Monday, October 17, 2011

Flavorful brined eggs

Brined eggs, or "salty eggs" (xiandan) as they are known in Chinese, are a staple throughout much of China, as this was a great way to preserve eggs in the days before refrigeration. But it's not only preservation that has made them popular: they can taste truly wonderful.

China's spotty record with monitoring its food supply means that it's not too wise to buy many of the more problematic Chinese products (including eggs), and although Taiwan's have so far not caused any problems, it's still impossible to find organic brined eggs or even relatively fresh ones. The solution? Make them yourself!

Raw brined yolks are solid
We adore brined eggs in our family, and we use them not only as a side dish for congee, but in other favorite dishes, as well. A steamed Taiwanese ground pork patty with pickles just isn't the same without some salty yolks studding the top, and since any extras are subject to first-come-first-serve, these dinners end up being wolfed down in record time so that dibs can be placed before anybody else gets a chance.

Salty egg yolks are prized inside of baked Chinese pastries like mooncakes, where their sandy, savory, and even buttery flavors contrast perfectly with the sweet red bean paste. They are the perfect golden prizes to snuggle inside of Hakka tamales, and they lend a mysteriously cheesy flavor to the stir-fries that are described as "golden sand" (jinsha). 

We first encountered this last style of cooking when we visited Shanghai, and it was so popular that we were served it at almost every dinner. Now that the memories of golden sand overload have faded, we have come to enjoy it once more. 

The yolks turn a brilliant hue
Traditionally, brined eggs are made with duck eggs, the large shells turning an even lovelier shade of blue during their weeks in the salt water. But since duck eggs are relatively hard to find, I've substituted large organic and free-range hen eggs; the taste is very similar to the genuine item, except for the fact that duck eggs tend to be a bit oilier. 

One thing nice about making your own brined eggs is that you can use any variety of egg you like and also can flavor the egg whites, something I've never seen done by other Chinese cooks.

That is why you'll find that no commercial eggs are ever seasoned with anything but salt. However, when they are homemade, they can have their egginess edged with herbs, wine, and aromatics. In the recipe below, I've layered my eggs with ginger, star anise, Sichuan peppercorns, dried chilies, Shaoxing rice wine, and lots of garlic. The resulting brined eggs have a remarkably well-rounded flavor that will make anyone a convert.

Brined eggs are super easy and require only a few minutes of preparation. Then, the eggs just sit in a cool spot for a couple of weeks. How long they will take to become fully brined depends upon the size of the eggs and the heat of the room, but any egg that isn't quite ready can be easily incorporated into your morning scramble.

Savory and easy eggs
Homemade brined eggs
Xiandan 鹹蛋  
All over China
Makes 1 dozen

1½ cups sea salt
6½ cups boiling filtered water
12 large fresh eggs, preferably organic and free range
1 inch fresh ginger, thinly sliced
2 whole star anise
1 tablespoon whole Sichuan peppercorns
3 dried chilies
3 whole garlic cloves, slightly smashed
2 tablespoons Shaoxing rice wine
1. Clean a tall, 2-quart jar and its lid. Find a disposable plastic lid (like from restaurant takeout or a plastic yogurt container) that is about the same diameter as the jar; wash it carefully and drain.

2. In a large pitcher or bowl, dissolve the sea salt with the 6½ cups boiling filtered water. Allow the water to cool down completely to room temperature before proceeding. (You don't want to cook the eggs at this point; they must be brined while they are raw.)

3. Gently lower the eggs one by one into the jar; toss out any that are cracked and use others egg, if you have extra. Add the ginger, anise, peppercorns, chilies, garlic cloves, and rice wine to the jar, and then fill it up with the salted water to about 1 inch from the top; toss out any extra salt water.

Plastic lid in the jar
4. Squeeze the plastic lid into the jar so that it holds down the eggs and keeps them submerged in the brine. It's all right if the lid is at an angle, as the only thing that matters is that the eggs are under the water. 

5. Cover the jar and place it in a cool place. Check one egg after about 3 weeks by cracking it into a bowl. The yolk should be hard and a dark orange, while the white will be clear and very salty. If the egg is cured enough, remove the rest of the eggs from the brine and store them in a closed container in the refrigerator until you want to use them; they are best within a couple of weeks. If they haven't cured completely, continue to brine the eggs, testing them every couple of days. 

 6. Eggs that are not to be eaten within a couple of weeks should be hard boiled. To hard boil these eggs, just prick the round end of the shell with a pin or tack, place in a pan of cool water, and bring to a boil over medium high heat. (Doing it this way will reduce the chance of the shells cracking.) Simmer the eggs for about 10 minutes, cool, and peel when you want to eat them.

7. You can keep the brine and use it again; just store it in the fridge. Or, make a new batch with different flavors. This brine is so cheap that you can afford to be wasteful here!

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