Monday, 2 September 2013

Back to Basics 1: Eggs

I love eggs. Apparently, this was not always the case (just ask my mum for the story of my first taste of egg - I don't want to spoil your appetites, so won't repeat it here). I spent a while a few months back perfecting my egg poaching technique (or at least, trying to) and I love reverting back to childhood memories and having soft-boiled eggs and 'soldiers' made of toast to dunk into the gooey yolk. Delicious! And what would a vegetarian English (or Scottish) breakfast be without a nice fried egg (if someone gives you a choice, it has to be fried - this is a fry-up, after all!).

My only rule with eggs is that they must be free-range. Why? Well, I may not be vegan, but part of the reason I am vegetarian is I am concerned about animal welfare. Buying free-range eggs is a very easy way for anyone to support kinder farming methods. Even though I love a bargain and will always look for ways to save money at the supermarket, I would never ever consider downgrading to battery or barn eggs - I just couldn't bear the thought of those hens cooped up in cages, or in dark barns, just to provide cheaper eggs for me. Of course, people also argue that free-range eggs taste better, but since I have been eating free-range for as long as I can remember (my mum is of the same school of thought as I am on this one), I couldn't honestly say I know if there is a difference in taste.

Ready to be made into egg mayo
It can be difficult to know if everything I eat that contains eggs contains free-range eggs specifically - so my rule is this: if I have a choice, and am aware of a free-range option, I will always take that option. If I am buying cakes at a charity bake sale, for example, or the pasta I am buying does not specify what type of eggs are used in its production, then I don't have access to the necessary information, and I just have to hope that I am eating free-range. That may not be enough for some people, but for me, it works.

Egg mayo!
Anyway, away from the ethical debate, and back to the topic at hand: actually cooking eggs! Now, I know this may seem pretty simple, but I have had a couple of readers tell me that they love reading my blog, but have a fear of the kitchen. For those readers (and anyone else who feels like that), I want to take things back to basics. Now, I haven't thought far enough ahead to have worked out what else I can take this approach with (even as a student, I could never write an essay plan to the end, so what made me think I'd be any better at forward-planning for my blog?!), but for now, I would like to say that this is supposed to be the first of several (or at least, a few!) posts that will take you back to the basics of cooking vegetarian food. Today is all about the humble egg (in case you hadn't already guessed).

How to Keep Eggs

Firstly, storage. I know that most people keep eggs in their fridge. In that special little egg-holder thing that sits in the door - that's where they go, right? Well, no, not necessarily. Eggs cook best from room temperature, so why would you want to chill them, only to have to bring them back to room temperature to actually use them? Think about it: where are the eggs stored at the supermarket? Not in the refrigerated section, are they? No, they are stored on the shelves, at room temperature. So I store them in the cupboard at home - that way, they are always at room temperature, ready to be used, and also, some much-needed extra room is freed up in the fridge. Win-win!

Secondly, forget the use-by date. There is no need for use-by dates on eggs. I know some people are really funny about adhering to these stamped-on dates, and worry about salmonella if they use their eggs after this date has passed, but really, there's no need. There is a simple test you can do to determine whether or not an egg is still good. Fill a jug with water, carefully place the egg into this, and see whether the egg sinks or floats. If it sinks, it's good to cook. If it floats, that means it's too full of air and has gone bad. Bin it. (A really fresh egg will completely sink, lying on its side on the bottom of the jug. Eggs that sink to the bottom but then 'balance' on one end, appearing to stand up [but still touching the bottom of the jug], are still fine to cook with, but just not quite as fresh as the ones that completely sink. I regularly cook with these 'balancing' eggs, and they are always delicious.) Reading back over that, it does sound suspiciously like the old 'witch test' you learned about in school history lessons, but I can assure you, this test actually works (and no innocent women are killed as a result)!

The 'sink or float' test

Peeling Boiled Eggs

Speaking of eggs that aren't quite as fresh, if you are hard-boiling your eggs and wanting to peel them afterwards, you probably want to cook with an egg that is not perfectly fresh, as it makes the peeling much easier. Ah, the peeling! So if you have got as far as this stage, it probably means that you have boiled your egg successfully. I will come back to how to do that in a minute, don't worry! But as far as peeling goes, this is how I do it. Once you have cooled your egg in a bowl of cold water (with ice cubes if you want to speed up the process a bit), simply tap each end of the egg on a hard surface to crack, then, putting the egg back into the bowl of water, roll the egg on its side, right the way round, so that eventually it has cracks all the way round its shell. The picture on the left, below shows how it should look. Now, starting at the top, where it should be easiest to find a piece to peel away, simply peel the whole shell off. The older the egg, the more easily it will come away (take a look at the other two pictures below - these were older eggs, and look at how the shell is peeling away so well), but even with fresher eggs, I find this to be the easiest method of all that I've tried.

How to Boil an Egg

Now, how to boil that egg. For the complete beginner, I cannot recommend highly enough the little in-the-water egg timers you can buy very cheaply (I've seen them online, in pound shops, and in more expensive kitchenware stores). Now I know that there are some concerns about how safe these are, with fears that chemicals from the plastic may leak into the water and find their way into the eggs. But I have to say, I wouldn't have thought they could pass all the safety tests and be on the shop shelves if there were really any danger. So I choose to ignore all of that, and focus instead on how easy they make the process of boiling an egg! Simply place your egg(s) (the timer works equally well for a single egg as it does for multiple eggs) in a small pan of cold water with the timer (the water should cover the eggs well), bring to the boil, and keep an eye on the timer. This timer does not ring when the time is up! In fact, 'timer' is probably the wrong name for it altogether, as it does not time the eggs, rather measures the water temperature. All you need to do is decide whether you want your egg soft, hard or medium-done, and take the egg(s) out of the water when the colour changes up to the line that corresponds to how you want your egg done. Simple! 

Clever egg 'timer' 
In the pan, ready to go

If you don't have one of these 'timers', I would suggest buying one right now! But if for whatever reason you can't, or have problems with the possibility of chemical release in the water, I would point you in the direction of Delia Smith, who explains very well two methods of boiling eggs successfully without this type of timer.

Now, if you have hard-boiled and peeled your eggs, why not half them and add them to a nice salad (a good way to add some protein), or chop them roughly and smother with mayonnaise (free-range, of course!) and some freshly-ground black pepper for a delicious egg mayonnaise sandwich filler. I plumped for the egg mayo option for my lunch - perfect! When you see how easy it is to make your own, why would you ever buy egg mayonnaise from a shop again?

Let me know if you have tried the egg 'timer' I mention above - are you as big a fan as I am?

Egg mayo and lettuce wrap


  1. I think I might have to get an egg 'timer'. I rarely boil eggs as I never know how to time them right. Mummy has to make my eggs and soldiers. I mostly make eggs in omelettes, did I tell you about our electric omelette maker?(think toastie maker, for omelettes).

    Also, is Hellmann's mayonaise free range? I hope so, as its the one I usually get.

    Anna x

    1. You should definitely get this timer, Anna, you'll love it! One of my favourite (and cheapest!) kitchen gadgets. I actually saw them in Tiger the other day.

      As far as I could see from my research, Hellmann's UK products are free-range and have been for a number of years, but outside the UK, I think they're using barn eggs with a commitment to move over to free-range over the coming years. I would check the label, as my Morrisons jar specifies free-range in the ingredients list (and I think the Tesco mayo does too).

      Sorry for the late reply, I never got an email telling me you'd commented! X

  2. Hey Katie, Steve here from International House! Nice to read your blog, like the sound of your banana cake.... Just a thought for anyone who is *that* worried about using one of those timers could just boil water in two pans, one for the eggs and one for the timer. Are people really that concerned?

  3. Oh wow, hi Ste! Thanks for reading (and commenting on) my blog - I appreciate it and hope you're enjoying what you read. That's an interesting idea about boiling water in two separate pans. I certainly am not worried, but I think when I was looking online to buy a timer like this, a lot of the comments seemed to focus on the potential health hazards. I think you're right, if you're really worried about the (potential) toxins, the separate pan method would be a good way around it. Thanks!


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