Thursday, May 13, 2010

Buttered Eggs - Heirloom Skill From County Cork

This is an intriguing way to help keep eggs fresh. It is an heirloom skill from the homesteads of county Cork in Ireland. The small farmers of Ireland had to be extra careful with every resource they had at hand. Chickens have always been the best friend to anyone trying to be self reliant. They are an excellent and cheap source of ready protein both as eggs and “that other way” (I’m writing this in the garden and Millie doesn’t like to hear the word ).

But even with the best efforts of our hens we sometimes run through dry spots where they just do not lay as well as usual. This may be associated with extremes of weather, age or sickness. But whatever the reason, a sudden drop in egg production can leave a small farmer in a real fix if they depend on eggs for a food source.
The grand old ladies of county Cork found a simple and elegant way to solve this problem by stretching the amount of times that eggs can be kept fresh. They would take their eggs – preferably still warm from the hen and rub them with butter. This coat of butter would seal the pores in the eggshell and thereby reduce the exchange of air in and out of the shell. This worked to slow day the natural aging process. The original purpose of buttered eggs was to preserve eggs without refrigeration; but I see no reason why it would not work in modern kitchens. In fact the constant drying flow of air in a refrigerator is almost as bad for eggs as keeping them cool is good for them. Many people never refrigerate their eggs at all – but I wager they don’t live in Florida.

Butter really is a wonderful thing – it has amazing abilities to seal and protect. Do not underestimate the ability of this to help a small homestead in its search for self reliance. The original concept of potted meats came from medieval cooks mincing up meat into fine pieces, packing them tightly into small crocks and then sealing them in with a thick layer of butter. Before the modern hygienist in you begins to rebel - listen to this – butter is highly resistant to bacterial growth. That was the reason old people used to put butter on burns – not to act as a lotion, but to act as a barrier to infection.

The best way to use butter in this type of role is to clarify it. Clarified butter is simply the clear yellow part of butter separated from the little bit of white that shows when it begins to melt -think pancakes. In fact clarified butter called Ghee in Indian cooking is a stable in their cuisine and will remain good even in tropical heat. To produce clarified butter, you simply slowly melt butter and skim off all the solids, leaving only the clear yellow liquid. This is Ghee or clarified butter. The solids are loose proteins and they are what can allow butter to spoil. Remove them and butter is sterile and will last indefinitely.

I cannot imagine a better way to merge heirloom traditions with modern needs. Honestly, I am not sure how often I would use this idea since I get more eggs than I can possibly eat. But even if you are not trying to extend the shelf life of your eggs further into the future, delaying the aging process would mean eggs stay fresh tasting longer. The artisan food movement is huge in modern Ireland and the people there report a big return to this tradition. The claim is not only do eggs stay fresh longer, but that the butter imparts a subtle flavor to the eggs.

An heirloom trick to eat better for longer– that’s sounds like a win/win to me. I am going to try buttering my first batch of eggs this week. I will have to set up a simple experiment. I will butter 8 eggs, and then cook them 2 at a time in 2 week intervals. This way I should be able to compare 2, 4, 6 and 8 week old buttered eggs against eggs laid that very day and compare freshness. I will report back to you on how it fares. So science marches backwards to the Middle Ages in search of simple living here at Shadows End.

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