Eggs are a useful source of protein, iodine and essential vitamins and are almost indispensable to the cook. Hens' eggs are the type of egg most frequently used in cooking. Duck eggs, gull eggs and quail eggs are less frequently used and are generally eaten on their own, rather than in baking. Quail eggs are small with dark-brown speckled shells. Duck eggs are larger than hens' eggs and richer in flavour, lending a creamy depth to baked dishes. Goose eggs and ostrich eggs are even bigger and for this reason are often blown out and decorated for Easter. Gulls' eggs are not widely available, but if you do come across them, serve them in much the same way as quails' eggs.
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The majority of eggs available are hens' eggs. They come in various sizes, from small to extra large, and various shades of brown, white and, less commonly, blue. The colour of the shell comes down to the breed of the hen that laid it; the difference in flavour is subtle, if noticeable at all. Often a recipe will state the size of egg required; if it doesn't then it's best to use large eggs.
Supermarket labels can be confusing. 'Farm fresh', for example, is a meaningless description, and the eggs could have been laid by chickens farmed in battery cages. 'Barn eggs' come from chickens kept inside, where there are a maximum of nine birds per square metre. 'Free range' egg production provides chickens with daytime access to runs covered with vegetation, with a maximum 2,500 birds per hectare. Organic eggs are from chickens with the same privileges as free-range and are produced according to European laws on organic production. Growth promoters, artificial pesticides, fungicides, herbicides and commercial fertilisers cannot be used in the feed for organic production.
Eggs should always be stored in a cool, dry place, ideally in the fridge. However, it is preferable to bring them up to room temperature before cooking, so try to remove them from the fridge in advance. Remember that egg shells are porous, so store eggs apart from other foods, especially strong smelling ingredients.
To freeze whole eggs, break them into a bowl and beat a little to blend. Tip into a freezer bag or airtight plastic container and use within three months - freeze them in small batches, as these will be most useful, and be sure to label the number of eggs that go into each freezer bag. Whites and yolks can also be frozen separately. Egg whites just need tipping into freezer bags, whereas egg yolks need a pinch of salt or sugar beaten in (depending on whether they'll be used for sweet or savoury dishes later). This will stop them from thickening too much upon freezing. Defrost frozen eggs in the fridge overnight and use them straightaway.
Never use eggs after their 'Best Before' date and never use eggs with damaged shells. Eat dishes containing eggs as soon as possible after preparing them. Otherwise, cool them quickly and store them in the fridge.
Eggs are a fantastically versatile ingredient and the mainstay of many cuisines. They combine well with many ingredients to create a huge variety of food - from simple omelettes, quiches, tarts and flans to lemon curd or delicious sauces. Egg proteins also combine during heating (a process called coagulation), which is useful for binding ingredients together, for coating and for glazing.
To peel hard-boiled eggs, roll them around on a hard work surface until the shell has broken into small pieces all over, then peel. Do allow extra time for cooking larger eggs such as goose, turkey or duck eggs.
Homemade mayonnaise, béarnaise and hollandaise sauce, some salad dressings, ice cream, icing, mousse, tiramisu and other desserts might all contain raw eggs, which can contain salmonella. If you're catering for anyone who might be particularly susceptible to salmonella, such as elderly people, children, pregnant women or anyone who is unwell, remember that eggs with the 'Lion Quality' mark on the shell are guaranteed to have been produced to higher standards than required by UK or EU law. All Lion Quality-marked eggs have complete traceability, a 'Best Before' date on the shell and the laying flock will have been vaccinated against salmonella. Whatever eggs you use, ensure they are fresh, keep prepared egg dishes in the fridge and use within a day.
The Food Standards Agency recommends that pasteurised egg should be used in any dish in which the egg will not be completely cooked. Pasteurised egg is available in frozen, liquid or powder form and eggs pasteurised in their shells are also available.