Photos and Words by Fred Chang
A lifelong question that you may have been asked is, “which came first, the chicken or the egg?”
Eaten by almost everyone for breakfast, hidden during Easter, and extremely useful for most baked goods and custards, eggs themselves are a very special ingredient. Whole eggs are used for omelets, and can also be fried, poached, scrambled, or boiled. Every egg contains three parts: the shell, yolk, and the white. All three can be used in different ways in cooking.
One of my absolute favorite things to make with eggs is pasta dough, which is simply made with flour, water, and eggs. The yolks add richness to the flour, which causes the glutens to unfold and connect, while the whites tie it all together, tightening the dough and allowing it to become pliable and elastic.
Another delicious way to use a whole egg is in steamed custard. These sorts of custards can be either sweet or savory, depending on the ingredients used, and are quite popular in Asian and certain European kitchens alike.
There are eggs of different sizes: chicken, duck, quail, emu, araucana, and ostrich eggs being examples of several of the varieties of eggs typically used and consumed in food. The standard egg is the chicken egg, which is the one you will probably find in a grocery store. Duck eggs are very similar to chicken eggs, the only difference being that the yolks contain a much richer consistency. Quail eggs are incredibly small and have much more yolk to white. These sorts of eggs are typically used in raw dishes because of how small the yolk is in general. An emu egg is a dark green egg that is roughly the size of a dozen chicken eggs. An araucana egg is very similar to a chicken egg in size and flavor, the only difference being that the shell is naturally a light blue color. And finally, ostrich eggs are very similar to an emu egg in size, although its pale white shells are slightly thicker.
The shell, when carefully cracked and cleaned, can be used as a plating or even baking vessel. A popular usage for the shell is to contain sauces or scrambled eggs. As for baking, a fun idea for an Easter-themed party would be to bake cake batter in the eggshells and peel them off post-baking to have an egg-shaped dessert, fitting for the holiday. Generally, if an egg shell is being used a plating vessel, araucana eggs are the most attractive for their blue color, while emu and ostrich eggs are nice for plating soups and baked custards.
The egg white is one of the most versatile ingredients of the three parts of the egg. The white itself contains proteins that help bind together ingredients. In savory applications, it is used to keep moisture in meats, as well as allow breading and coatings to stick to anything that is being fried. In baking, egg whites hold together the dry ingredients for batters and add moisture to any baked good. Most, if not nearly all, batters and dough that require eggs need at least the white to bake properly; egg yolks can be omitted so long as the egg whites are present in any mixture. When whipped, egg whites can become meringues, macarons, pavlovas, eton messes, souffles, or folded into dry ingredients to add airiness to batters and dough. An ideal ratio for meringues is 2 tablespoons of sugar to 1 egg white; some recipes recommend as many as 4 tablespoons per white as well. Additionally, when whipping meringues, it is smarter to whip the egg whites separately of the sugar until stiff, then whisk in the sugar afterwards. Sugar adds moisture, whereas with meringues, the process of adding air-dries out the whites, therefore making it difficult to whip egg whites together with sugar into a meringue. Overall, the proteins in egg whites help seal moisture into ingredients as well as bind together various ingredients, while on their own, can be used to create a variety of desserts.
While not as versatile as egg whites, egg yolks still have plenty of uses. In savory applications, the most appealing part of an egg would be an oozing yolk, which coats anything accompanying the egg like a rich, savory sauce. Egg yolks themselves are emulsified with acids or oils to create sauces such as aioli, Hollandaise, a Greek lemon sauce, avgolemono, and custard sauces such as creme anglaise. For dessert and baking applications, egg yolks add moisture through their fat content to anything they are added to, along with an additional heaviness to doughs and batters. This is something to keep in mind when adding yolks to any baked good. When mixed with water or milk, yolks can be brushed onto raw pastry prior to baking as an egg wash, which will add a beautiful brown color to anything being baked. Yolks can also be used to make popular desserts such as ice cream, puddings, and custards. When whipped over high heat with flour, sugar, and milk, egg yolks can become a pastry cream, which is the typical filling found in cream puffs and eclairs. Another application for egg yolks is sabayon, which is a French whipped egg yolk custard that is either scented with sweet liquor, syrup, or herbs, and typically finished with butter. A similar component is curds, which are egg yolks heated with a syrup and finished with butter to create a creamy, spreadable consistency, the similarity being the process of finishing the yolk mixture with butter.
Eggs on their own are an incredible ingredient that offers a lot of uses in food. So rather than asking yourself what came first, simply be grateful that both chickens and eggs exist!