Eggs are one of the most important, indispensable ingredients in baking. Recipes not calling for eggs are few and far between, and for good reason. Eggs bind, aerate, leaven, emulsify, thicken, aid in setting, are the base in many recipes, can be used as fillings, toppings, glazes and also for adding flavor and color to baked goods. Few if any other ingredients can do so much in baking. The eggs ability to do so many jobs is not the only reason we bake with them; it’s their propensity to do all these at once is.
Before we delve into how we can optimize an egg’s performance, let’s break down the egg and its parts. While eggs can refer to the eggs of any bird – in theory any bird’s egg can be used to bake -, in baking, the term is exclusively used to refer to the unfertilized ovum of chicken. The egg contains albumen (the white) and a yolk. The albumen (roughly 60% of the egg’s weight) is composed of mostly water, protein (50% of the egg’s protein), and a very small percentage of nutrients. The yolk (roughly 30% the egg’s weight) is composed of the remaining protein, fat, water, all the egg’s vitamins, and nutrients.
Did you Know? Eggs with brown and white shells come from different breed of hens but are otherwise identical with no difference in taste or functionality.
The protein (and lack of fat) in the white gives it its extraordinary ability to foam (the protein albumin allows egg whites to foam while the protein ovalbumin gives the structure rigidity once the whites are heated). Egg yolks (or the vitellus) contain a fatty substance that will impede the albumen’s ability to foam and expand; it is best to avoid mixing any yolk in with the whites when whipping them.
Did you Know? Every part of the egg is edible, including the shell. The shell is high in calcium and is often crushed up and used as a calcium supplement.
More often than not, recipes will call for whole eggs (either as whole or in parts calling for more yolks than whites or vice versa). In cakes, muffins, cookies, pancakes, waffles, doughs, and many other baked goods, whole eggs are used as a binder. Using more whites will help create a fluffy, light baked good while using more yolks will create a denser treat with a richer flavor. Used together, they are able to create a middle of the road baked good that incorporates rich flavor and stable, light texture.
Whole eggs are most commonly added with the creaming method, where the eggs are added one at a time after the sugar and fat (typically butter) for the recipe have been beaten together until light and fluffy. Adding the eggs one at a time allows the eggs to disperse completely within the mixture, giving them time to emulsify the fats and liquids.
The Problem: The texture of my baked good is irregular, chunky or coarse.
The Cause: There are not enough eggs or they were not incorporated properly.
The Solution: Be sure to add the eggs one at a time and allow them time to mix in completely before adding the next egg or moving on to the next step.
In products like bread, pastries (including pate a choux), and pasta, whole eggs are added for flavor and color. The eggs are added straight to the dough or roux either all at once or in batches at a time. Here the the eggs are not the primary means of binding and their emulsification properties are not needed, thus not requiring slow incorporation.
Whole eggs are also commonly used to glaze numerous baked goods as they contribute color and shine during baking.
Tip: When baking anything over 400°F avoid using egg yolk in the egg wash as this could cause the glaze to become too brown.
If you are looking for a very shiny glaze, mix egg whites with a pinch of salt, stir, and let sit refrigerated overnight. The salt will breakdown the whites and help give the glaze a shiny appearance.
If you want a dark, golden glaze, and are baking below 400°F, you can use an all egg yolk wash. It may be necessary to add water or milk to thin the glaze down a bit.
Whole eggs are also used to thicken dishes like custards, cremes, and ice creams. Using whole eggs requires the same processes as using egg yolks. There will be more information on that below, so I’ll skip that for now.
Did you Know? Red spots in the egg are indeed blood spots. Don’t worry though, these eggs are still perfectly safe and edible. The blood droplets are an indication of stress in the chicken.
Egg whites are probably my favorite ingredient in the kitchen. While eggs and their parts are able to perform many functions in baking, whipped egg whites on their own or as a meringue are able to create so many different products. Nearly every recipe you come across calling for egg whites will require them to be whipped. This is because whipped egg whites can leaven cakes, soufflés, cookies, and other baked goods; they also provide the base for sauces, mousses, frostings and marshmallows. Not only that but they can be used as a frosting for cakes and a topping for tarts and pies. And lastly, they can be used as a filling for various pastries and desserts. In fact, like cookie dough, egg whites whipped with sugar is darn tasty on its own.
There are a few ways to whip egg whites. First, you can whip them on their own (though this usually creates a weak, unstable structure that requires care and speed when handling). Plain whipped egg whites are also bland and not good on their own. You can also whip egg whites with sugar, which makes them a meringue. There are two types of meringues (well technically three but you can make everything with just two): French meringue, or the most common classic meringue, which deflates quickly and requires additional cooking, and Italian meringue, which is trickier to make but can be used in baked goods that will not be cooked further; Italian meringue can also be stored as it will not deflate quickly.
Tip: When whipping egg whites or making french meringue, add a couple drops of lemon juice to the egg whites. The acid in the lemon juice will adjust the pH balance of the egg whites and help stabilize the foam during whipping and baking. Adding lemon juice does the same thing as adding cream of tartar.
French meringue is good for using in cakes or soufflés, for piping into cookies, or as a base for sauces and baked goods, including topping pies, that will be baked afterwards. You can find a french meringue recipe here.
The Problem: My egg whites never whipped to stiff peaks.
The Cause: Too much sugar was added; the sugar was added too soon; the sugar was added too quickly; too much acid was added.
The Solution: Add only a drop or two of lemon juice. Also, when adding sugar, only add the sugar once the whites have quadrupled in volume and take care to add the sugar slowly while whipping the whites.
Italian meringue is good for topping cakes, pies and tarts that will not be baked, for use in sauces or frostings, as a base for marshmallows or marshmallow cream, and for filling in pastries. You can find an italian meringue recipe here.
The Problem: My meringue is clumpy and looks broken.
The Cause: The egg whites were over whipped.
The Solution: Start again. Once egg whites are over whipped there is no way to fix them. Watch egg whites closely while whipping. Once they take on a shiny appearance, check them to see if they form stiff peaks.
When baking cakes I try to use recipes that call for egg whites as the source of aeration and leavening, versus cakes that rely solely on chemical leaveners. I love the airiness this gives cakes and the more natural approach to leavening.
The Problem: My cake or baked good deflated or did not rise properly.
The Cause: The egg whites were not used quickly enough or were incorporated improperly.
The Solution: Whipped egg whites and meringue used in cakes and baked goods deflates quickly. Once it is whipped it must be incorporated into the batter and baked immediately. You must also take care when incorporating whipped egg whites. Always fold them in and never mix, beat or whisk them in.
While it may seem like egg whites are finicky – which they are -, after a little practice you will find whipping egg whites and creating meringue to be one of the easiest kitchen tasks, leaving you with a delicious treat that can be used in nearly infinite baked goods.
Egg yolks not only add flavor and color to baked goods but they are indispensable in thickening and setting baked goods including sauces, mousses, custards, cremes, ice creams and more. They can also be used for binding in baking when you want a richer, denser baked good such as a yolk-only cake, cookie or dough.
Did you Know? Finding two yolks in one egg is not a bad thing. In many cultures, including this foodie’s kitchen, it is a sign of good luck – I once had two eggs in one carton with two yolks.
For use in custards, cremes, and ice creams, the egg yolks usually require tempering. Eggs and yolks thicken at a low temperature, making them perfect for desserts, but because eggs and yolks also cook at such a low temperature, tempering or heating over a bain-marie is required. Tempering is a technique used to bring temperature-sensitive ingredients up to heat without cooking them. To temper a mixture, very slowly add the hot mixture into the egg yolks or whole egg mixture while whisking fast (usually it is best to add a drop or two at a time before adding a very thin, slow stream to the egg mixture). Once you’ve whisked in a third of the hot liquid into the eggs, you can add the tempered eggs back into the hot mixture.
The Problem: My custard or mixture is lumpy and curdled.
The Cause: The eggs were improperly tempered, mixed or overcooked.
The Solution: Take care to heat the eggs very slowly and lowly.
Unless you’ve added cornstarch to the mixture, you must take care not to boil the mixture otherwise the eggs will scramble. When making a custard or creme without cornstarch, it is best to heat the mixture over a bain-marie. Care should be taken here as well though as the eggs can still scramble if not watched.
STORING & FRESHNESS
Egg shells are porous and thus absorb odors and leach moisture. Eggs should be stored in the container in which you purchased them or in their own airtight container. While most parts of the world do not refrigerate their eggs, an egg stored in the refrigerator will last up to seven times longer than eggs stored at room temperature; they can be stored up to a month in the fridge. Once cracked, eggs begin to degrade incredibly quick and should be used that same day. Yolks must be covered as they form a skin almost immediately but should be used that same day. Egg whites must be covered as well and can be stored for up to a couple days but if you are going to whip them, they should be used as soon as you crack them.
Did you Know? While the hen’s diet does not effect the color of an egg’s shell, it will affect the color of the yolk. Commercially raised chickens are often fed corn and marigold petals to increase the yellow pigment in the yolks. The use of artificial pigments in the USA has been banned.
Eggs younger than three days old will not whip properly, so if you are lucky enough to have a coup in your backyard save the freshly laid eggs for breakfast or for use later. You can determine an egg’s freshness by the weight (a fresh egg will feel heavy and an older egg will feel light). Of course the best determination of an egg is it’s smell. If it smells bad, get rid of it. Many chefs will tell you to crack each egg into a separate bowl before adding to a mixture, and while this is smart, it is incredibly rare you will find a bad egg. In the three years I have been baking, or in the 5,000 eggs I have purchased in that time, I have never once come across a sour egg.
Did you Know? Other ways to determine the freshness of an egg is to look at the air cell (a large air cell will indicate older age as overtime the egg leaches moisture through its porous shell, increasing the size of the air cell). You can also check the yolk (a firm yolk that retains it’s near-spherical shape is fresh, while a yolk that spreads out or runs indicates an older egg).
HIGH ALTITUDE BAKING
If you bake at high altitudes, the best method for ensuring quality in your baked goods is to increase the amount of eggs you use. Doing so will increase shelf life and structure. For an altitude of 2,500 ft, increase the egg amount by 3%, 5,000 ft – 6%, and 7,500 ft or higher – 12%.
Substituting eggs in baking can be a tricky task. It is hard to find one ingredient that will take over all the beneficial abilities of the egg and it is almost impossible to find an ingredient that will replicate the structural benefits of whipped egg whites. There are options however. Since I am not a vegan nor on an egg-free diet, these substitutions are merely suggestions – I asked many of my vegan baking friends what they do and below is what I’ve heard. The best approach to substituting eggs will be to find a a vegan recipe like the one you are attempting to modify and using the ingredients and methods they suggest.
For binding purposes, you can use ground flaxseed. Mix 3 teaspoons finely ground flaxseed with 3 tablespoons water per egg. Allow the mixture to sit until it forms a gel-like substance. Add the mixture into the batter like you would eggs. You can also use arrowroot or potato starch flour as a substitution for eggs in recipes requiring a binder; Use about 1 tablespoon each for each substituted egg. .
For recipes requiring leavening, your best bet will be baking soda or baking powder and an acid. If the recipe already calls for a leavening agent do not add additional baking soda or powder. For recipes calling for whipped egg whites or whipped eggs, try whipping together apple cider vinegar and milk until it is frothy. You can fold that into the batter for a light, airy consistency.
I hope you find this post helpful. As you can see eggs are very valuable in the kitchen. Understanding how and why they work, including what to do to maximize their potential, will help you perfect your baking skills. I hope this post will also take some of the intimidation out of techniques like meringue and italian meringue, or out of trying a new method or recipe. Having said that, I will also say the best way to become a better cook is to practice without the fear of failing, as a failed recipe is a great experience from which to to learn – I can’t even begin to tell you how many times I have failed in the kitchen.
Also, here is a little poster all about eggs, their uses, and a few helpful tips. Keep this on your computer, print it for your kitchen, or bookmark this page anytime you need to refer back to it.
Note about this post: The post is meant to be used as a reference and has been researched and collected from numerous sources including but not limited to: Glenn Rinsky and Laura Halpin Rinksy of “The Pastry Chef’s Companion: A Comprehensive Resource Guide for the Baking and Pastry Professional” and from Bi Friberg of “The Professional Pastry Chef, Fundamentals of Baking and Pastry” Fourth Edition. A special thanks goes to Jonathan Melendez of The Candid Appetite for acting as ad hoc culinary consultant.