This post will teach you how eggs function in baking, or put another way, it will hopefully help answer the question about what eggs do in baking.
Eggs are really versatile, and because they have 2 parts that behave differently, we’ll look at how egg yolks work, what egg whites do, and how whole eggs act in baking. This post will focus mainly on cakes with some information at the end about custards.
Part of a series called Ingredient Function,
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What Eggs Do In Baking
The egg is quite possibly the most versatile basic baking ingredient on the planet. I think it has to do with its having two parts: a fatty yolk and a proteiny, watery white.
You can also use:
- just yolks
- just whites
- a combination of the two.
Where to begin? Like Maria, I say let’s start at the very beginning…
An egg is “the hard-shelled reproductive body produced by a bird and especially by the common domestic chicken; also : its contents used as food.” So sayeth Mirriam-Webster online.
Thanks, Mirriam Webster for not bothering to discuss the contents of an egg, because for most of us interested in baking with eggs, we are only interested in what is inside the shell.
Parts of the Egg
Eggs contain several structures including membranes and air pockets and such, but the main parts of the egg we are concerned with as bakers and cooks are:
- the yolk
- the albumin or white
- the whole egg, or the yolk and white together
A Note on Egg Whites
I will say here that the albumin can be further divided into thick albumin and thin albumin.
I’m sure you’ve all seen this: there’s a thicker, almost jelly-like white around the yolk and a thinner, more watery substance that runs out into your pan or bowl.
The fresher the egg–the more recently laid–the more of the thicker part there is and the less of the thinner.
That’s why older whites are preferable to younger whites for whipping. It’s much easier to whip air into a thinner mixture than it is with a thicker one.
What Do Eggs Do In Baking?
To really understand all the myriad ways eggs function in baking, we have to look at the ways eggs are called for: whole eggs, just yolks or just whites. Because nothing is ever easy. Still, this will be Fun and Educational!
The fat/protein/water content of whole eggs is:
- 12% fat
- 13% protein
- 73% water
- 2% minerals and such.
A whole large egg has about 80 calories.
- Eggs add structure in the form of protein. As eggs bake in a cake, the proteins denature and coagulate which, along with the starches in flour help form the overall structure of your baked goods. Too much egg not balanced with sugar and fat (which both tenderize) and yield tough, dry or chewy results.
- Egg yolks contain emulsifiers that help to form a thick, luscious batter that doesn’t separate. An emulsifier helps two items who don’t normally get along (fat and water in this case) get along. That’s why adding just a bit of egg yolk to a salad dressing helps to keep the oil and vinegar in solution. In this case, eggs add volume to batter and an even texture to the final product.
- Eggs contribute to browning because of Maillard reactions. Maillard reactions are the set of browning reactions that occur when proteins are heated. As well, they lend a yellowish cast to batters and dough.
- The yolks add some trace minerals and up the nutritional value while whites up the protein content.
- Eggs contribute to the overall flavor of whatever you’re making, partly because the fat in the yolks helps to carry other flavors.
- Since eggs are mostly water, they contribute to the overall moisture content of whatever you’re making. If you are making an enriched bread for example and you decide you want to only use yolks rather than whole eggs, you will have to increase the amount of water or other water-type liquid in the formula so that the bread won’t be too dry. So yes, I realize that I have said eggs both dry and contribute moisture. Both are true. There are many sides to eggs.
- The fat in yolks helps to shorten gluten and tenderize the final product.
Recipes Containing Whole Eggs
Although the yolk makes up roughly 1/3 of the volume of a whole egg, it contains half the protein, all of the fat and almost all the vitamins and minerals. It also contains three times as many of the calories as the white (60 as opposed to 20). Yolks are made up of 49% water, 17% protein and 32% fat along with 2% minerals and such.
- While egg yolks are made up of roughly half water, the actual amount is about 8 grams, or 1 1/2 teaspoons. This is a minimal amount compared to using whole eggs, and with all the emulsifiers and fats in a yolk, they contribute more of a shortening and tenderizing function than whole eggs.
- Baked goods made with yolks only are richer and more tender than those made with whole eggs. Less water equals less gluten development, and the fats in the yolk weaken the gluten that is present.
- Yolks contribute a lot of color, much more so than using whole eggs. Baked goods made with yolks only have a lovely deep golden hue. Their protein content assures lovely browning thanks to Maillard reactions.
- Batters made with yolks only are rich and billowy and luscious, partly due to all the emulsifiers present in the yolks.
- If the only difference between two batters is one is made with whole eggs and one is made with yolks, the yolky batter will contain more vitamins, fatty acids and trace minerals than the whole egg version.
- Yolks add a mellow, “eggy” flavor to baked goods. Either you are a fan of that eggy flavor, or you’re not, so consider that when deciding whether to bake with yolks only. Yolks can also muddy the flavor of other ingredients, mellowing and muting them. Again, some folks like this and some folks don’t.
Excellent Books about Eggs
Since eggs are so versatile, there are many books written about eggs, how eggs work in baking and cooking, and tons of recipes for eggs. Here’s a collection of books, some more scholarly/sciencey about eggs and some more cooking/baking-focused, you might enjoy.
Egg Yolks as Emulsifiers
Another important function of eggs, specifically egg yolks, is that they contain several emulsifiers. One emulsifier in egg yolks you may have heard of is lecithin.
Emulsifiers are molecules that have one end that likes to hang out with fats and another end that hangs out with water. Add an emulsifier to a water-type/oil-type mixture, which normally would separate upon standing, and they’ll hang together. This means we can harness the power of emulsifiers in egg yolks for the following purposes and more:
- Egg yolks join the fat in butter with the water in milk and egg whites to create a smooth cake batter.
- Adding a touch of egg yolk to a vinegar and oil mixture (heavy on the oil), and you end up with a lovely emulsified mayonnaise.
- Egg yolks join the water in lemon juice with the fat in butter to make a creamy Hollandaise sauce.
Recipes Containing Egg Yolks
The albumin or white of an egg contains 86% water, 12% protein, no fat at all and 2% minerals and such. When you realize whites make up two thirds the volume of the egg but only contain 1/3 the calories, it’s easy to understand why folks who are on a diet favor using whites only.
- Baked goods made with whites only are pale in color, especially if they don’t contain any other “coloring agents,” either natural (such as spices) or artificial (like food coloring). If you’re going to make those rainbow cakes, start with a whites-only batter so your colors stay true.
- While whites are mostly water, they have a drying effect on baked goods since all that water activates gluten without the tenderizing influence of the fat in the yolks. Most whites-only cakes (think angel food cake) rely heavily on the addition of extra sugar to tenderize the structure and bring moisture to the final product.
- Whites don’t contribute to the overall flavor of whatever you’re making. This means that the flavors you do introduce are more pure tasting since yolks bring a mellowness.
- There are no emulsifiers in egg whites, so batters containing whites only as well as other liquids are more prone to breaking or having a slightly curdled look to them. Angel food cake is an exception because the only additional liquid in an angel food cake is maybe a bit of extract.
- While the color of the dough or batter is whiter, you should still be able to achieve a nice brown crust on whatever you’re making because of the protein in the whites and sugar. Again with the Maillard reactions.
Recipes Containing Egg Whites
Okay, I think that pretty much covers what eggs do in baking cakes and such. But we use eggs in lots of baked goods, not just in cakes. So here we go with a look at what eggs do in custards.
What Do Eggs Do in Puddings and Custards?
The function of eggs in pudding and custard is a whole other ball of wax. First, let’s talk about what happens to eggs when they cook.
As you heat an egg, it goes from a liquid state that can easily mix with other liquids to a solid state.
Both the whites and the yolks do this, right? Think of a “hard” fried eggs. Now think of all that egg “solidity” evenly distributed throughout a batter, and that gives you an idea of the structure that eggs can help add to baked goods.
This is an oversimplification of what happens when eggs are heated, especially because I’m not addressing the interactions among other ingredients in the dough or batter, but as far as it goes, it’s true.
Now, think what happens when you stir the egg in the pan while it’s cooking. You end up with a completely different end product: scrambled eggs.
Scrambled eggs are generally more tender than fried eggs because you haven’t allowed the proteins to coagulate undisturbed. So what could have been an ice rink (fried egg) turns into a slushie (scrambled eggs).
The constant stirring action of making scrambled eggs incorporates a bit of air and keeps the proteins moving so they set up or coagulate in smaller little “clumps.”
If you haven’t noticed yet, I’m not a scientist. But I think the ice rink and slushie are a good illustration of the differences between letting egg proteins cook undisturbed (as in a cake, baked custards like creme brulee or cheesecake, or fried eggs) versus agitating them during cooking (stirred custards and scrambled eggs).
What is a Custard?
Custard is a thickened mixture of some sort of dairy and some form of egg. By that, I mean that you can use any sort of dairy from skim milk to heavy cream and some form of egg: whole, yolks only and in a very few instances, whites only.
The final texture of the custard depends not only on the other ingredients you use but on the ratio of egg to liquid as well as the way you cook it.
Stirred custards–anything from creme Anglais to eggnog to pastry cream to good old butterscotch pudding–have a softer set (slushie versus ice rink; scrambled eggs versus fried) than baked or “still” custards.
Here’s another oversimplification for you: you can have a bowl of pudding or a slice of flan.
Does Custard Have to Be Sweet?
Nope. You can absolutely make a savory custard–think of herbed cheesecakes. A cheesecake is a custard because it contains dairy and egg.
Maybe one of the most famous “savory stirred custards” is Hollandaise sauce. It’s sort of a special case.
Hollandaise is an emulsion of water-type liquid (water and lemon juice) and fat (butter). What holds the emulsion together? Egg yolks that are cooked while whisking madly. Here’s a look at that process done two ways.
What Can I Use In Place of Eggs? Are There Good Egg Substitutes?
I bake with eggs. I love all the roles eggs play in baking and cooking, and I love the flavor of egg.
But for folks who cannot have eggs (egg allergies) or for people who do not eat eggs (broadly: vegans), there are some viable egg substitutes.
- To approximate the flavor of eggs in dishes where eggs are usually the star (deviled eggs, and tofu scramble, for instance), you can sub in some black salt called kala namak. This salt is high in sulphur compounds and so can act as an egg flavor replacer. I would not suggest you use it in sweet dishes, though. NOTE: the salt is not black but more of a pink-beige color. I have no idea why they call it black salt.
- To approximate the texture of eggs in cakes, you can use ground flaxseed mixed with water in a ratio of 1 Tablespoon ground flax to 2-3 Tablespoons water per egg needing to be replaced. Let it sit for a few minutes until it gets a little “gloopy,” like egg whites. TIP: in baking cakes where I want a nice, fine texture, I make sure the flaxseed is extra fine by whirring it up super fine in my blender.
- You can also use aquafaba (the thickened water from canned chickpeas) as an egg replacer in both sweet and savory cooking and baking. The Kitchn has a great post on using aquafaba as an egg replacer.
- Bigger Bolder Baking also has an excellent post about 7 common egg replacers to use in baking.
Book Recommendations for Egg-Free Baking
In case you do not eat eggs, here are some books for egg free (and some allergen-free) baking.
Some Interesting Egg Facts to Ponder
- Eggs are one of the leading food allergens. When folks have an egg allergy, generally it is to one (or a combination of) the proteins present in the whites. I’m not saying that people with egg allergies are cleared to eat yolks, of course. I just find it interesting.
- Eggs do not like really high temperatures. This is why we often bake custards in a water bath. The part of the batter that is submerged in the water (in a pan, of course) can never rise above the boiling point of water, or 212F/100C.
Eggs like gentle cooking, and the more slowly you can cook them, the more silky, creamy and sexy your custard will be.
Have you ever had a baked custard that has a weird, grainy texture? This happens when the eggs cook too quickly, the proteins seize up tight and squeeze out all the liquid.
And what are you left with? A nubbly, tweedy texture. Ew. I cannot tell you how many pieces of flan I’ve sent back. Sigh.
- Grocery store eggs, at least here in America, have been washed so they’re all clean and pretty. This removes the protective coating that they naturally have, allowing them to pick up off flavors in the fridge and to age more quickly.
We get our eggs from our own chickens, and I can tell you that we are happy when they come out clean, but we don’t expect it. Either way, clean or not, we just wipe them off and keep them on the counter until we need to use them.
We wash them right before use, thus protecting the coating on them which allows them to sit out at room temperature in the first place. (And this is all within reason, of course. It’s not like we’re using eggs that have sat out on the counter for months and months.)
I am sure I have left out some information about what eggs do in baking, so after reading all of this, please let me know if you still have any questions.
You can leave them here in the comments or shoot me an email. Either way, I’m happy to help, especially if helping one can help all figure out how eggs function in baking.
Because knowledge is power, friends. Learn how ingredients function–how eggs act in baking and cooking, in this case–so you can make them do what you want them to.
Thanks for spending some time with me today. I appreciate it.
Have a lovely day.
I did know most of the information presented here, but I want to credit some outside research from my main textbook in culinary school.
Professional Baking, 4th Edition, Wayne Gisslen, pp47-50