The dog days of summer are almost over. The harvest is becoming abundant. For many of us, that means preserving what the garden and coop provided. Salt-cured egg yolks, which we discuss below, keep your layers’ eggs safe to eat while the hens enjoy a deserved winter break.
If your hens have had a productive summer, then you’ve probably been enjoying eggs every day, done every which way imaginable, and baking up a storm, with still plenty left over. Of course, the flavor of just-gathered eggs can’t be beaten. But sometimes it’s just not possible to eat them fast enough.
Selling at the gate and sharing is great, but so is saving for later.
Preserving the Bounty
Folks have eaten eggs since the dawn of human time. It started with opportunistic nest-robbing and evolved into keeping domestic fowl for meat and eggs. But because we’ve only had artificial refrigeration for a couple of centuries, that left our ancestors plenty of time to come up with some innovative ways of storing all those extra eggs of spring and summer for the lean times.
Putting up fruits and veggies can be a simple task—as easy as bagging and freezing. But storing eggs is a bit trickier. Every method produces a different result, from weird to wonderful.
In China, for thousands of years, eggs were—and still are—preserved in a mixture of ash, clay and salt, among other ingredients. This turns them blackish-green and gelatinous inside.
For most North Americans, thousand-year or century eggs, as they’re known, are an acquired taste to be sure. In Japan, eggs are preserved by fermentation in miso—a salty fermented soybean paste—and a long soak in soy sauce also does the trick.
Early Europeans and North American settlers stored untreated and unwashed eggs for many months in root cellars, just as is, but also preserved them in water and pickling lime, or water glass—water and sodium silicate. This fascinating method can result in occasional losses, but many homesteaders still swear by it, as it doesn’t affect the flavor, texture or behavior of the eggs in cooking and baking.
Of course, pickling is popular. And hard-boiled and peeled eggs can be added to sauerkraut for a sort of pickling-fermentation hybrid.
Alcohol is another good preservative, being able to kill off most dangerous bacteria at the right strength. The Dutch have a traditional tipple of egg yolks and brandy called advocaat or aged eggnog, where egg yolks are blended with sugar and copious amounts of spirits, then kept for months.
Today, we have the luxury of popping extra eggs into the freezer or dehydrator for use in cooking and baking as needed. But sometimes the old ways are best. There’s a certain romance to some of these old-time recipes, born purely of necessity.
Just imagine, if refrigeration had always been available, we might not have invented pickled, cured and smoked foods. What a shame that would be!
Just Add Salt
Salting foods for preservation is another technique folks have employed for thousands of years, with fish and meats to vegetables, nuts and olives. The beauty of salt curing is that it preserves, while drawing out moisture, which enhances and concentrates the flavors. Salting also changes the texture of the foods it preserves, making things chewy and dry, just waiting to plump up again in the cooking.
Salt- and air-curing can transform foods from liquid to solid. One of the most striking examples of this is salt-cured egg yolks.
The practice of separating and salt-curing egg yolks isn’t common in North America, but this centuries-old technique is easy and fun, and the results are versatile and delicious.
Preserving yolks in a deep bed of salt (and sometimes sugar, more on that in a bit) renders them firm, reminiscent of a hard cheese such as Parmesan, preserves their bright-orange color and transforms them into a rich condiment for grating over pastas, salads or potato dishes. Salted egg yolks add a salty richness and a lot of visual interest when brought out to the table with a grater on the side.
About that sugar: Some methods call for a 60/40 salt to sugar blend for the curing. Like salt, sugar is also a desiccant and preservative. Depending on the ratio of sugar to salt, it can also add a subtle sweetness to the final preserved yolk.
These semisweet and salty yolks are good for adding a surprising finishing touch to puddings; think crème brulée, salted caramel, chocolate mousse. In traditional Asian pastries, such as moon cakes, a morsel of salt-cured egg yolk is the treasure buried in sweetened red bean paste, wrapped in pastry.
Follow these easy, step-by-step instructions to try your hand at this wonderful old technique.
Here’s what you need to make salt-cured egg yolks.
- Kosher or coarse sea salt
- granulated sugar (optional—depending on how you expect to use the yolks later.)
- cotton string
- a nonreactive container—glass or enamelware
- as many free-run egg yolks as you want to preserve
Into a nonreactive container—a glass casserole dish is good for this—add a deep layer (about 3 inches) of salt or a salt and sugar mixture.
You can get a little creative here, too, and add a bit of truffle salt, spice- or herb-infused salt, or even a smoked salt; whole peppercorns; a few saffron threads; or even vanilla sugar.
Use the back of a teaspoon to make little depressions in the salt mixture for the yolks to nestle in. Separate as many eggs as you want to cure and place each yolk in its own little lightly water-dampened dish. Then very gingerly tip the yolks out of their dishes and into the indents in the salt.
It’s important to dampen the little dishes because the yolk can stick to a dry dish—or dry hand!—and tear. Cover the yolks with another deep layer of your chosen salt mixture and place them in the fridge, covered, for 5 to 7 days.
Of course, in ancient times, they would have just been put somewhere cool and dark to cure—cache in the ground, root cellar, larder—but if you can find room in the fridge, do so.
At the 5-day mark, take a peek. If the yolks are still too soft to handle, rebury and allow another couple of days in the cure. When the yolks feel solid to the touch, you’re ready for the next step.
Now it’s time to dig up the yolks. Be as careful as an archaeologist unearthing rare artifacts. Although the yolks feel solid, they might still be a bit fragile at this point.
Remove each yolk from the curing bed and gently rinse under cold running water to remove the crusty salt layer. Set aside onto a fresh, clean kitchen or paper towel.
A less-than-pristine towel can introduce bacteria that may ruin the whole batch.
Now this bit is optional. Some experts suggest baking the yolks in the oven at its lowest possible setting until hard or processing in a dehydrator. Some skip this step entirely in favor of the more old-fashioned approach of hanging to air dry.
We hung the yolks for this article.
To hang and air-dry, prepare a double-layered, 6-inch square of cheesecloth and a 12-inch length of kitchen twine—one for each yolk—then set each rinsed yolk into the center of a square. Pull the corners of the cheesecloth up around each yolk like a little coin purse, and cinch shut with a length of kitchen twine. Either arrange on a wire rack or suspend the yolks in their cloth hammocks for air-drying.
The handle of a long wooden spoon suspended over a pot works well. So does a wire basket that allows plenty of airflow all around and under.
Place the wrapped yolks in the fridge or cool pantry and leave them there for about two more weeks, until they are quite hard. Wrapped in cheesecloth and suspended for air circulation, the preserved yolks will keep for several months in the fridge or pantry. If left in the open, however, they will continue to dry as they hang. So for consistently softer yolks, after air-drying, transfer the eggs to a covered container, and keep refrigerated.
Salt-cured egg yolks are more of a condiment or seasoning than a snack. They are rich and salty, and they add a wonderful hit of creamy umami to soups and stews, pastas, salads, fish, cooked potatoes, rice, grits or even plain-old buttered toast. They’re a great alternative to anchovies grated over pizza and added to Caesar salad. And when grated over hot buttery pasta, they silkily melt, adding richness to the simplest recipes.
The single blade on the side of a box grater will give thicker slices of yolk that are perfect tossed into a salad of thinly sliced radish and cucumber.
Let your imagination take you on a tasty journey.
Just make sure to cure enough yolks so you’ll have some when spring rolls around and that first asparagus of the season is up. There’s nothing like steamed or poached asparagus awash in butter, lemon and a sunny layer of salt-cured egg yolks!
All Those Egg Whites
Salt-cured egg yolks leave you with whites, of course. But there are so many uses for egg whites:
- Make an egg-white omelet.
- Freeze them all together or individually in an ice-cube tray.
- Bake an angel food cake.
- Whip up a meringue for a pie or pavlova.
- Coat sweet potato sticks for the crispiest oven-baked fries.
- Use frothed egg whites to candy edible flowers or make spices cling to roasted nuts.
- Pour egg whites into stock to clarify consommé.
- Add egg whites to a shaker for a frothy cocktail.
- Use egg whites to bind the cream in a panna cotta.
- Make your own marshmallows.
- Make some nougat with sugar or honey, roasted nuts and whipped egg whites.
- Don’t forget egg whites are the magic ingredient that hold coconut macaroons together, and make them light and crispy.
This article originally appeared in the September/October 2022 issue of Chickens magazine.