Egg (Whole)

A post on eggs could go on almost indefinitely. However since I want to focus on the egg as ingredient, I’ll do my best to keep this short and useful. The logical place to start is: how are eggs used in the pastry kitchen? I can think of three main categories of use: as a structural component in cakes, as a thickener in custards and creams and as a foam in batters, meringues, frostings and the like. It’s a pretty crude taxonomy when you consider how much eggs offer the pastry cook in terms of flavor, enrichment and color, but it seems functional to me.

Eggs come in different colors, sizes and grades. For our purposes I’ll focus on the basic white, large (as opposed to “peewee”, “small”, “medium”, “extra large” or “jumbo” as defined by the US Department of Agriculture) chicken egg, since that’s what most pastry recipes printed in the States call for. They’re also the most commonly available egg for home bakers and commercial bakers alike. Those that use shell eggs, anyway. Large eggs weigh about two ounces. The white weighs about an ounce, the yolk about half an ounce and the shell accounts for the rest.

In the States eggs found in stores are graded either AA (top quality) or A. There are grade B eggs which are perfectly usable, but they’re generally not sold in the shell, rather they’re used for packaged carton yolk and white products. Below grade B are so-called “dirty” eggs which aren’t fit for human consumption and go to various sorts of animal feeds. Eggs are graded by “candling” i.e., shining a bright light on the egg an inspecting the shell and contents for defects (this is done by machine these days).

What do egg grades measure? Aside from shell cracks, blood spots and the like, which consign eggs to lower grades, the grade is a measure of the viscosity of the white and air cell size, which are both indicators of age. Older eggs have thinner whites and bigger air cells. Of course most of us reflexively gravitate to the freshest possible ingredients when we cook. Indeed we’re increasingly trained to do so. However in the pastry kitchen excellent arguments can be made for eggs that are, well, old. At least to some degree.

Why? Because old eggs have thinner whites, and that thinness makes them easier to whip. Imagine a whisk trying to cut through a bowl full of water versus one full of corn syrup and you’ll have a sense for what I mean. You can apply a lot more shearing force to the bowl full of water since the thickness of the medium slows your stroke down a whole lot less. All of which means that older eggs whip up faster and also higher. So if your focus is foam for meringues, macarons, soufflés and the like, grade A eggs will be just fine for your purposes. Even old grade A eggs. Also if you like to make hard boiled eggs old eggs are better since they’re easier to peel once they’re cooked (the membranes have pulled away from the inside of the shell).

What are some applications for very fresh eggs? Some bakers will say none. Most of those are Europeans, who tend not to refrigerate their eggs, so theirs are always “old” by American standards. However very fresh eggs are quite useful for some things we Americans like to bake: layer cakes and muffins for instance, where the thicker, more viscous whites create more viscous batters which tend to create more volume. Fresher eggs can also be nicer when you need to separate an egg, since old yolks have very thin membranes which frequently break when you try to separate them.

There is so much more to be said about eggs and how they perform, indeed a whole lot more than one post can contain. What I will say on that point is that we mostly value eggs for their proteins, and further the ability of those proteins to bind other elements together, be those elements sugar and flour (in the case of cakes), fat and water (in the case of custard) or cells of air (in the case of foams). Those proteins are like strings, and they occur in little balls or clumps inside egg yolks and whites in their natural state. We use heat — and in the case of foams, agitation — to coax those egg proteins to uncoil, at which point they’re available for all sorts of creative uses.

I’ll get into more of that when I talk about whites and yolks individually.

30 thoughts on “Egg (Whole)”

  1. Fresh eggs are also best for poaching. The whites stay nicely together in the water, without spreading everywhere. No need for bits of Gladwrap etc. And, BTW, the vinegar that so many people add to their egg-poaching water does absolutely nothing to help the whites stay together. It just makes them taste funny.

    1. Hey Bronwyn! Good to know, I don’t think I agree with the vinegar thought. In my experience it does help keep the white together. Acid encourages coagulation before the proteins have a chance to get warm. Works for me!

      – Joe

      1. The amount of vinegar you’d have to put in the water to make it acid enough to coagulate the proteins would make it taste very peculiar indeed. Most people just put in a wee drop, which doesn’t change the pH significantly.

        1. I’m with you that a drop certainly won’t do much to affect the pH of the water. It’d be interesting to run an experiment to see how much is needed to boost poached egg integrity. My older daughter needs a science fair project!

          – Joe

          1. That would be a good idea. You need a good number of eggs, and for completeness you should get some of different ages. Six each of 1 day, 5 day, and 10 day old eggs. Three of each with vinegar and three without.
            Acidification of the water, I should have said, can cause some increased coagulation, but not enough to form a “cage” of eggwhite to hold the whole thing together, which is supposed to be the point. And it still tastes yukky to me. Salt, on the other hand – I put as much salt in the poaching water as I do in pasta water. Makes the eggs taste yummy. Not sure if it does anything towards holding the egg together – theoretically you might think it would, but in my experience not. Another 18 eggs there(3 of each age with salt, and 3 with salt and vinegar) for a REALLY good science fair experiment.

          2. Nice, Bronwyn! I’ll let you know what her teacher says about it (she has to get approval first).

            Much obliged,

            – Joe

    2. You may be using too much vinegar, either that or you have really good sour taste buds’

  2. Sorry, Joe, I’m with Bronwyn on this one.

    Using vinegar, because it starts coagulation so early, may lead to tough whites. Also, if you end up putting in too much vinegar, it tastes yucky (that’s a technical term)

    Use super fresh eggs, drain off the loose egg white, and poach 3.5 to 4 minutes in 80C (190F) water. Perfect every time


    1. While I generally like to withhold judgement on contentious points, I’ve probably poached more eggs than the two of you put together! 😉

      My first restaurant job was in a restaurant that specialized in eggs Benedict (chef Alfredo’s place if you recall). Day after day I poached eggs by the dozens in an open cauldron, fishing them out with a slotted spoon. It was a very inefficient system considering the sheer numbers of servings we doled out. Acidifying the water was absolutely essential, otherwise the few inches of water turned instantly cloudy and the whites floated off in strings. So I gotta put my foot down here…acid works!

      – Joe

      1. I would absolutely love a post some time on poaching eggs… Despite a great depth of cooking and baking experience, I’ve never successfully done it, and I’ve tried many times, using many methods (including the recently popular “whirlpool,” which utterly befuddles me). And I love eggs. So it’s become a real sore spot for me; I think it’s at least half mental at this point! 🙂

  3. Europeans do not process their eggs the same as North Americans do. They are not washed and can be stored at room temperature.

    Sometimes if you are trying to make an egg intensive recipe from Europe you may not get the exact desired results. Some macaron recipes even call for aging the whites for up to 48 hours.

    Oh…the varied egg! Love ’em scrambled too!

    1. Indeed that’s true, HBM. The lack of washing can at first look disgusting, but they’re not washing off the mucous layer that plugs up the pores in the eggs, preventing dehydration and microbe entry. It’s a different system to be sure, and yes, when it comes to something like a macaron, ya gotta age those eggs to be sure they’ll work right (more on that in the macaron section!).

      Cheers and thanks Baker Man!

      – Joe

  4. Interesting that I had a discussion about eggs last week with a chicken farmer and an egg buyer (my mom). It was argued that the large egg in most grocers were diminishing in size. I usually buy from stores like Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods and get good sized eggs but on the rare occasion when that isn’t convenient and I grab a carton of eggs from the mainstream grocery’s shelf, they are considerably smaller. Is there a size minimum and maximum for each egg size?

    1. Hi Linda!

      Indeed there are strict rules about egg sizes — though “weights” is really the more accurate term. Large eggs must weigh a minimum of two ounces and can’t weight any more than 2 1/4 ounces.

      Thanks for the question!

      – Joe

  5. Those of us who are lucky enough to get “free range” eggs fall into the “european” mindset. I get eggs from a friend and they last forever. She doesn’t wash them as she collects them as they keep much better that way. I wash as I use them. Hope I never have to go back to storebought because I am spoiled!

  6. I find it amazing that until relatively recently, eggs were not considered “good” for you, at least, that was the general feeling that I got growing up – you shouldn’t eat too many eggs blah blah blah. Of course, we had chickens (we call the chooks, in case you hadn’t heard the term) in the yard, so we ate as many eggs as we could and still had more to give away.

    Can’t beat a beautiful egg for a quick lunch!


    1. Amen to that. My youngest daughter and I could eat eggs until, well, the cows some home. I’d love to have chickens in the yard though Mrs. Pastry is very down on this idea, having lived with chickens when she was in the Peace Corps int he Dominican Republic. She loves the eggs, but detests both chickens’ demeanor and mess!

      Nice to hear from you, Chris!

      – Joe

      1. I’m the same about eating eggs. I’m on a special eating regime and due to being vegetarian I have ramped up the egg consumption considerably over the last three months. I never really bought into the whole health thing with eggs being bad for you and it is turning around (the media found another demon food to target for now). And I’m with Joe about deviled eggs (see below). I could eat the whole platter! Great dialogue about one of my favorite foods and baking ingredients…

    2. I found it fascinating, while a student of Biochemistry, that the very same lecturers who were teaching us how cholesterol works, how your body recycles it, and how the amount of it that you eat has virtually no effect on the amount in your blood, were cutting down on dietary cholesterol because their doctors told them to! I mean, doctors get their info (generally) from either drug companies, or digests written by people who read the literature written by scientists who do the experiments. So why would a scientist believe a doctor’s third hand recycling, with added errors, of the stuff the scientist knows best? Always a puzzle to me.

      1. Very interesting point, Bronwyn. I’ve marketed my share of pharmaceuticals — they go hand-in-hand with food ingredients, more so every day — and I can say that my former clients spent a whole lot of money selling the benefits of drugs to doctors. In fact drug companies frequently sponsor much of the continuing education seminars that doctors are required to attend each year, so there’s plenty of reinforcement of ideas out there (whether they’re still valid or not).

        But I never really thought about these sorts of events as feedback loops before. Fascinating…thanks, Bronwyn!

        – Joe

  7. Hi Joe,

    I’ve been following your blog with great pleasure for a few weeks now. I’m learning to bake (and decorate) myself, and I’m really interested in the history and science of baking. Whenever I bake a cake, I really have no idea how it’s going to turn out, and how I can influence the result. There are so many methods of mixing the ingredients together that I get… gotta keep learning! 🙂

    So, two questions on eggs. When you say “aged egg” – when exactly is an egg “old” (as in old enough for a good macaron meringue)?

    Also, I thought eggs were essential in holding a cake together. Just two days ago, I baked my first vegan cake, which basically included all the ingredients (margarine, sugar, flour, cocoa powder, baking powder and soy milk) except eggs. I thought that cake was going to fall apart. But the structure is perfect – in fact I don’t notice much difference to the cakes I”ve baked that do contain eggs. It may be a tiny bit lighter and spongier (which I consider a positive thing). So how important are those eggs really?

    Thank you so much for your insightful and informative posts! 🙂
    Cheers, Fleur

    1. Hello Fleur, nice to hear from you and way to go on the baking! Keep it up!

      Regarding “old” eggs it depends on quite a lot of factors (temperature at which they’re kept, etc.). You can tell the age of an egg more by its appearance, which I’ll write more about today.

      As for eggs in cakes, it depends on the type of cake you’re making. Vegan chocolate cakes and carrot cakes are relatively easy to make without eggs. It’s the white and yellow cakes where you need the emulsifiers and protein binders that so-called “egg replacers” bring to the party. Eggs really are essential with those sorts of preparations, as well as with many muffin and cookie recipes.

      Thanks for the great questions!

      – Joe

  8. I’m from the UK and have a question about egg safety.

    On a lot of food blogs there’s a lot of nervousnesses about undercooked eggs and salmonella. However this was never something I encountered growing up and eating soft boiled/lightly cooked eggs. I’d also never heard of pasteurised eggs, I don’t think I’ve ever seen them.

    Since most of those food blogs are American, I was wondering if this was just a difference in culture, or if it was a practical difference due to the way eggs are farmed and processed.

    I know in the UK we have the red lion mark (, and the hens my parent have are all vaccinated against salmonella.

    Recently I have noticed more warnings about cooking eggs thoroughly from UK sources. I wonder if that could be due to the influence of American bloggers/cookbooks/sources.

    1. Hi Shaney!

      Indeed it’s true that we in the States are cautious — indeed overly cautious much of the time — about salmonella in eggs. So yes, you see those warnings everywhere. Our large-scale egg farming practices make us more susceptible to large-scale salmonella outbreaks, so when they happen they tend to be big. The last major one in 2010 led to the recall of about half a billion eggs.

      What’s different about Britain is that there’s a comprehensive vaccination program there that’s been in effect for about fifteen years. Since it was started cases of salmonellosis (food poisoning by salmonella) have dropped to near zero. This hasn’t stopped instances of salmonellosis caused by eggs imported from other parts of the EU, or some processed egg products, hence the warnings you’re seeing. But you lot have the safest eggs in the world these days.

      As for us, we’re vaccinating quite a bit more, but vaccines alone aren’t going to solve our problem. There are just too many strains of salmonella in our system. Right now the thinking is that vaccines will be just one part of a more comprehensive reform program that should — should — eliminate the massive outbreaks that we tend to see every five to seven years. I’ll keep my fingers crossed!

      Until then we’ll likely still be skittish, though outbreaks aside, the risk of getting salmonella-tainted egg in the US are about as good as being struck by lightning.

      Thanks for the great questions!

      – Joe

  9. When I was growing up, we had bantam chickens and lots of eggs. Tiny eggs, but they were just as good as the big ones for cooking. Me – I loathe eggs, especially hard boiled and deviled. They just look nasty, and smell like sulpher. I will cook eggs, but not eat them.

    Chickens make pretty decent pets if you get them socialized. Ours would follow us around and we had one rooster trained to crow on command. I’ve seen more and more backyard chicken coops lately.

    1. Ooh! Send the to me! I’ll forward my address. Deviled eggs are one of my great weaknesses. I’ll finish off a plate of them at a picnic.

      Indeed there are a lot of coops around these days, especially in cities where people feel they take them back to nature. Oddly I read an article in the New York Times not long ago which said that eggs from urban chickens tend to contain quite a lot of lead. This makes great sense when you consider that urban soil probably has plenty of old paint flecks in it, not to mention lead from old pipe fittings. I was amazed to read that several of the owners of those eggs go right on feeding them to their children because “at least we know where the eggs come from.” It’s the localvore imperative gone mad. But stop me before I start a tirade!

      Thanks for the comment, Ellen!

      – Joe

  10. Ah, great post on an ingredient as necessary as eggs, and you’re right, one could go on about eggs indefinitely. I’ve been in love with making pastries and baking cakes ever since In The Kitchen introduced me to Keiko’s, so I’ve found it definitely helps to be as intimately familiar with a dish’s component parts as can be, and few components are as ubiquitous as eggs!

  11. ” Vegan chocolate cakes and carrot cakes are relatively easy to make without eggs. It’s the white and yellow cakes where you need the emulsifiers and protein binders that so-called “egg replacers” bring to the party. ”

    As someone who has managed an egg allergy, and who has worked for years as part of a food allergy support group, cakes can be made without eggs, and without emulsifiers and protein binders. Some recipes don’t call for eggs like depression-era wacky cake, otherwise you can replace up to two eggs with applesauce, or a combination of oil/water/baking soda. If you are baking gluten-free as well then people often have more success using gelatin, which could qualify as a protein binder.

    In my experience, what people notice in an egg-free and butter-free vanilla cake is the loss of those flavors, thus the chocolate or carrot cake is more successful, but the structure is fine.

    Of course you’d never be able to make an Angel Food Cake, but that is something so very dependent on the lift from the egg whites.

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