Farm wives of long ago usually kept a flock of several score of hens. The biddies not only furnished fresh eggs for the family, but when there was a surplus the eggs could be sold to provide a little “walking-around money” for the lady.
The breeding season for most fowl begins in March and ends about mid-summer and it was during this period that the hen laid some 50 percent of the eggs she’d produce for the year, with production falling off sharply by winter. So during the laying season Grandma may have had surplus eggs to sell, but how was she to assure that there were eggs available during those winter months when Biddy slacked off and the kids and grandkids would be coming “over the river and through the woods” expecting all those delicious pies and puddings?
Over the centuries many methods of preserving eggs have been tried with varying degrees of success. One ancient method, still popular in eastern Asia, is the so-called “Century Eggs,” although these culinary delights seem to have never caught on in the rest of the world.
An 1820 book titled “The Husbandman and Housewife” tells us, Eggs may be preserved by anointing them with lard or any greasy or oily substance for months and some say years. The oily substance closes the pores, hinders the access of air and thus prevents putrefaction. They should be anointed soon after they are laid.
The “Kentucky Housewife,” published in 1839, stated that, Eggs will keep good for some time, buried in charcoal or wheat bran, after greasing them a little with mutton tallow; but the best way they can be preserved is in lime-water. To half a bushel of water add a little over a pint of unslaked lime and as much salt. When the whole is dissolved put in the eggs; be very particular that you do not put in one that is cracked as it will spoil the whole. If the eggs are fresh and whole, and water of the proper strength, it is said they will keep good for years.
In 1853, Lydia Child in her book, “The Frugal Housewife” writes: Eggs will keep almost any length of time in lime-water properly prepared. One pint of coarse salt and one pint of unslaked lime to a pailful of water. If there be too much lime it will eat the shells from the eggs; and if there be a single egg cracked it will spoil the whole. They should be covered with lime-water and kept in a cold place. The yolk becomes slightly red; but I have seen eggs thus kept, perfectly sweet and fresh at the end of three years.
“The Philadelphia Housewife” wrote of another method in 1855; Get eggs as fresh as possible; put a layer of salt in a jar and then put in some eggs, the small end down, then another layer of salt and more eggs, taking care to not let the eggs touch each other. Set them in a dry cool place and they will keep all winter.
In 1918 the Agricultural Experiment Station at the University of Arkansas ran a series of exhaustive tests, preserving eggs in lime-water, dry salt, water glass, vaseline, and several commercial egg preservative products then on the market. After six or seven months in storage the eggs were sent to the Home Economics Department where they were fried, boiled, poached, baked in cakes and used in custards.
At the end of the tests, the commercial egg preservatives pretty much failed, with those eggs dark colored and often moldy inside, with watery whites and a sour, musty odor. The vaseline and salt methods, gave similar, although not so pronounced results. Lime-water preserved eggs gave good results except that the whites were thinner than fresh eggs and didn’t poach very well.
All the experiments indicated that preserving eggs in water glass gave the best and the longest-lasting results. Water glass, or sodium silicate, is a chemical compound of sodium oxide and silica that forms a glassy solid. Available in chunks or ground powders, the compound is soluble in water. A circular published in 1917 by the Experiment Station of the Utah Agricultural College gave the following instructions for preserving eggs in water glass.
Water glass can usually be obtained at any drug store and should not cost more than a dollar to a dollar and quarter a gallon. A gallon of water glass properly diluted and mixed should be enough to store 60 to 70 dozen eggs.
Boil 10 quarts of water for a few minutes and allow to become cold. Add one quart of good quality water glass and stir thoroughly. Water glass is heavier than water and will go to the bottom unless thoroughly mixed so let the mixture stand a short time and then give it another good brisk stirring. This should give enough to cover 15 to 20 dozen eggs, depending on the shape of the storage vessel and the way the eggs are packed into it. It may be more convenient to mix the solution, pour it into a good clean wood, glass or crockery vessel and then add the eggs, a few at a time, as they are gathered each day fresh from the nests. If an egg is cracked do not save as it will surely spoil. Use only fresh, clean, unwashed eggs, so be sure to keep your nests clean and free of broken eggs.
All eggs must be completely covered by the water glass as long as they are in storage. A good lid or cover on the containing vessel will help to prevent evaporation. If some of the liquid evaporates add more water.
When water glass eggs are to be boiled stick a needle through the shell at the large end of the egg to prevent the shell from breaking.
So ladies, aren’t supermarkets and refrigeration wonderful?