There are numerous ways of preserving eggs, each with its own limitations. Last week we looked at pickled eggs - popular since the sixteenth century, but only useful to be eaten out of the jar as a snack, and also dried egg powder - a twentieth century WW II star which proved useful in baking and barely acceptable if you were desperate for an omelette or scrambled eggs. Nowadays we have cold storage which enables us to have “fresh” eggs until the use-by date on the carton. If we are so inclined we can even freeze surplus egg ‘pulp’ (what is the word for egg innards?) for use in cooking - yolks and whites separately, if we wish, in case of urgent custard or meringue situations.
Our ancestors didn’t waste anything. So, how did the careful farmers’s wife or housewife cope with an egg glut before technological advances enabled spray-drying and refrigeration? There were a number of methods, now thoroughly outdated but interesting because they were used on whole, unshelled eggs, enabling them to be kept 6-9 months. The methods were all based on the simple principles of keeping bacteria and air out of the egg.
The commonest methods were by immersion in lime water – a more popular method for large scale preserving but having the disadvantage of giving a ‘limey’ flavour, or alternatively by immersion in ‘water glass’ (sodium silicate) – a common household method that kept the yolk ‘central’ in the egg. Other methods were burying them in salt, dipping them in sulphuric acid (which converted the lime in the shell to lime sulphate), boiling them briefy in boric acid, ‘putting them up’ in oil, or coating the shell with glycerine, petroleum jelly (Vaseline), wax, varnish, or one of a number of proprietary products.
An article in The Times of June 8, 1914 discussed the various methods of egg preservation, noted that preserved eggs should never be passed off as fresh, and advised its readers how to pick the subterfuge. Preserved eggs could be known by the ‘roughness of the shell, if limed, by the yolk losing its firm roundness, by the thin and watery albumen, or white, and by the odour, which is unmistakeable.’
Here’s how to apply the two most common methods, from Henley’s Twentieth Century Book of Recipes, Formulas, and Processes (1916)
Preserving with Lime.
Dissolve in each gallon of water 12 ounces of quicklime, 6 ounces of common salt, 1 drachm of soda, 0.5 drachm saltpeter, 0.5 drachm tartar, and 1.5 drachms of borax. The fluid is brought into a barrel and sufficient quicklime to cover the bottom is then poured in. Upon this is placed a layer of eggs, quicklime is again thrown in and so on until the barrel is filled so that the liquor stands about 10 inches deep over the last layer of eggs. The barrel is then covered with a cloth, upon which is scattered some lime.
Preserving in Sodium Silicate.
Dissolve sodium silicate in boiling water, to about the consistency of a syrup (or about 1 part of the silicate to 3 parts water). The eggs should be as fresh as possible, and must be thoroughly clean. They should be immersed in the solution in such manner that every part of each egg is covered with the liquid, then removed and let dry. If the solution is kept at or near the boiling temperature, the preservative effect is said to be much more certain and to last longer.
Quotation for the Day.
By the immediate preservation of eggs for home consumption through the use of water glass or lime water, larger supplies of fresh eggs may be made available for marketing later in the season, when production is less and prices higher.
David F. Houston