Why Does the Recipe Want THIS?

I do so much cookbook reading, and so much recipe-writing myself, I’ve become something of a connoisseur of recipes. Most recipes are well written: indeed, they are unsung gems of prose — concise yet descriptive, pragmatic yet willing to embrace the telling metaphor, and logically organized. Postmodern college academics, with their flighty impenetrable jargon, need not apply. The primary goal of any recipe is to communicate.

   That’s why the failings of recipes stand out so much. How about this one, for instance. ‘1 large egg lightly beaten with 1 teaspoon water, for egg wash’. Seems inoffensive. What’s wrong with it? 

Humpty Dumpty, as drawn by John Tenniel for Lewis Carroll's Through The Looking Glass, And What Alice Found There (1871).

Humpty Dumpty, as drawn by John Tenniel for Lewis Carroll's Through The Looking Glass, And What Alice Found There (1871).

   Well, let’s start with the ‘large egg’. That’s the main problem with this particular direction. The egg is to be used to seal two lengths of pastry ten inches long and eight inches wide, all around their edges, and the rest is for glazing the top length all over, just before baking. It’s a job that a medium egg could easily do. Even a small egg could do it. I happened to use a large egg, as directed, since we typically stock large eggs in this household. And guess what? I had so much egg left over, I scrambled it in a frying pan to put in my dog’s dinner. 

    So why did they specify a ‘large’ egg? I’ll tell you the likely reason. Most professional kitchens, in America anyway, use large as the standard size of an egg (out of the shell, it can weigh more or less than 2 ounces, but many of them weigh exactly 2, and that’s the weight that is usually assigned to them). So a recipe-writer might get in the habit of writing ‘one large egg’. Another possibility is that the recipe wasn’t actually tested by the writer, but was handed on from a trusted source. This could lead to assumptions that aren’t justified. Perhaps the original recipe just mentioned ‘one beaten egg’. The recipe compiler might feel the need to be more specific, especially if all the other recipes in a collection mention the egg size. So out creeps the familiar word ‘large’.

   ‘Lightly beaten’. Why only lightly? If you beat lightly, you’ll get a less than perfect emulsion of albumen and yolk: you’ll get pools of yolk with white swimming around them. That is not ideal for a pastry wash (or glaze, as I prefer to call it). Egg white gives virtually no gloss: it’s the yolk that beefs up the shine. But yolk by itself would be too dense, too difficult to spread, and perhaps too apt to burn. (I would need to test this to be sure.) You need the runnier white — but well mixed with the yolk — to create the brushable ‘wash’. So the best thing is a fairly well beaten egg, which is to say, an egg whose white and yolk have been sufficiently blended. Beating lightly won’t necessarily achieve this.

   Then there is the addition of water to the ‘lightly beaten’ egg. The fact is: you don’t need it. A reasonably well beaten egg produces a perfectly adequately wash, and water won’t improve it.

  Given the foregoing, and having baked the item in question, I would have written the instruction differently. I would have asked for ‘1 egg of any size, beaten’. So the baker with only medium or small eggs in the fridge or pantry would not have to wonder whether she or he could do the recipe. And a baker with a choice of eggs could choose the most economical one.