Food & Drink » Glenda Bartosh on Food

Egging you on

An over-easy take on the mighty oeuf

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But it would have been worse for her had it had been the raw egg of the now-extinct elephant bird of Madagascar. Although they weren’t much bigger than ostriches, elephant birds laid eggs almost double in size.

As giant as an ostrich egg is, compared to the bird’s body size, it’s the smallest. Vice versa is true for hummingbird eggs, which capture the title for smallest eggs, but largest egg-to-body ratio.

If you’ve ever supervised a bunch of kids dying Easter eggs, even hard-boiled ones, you’ve probably caught yourself saying be careful, be careful a lot. After all, these are eggs. But eggshells, at least those on birds’ eggs, are really quite tough, providing decent protection from predators and other hazards in birdland.

Our universally held misconception that eggs are fragile, like so many others in our engineered world, comes from the fact that domestic chickens have been selectively bred to produce larger and larger eggs.

In fact, your average domesticated chicken egg today is two to three times larger than that of its original ancestor, jungle fowl native to Southeast Asia and India. But since the amount of shell material a chicken produces hasn’t increased over time, it gets stretched thinner and thinner over the increased mass of yolk and albumen (egg white), resulting in the fragile shell we’ve all quietly cursed when one breaks in the egg carton on the way home from the store.

Eggs in our faces

Harold McGee points out in his book On Food and Cooking that eggs, like their plant-based equivalents, seeds, along with milk are among the most nutritious foods on earth for one reason. They are all intended to be food and support developing life forms – the chick embryo, the young seedling and the calf, respectively – until they are able to find other nourishment and sustain themselves.

Given their high nutritional value, it’s a bit surprising that we have no records of eggs being eaten in the western world until Roman times. Until then the main "chicken" of interest was the cock, for sacrifices to gods, for divination and for cockfights (the name of the arena, cockpit, continues to designate a centre of power and control). Kind of unfair, I’d say, given that hens by comparison seem like superbeings, using a reproductive effort to produce eggs that is 100 times greater than that of humans to produce a baby.

When it comes to chemistry, the minute an egg leaves a hen it begins to transform in ways that aren’t so great for cooks. The acidity/alkalinity both in the yolk and the "white" changes. The amount of "thick" egg white decreases while the "thin" egg white increases, which makes for a runnier egg – one more likely to suffer a broken yolk when you try to flip it in the frying pan. And you thought it was all your fault, when you might just have old eggs.

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