No matter what else you have in your kitchen, you probably have eggs. Whether you boil or fry them for breakfast, brush them over meat, whisk them into egg-drop soup, or bake them into pastries, eggs are one of the simplest and yet most versatile of foods, prized the world over as a rich source of protein.
If you raise your own chickens, moreover, you have a ready supply of eggs — as well as fertilizer and comic relief. Hens also convert your leftovers into your next breakfast, keep your garden free of pests, and mow your lawn for free. Other animals can do some of these things, but not many of us have the time, space, or will to manage a suburban herd of sheep or swine, or to slaughter them. Hens, however, require little space or maintenance, and they turn any home into a homestead.
Hens, however, lay eggs seasonally, speeding up in summer and slowing or stopping in winter. You could give them more indoor light or Vitamin D supplements to increase their egg production in colder months, but they cost money and interfere with the chickens’ natural cycle — saving money and being all-natural are two of the most popular reasons for keeping backyard chickens in the first place.
Another way would be to collect the extra eggs in the summer and preserve them through the winter; one method — well-known to pub patrons here in Ireland — is to pickle them. A typical recipe involves hard-boiling eggs and removing the shells, then creating a pickling solution of cider vinegar, small amounts of salt, sugar, herbs, and spices. Bring the mixture to the boil, then simmer for five minutes and pour it over the eggs. They should keep for at least a few months.
You can also soak the eggs in a solution of sodium silicate, known as “isinglass” or “water-glass.” One popular recipe from a century ago recommends dissolving sodium silicate in boiling water, making it about the consistency of syrup (or 1 part silicate to 3 parts water). The eggs — as fresh as possible, and thoroughly clean — should be immersed in the solution in such a manner that every part of each egg is covered with the liquid. Then remove the eggs and let them dry. If the solution is kept near the boiling temperature, the preservative effect is said to be much more certain and to last longer.
Perhaps the best and longest-lasting way, however, is to preserve eggs in limewater. No recipe could be simpler: take fresh, raw eggs in the shell, set them gently in a jar, and pour in a simple, lukewarm mix of tap water and lime powder. I’ve done this with our eggs, and they’ve lasted for up to a year and remained edible.
“Lime” here means neither the citrus fruit nor the tree, but refers to calcium hydroxide, a white powder derived from limestone. For at least 7,000 years, humans burned limestone in kilns to create the dangerous and caustic “quicklime” (calcium oxide), and hydrated that to create lime powder (calcium hydroxide). Sumerians and Romans used it as a cement, while farmers mixed it with water to create whitewash; tanners used it to remove hair from hides, gardeners to repel slugs and snails, printers to bleach paper.
Perhaps most importantly, farmers here in Ireland spread lime over their boggy fields to “sweeten” the acid soil and increase crop production as much as four-fold. For hundreds of years, until the mid-20th century, lime supported a vast and vital network of village industry in this part of the world — County Cork alone was said to contain an amazing 23,000 kilns. That’s one every 80 acres.
In his 1915 monograph “Lime-water for the preservation of eggs,” Frank Shutt describes a series of egg-preservation experiments at an experimental farm in Ottawa, which found lime-water to be “superior to all other methods” — how, he didn’t say.
When I first tried to preserve eggs in lime-water, I simply mixed equal parts lime and water, which did no harm, but most of the lime simply settled to the bottom. It turned out that a fraction as much lime would have sufficed; Shutt says that water saturates with lime at 700 parts water to one part lime, but adds that “owing to impurities in commercial lime, it is well to use more than is called for.” In any case, if you use more lime than is necessary to saturate in water, the rest simply condenses out.
Eggs in limewater. I used more lime than was necessary, and it sank to the bottom.
Since exposure to air causes more lime to condense over time, some articles recommend keeping the container sealed either in a Kilner jar or by pouring a layer of oil over the top. I kept mine in an ordinary mayonnaise jar, sealed tightly, and they kept fine for a year.
Eggs kept this way do come out with their whites darkened slightly and with a faint, musty smell like old clothes. It does not, however, have the unpleasant smell of a rotten egg — believe me, you won’t mistake one for the other. The difference can perhaps be compared to that of rehydrated milk vs. fresh milk: not inedible, just slightly different than expected. As Shutt puts it, nothing “can entirely arrest that ‘stale’ flavour common in all but strictly fresh-laid eggs.”
I’m not aware of an upper limit on how long eggs could be kept this way. I kept mine a year, with no ill effects beyond the stale smell, but I would not recommend going longer than several months to be on the safe side. Several months, however, still allows the homesteader to continue harvesting eggs through the winter.
Shutt recommends keeping the water at a cool temperature, 40-45 degrees Fahrenheit or five degrees Centigrade, to help the preservation. That’s the temperature of a refrigerator, but a cellar or underground storage container would probably be fine. I kept mine at room temperature during an Irish year, where the temperature ranges from freezing (32 F, 0 C) in winter to lukewarm (75 F, 25 C) in summer, with no ill effects. Some old texts say to boil the lime-water, dissolving as much of the lime as you can and letting it cool before immersing the eggs; that might be preferable simply to maximize the amount of lime dissolved or to sterilize the water, but I tried it both ways and noticed no difference in quality.
Some old recipes recommend adding salt to the eggs, but I tried it with and without salt and found that it didn’t make a difference, and neither did Shutt a century ago. Still other 19th-century recipes put small amounts of saltpeter and even borax in the lime, but I would not try those until I had confirmed their safety.
Cultures around the world have tried many other methods of egg preservation. During World War II, the USDA recommended dipping fresh and un-cracked eggs in mineral oil, which was said to stretch their life by a few months. Chinese cultures used to preserve them in an alkali mix of ash, salt, quicklime, and other ingredients to make the pungent “century eggs,” which were, I gather, an acquired taste.
Techniques like this fell by the wayside in the last century, when people became accustomed to refrigerators, a constant supply of electricity, a convenience store down the road to re-stock it, and a car to get there. All these things, though, are less certain than they used to be; I have many friends who experienced layoffs, car problems, power outages, or any number of other disruptions, and who found themselves unable to find, keep, or make food for themselves. More and more of us are re-discovering what our grandparents knew: that there is a certain value in being able to provide and preserve some things for yourself, with simple ingredients, while spending a lot less money and having a lot more fun.
Top photo: Chicken eggs of different sizes and colors (2015). Photo by José Eugenio Gómez Rodríguez. Via Wikimedia Commons.
Lower photo by Brian Kaller in Grit.