellow skin). During ancient times two different strains of chickens were developed and one type, the Asian Chicken, was adopted in the East and Polynesia. The European chicken, in contrast moved west from the Near East, through Africa, the Mediterranean and finally reached Europe, from where it was transported to the Americas.

Chickens are the most common of domesticated animals, primarily because they can be reared intensively, grow quickly and provide both meat and eggs. Unlike wild birds chickens will produce eggs year-long and do not have a single breeding season.

Eggs, themselves, as they need to provide all the nutrients for a developing chick, are an amazing storage food. They will keep, naturally for weeks and contain plenty of protein and fats al kept fresh within the shell package.

As a cooking ingredient eggs are incredibly versatile. They can be cooked by frying, poaching, baking or scrambling. But, perhaps more important, is the use of eggs in other foods. One of the most important uses being in baking. Not only do eggs provide flavour to cakes, but they also make cakes lighter and more ‘spongy’. This is due to a very interesting property of egg whites. In the main, the whites of the egg contain the protein component of the egg and the yolks contain the fats.

When you separate the egg whites and whip them this makes the protein molecules begin to stick to one another. The more you beat the more the protein molecules stick together. But, as you beat you also include air into the mixture and this air becomes trapped between the protein molecules and this is why beaten egg yolks increase in volume as you beat and become stiff.

If you fold this egg mixture into a cake batter the trapped air will expand as the cake bakes and will make the cake rise. The Romans knew this and used this property of eggs in their cookery. However, after them the technique was lost and during the Middle Ages cakes were typically raised with yeast. Then, the technique of baking with eggs was re-discovered in Italy during the 16th Century and quickly spread throughout Europe. This technique was only displaced with the development of baking powder in the 19th century.

Another use for eggs is as a thickening agent and this is mainly due to the fats in the egg yolk. In Medieval times chopped hard-boiled egg yolks were commonly used as a thickener for stews. Using egg yolks as a thickener remains the basis of custards (and as a result many ice creams) today. Indeed, using eggs to make custards was one of the main ways that the Romans used eggs and they made both sweet custards (with honey) and savoury custards (with herbs) that were both typically flavoured with fish sauce and black pepper. Sweet custards would have fruit and pine nuts and savoury custards would have meat and fish in them.

Eggs can also be used as a binding agent, in that the protein molecules in the eggs will hold other ingredients together. This is most commonly seen in dishes such as omelettes or Italian strata. But eggs are also used in this way in modern cakes risen with baking powder in which you will find a few beaten eggs included in the recipes. A classic example being the Victoria sponge.

But perhaps one of the commonest uses of eggs is as a breakfast food. Whether that be as simple boiled, poached, fried or scrambled eggs or more elaborate dishes such as Eggs Benedict, Eggs Florentine, Omelette Arnold Bennet, Strata, Coddled Eggs and many more.

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