When quarantine first locked us in our homes this past spring, self-sustaining became the new norm. The startling realization that “normal” could be completely upended in a matter of days led to gardens being tilled, bread being baked, and hens being raised. There’s just something about a once-in-a-generation pandemic that really brings out one’s inner frontiersperson, apparently.
Housing your own brood of hens provides the amazing taste and unbeatable convenience of farm-fresh eggs, which are impossible to beat once they’ve become your breakfast usual. Adopting your own clutch of chicks can shrink your carbon footprint and ensure your eggs come from chickens raised, fed, and all-around treated humanely. Also—grocery shortages, who? Empty grocery shelves are no match for a bustling hen coop. A win/win/win.
While springtime and summer can be prime egg-laying time, there is a natural lull in egg production in the fall and winter months. Rather than using supplemental light to keep chickens laying through the winter (can the girls get a break, please?!), try this centuries-old technique of preserving eggs with nothing more than a big bucket, clean water, and hydrated lime powder.
Water glassing is a method of egg preservation that’s been used since the early 1800s. The easy, sans-refrigeration-or-electricity technique is documented in the popular 1896 cookbook by Fannie Farmer, The Boston Cooking School Cookbook. Fresh eggs are placed in a solution of water and sodium silicate or hydrated lime, keeping them fresh and ready-to-eat for up to two years. Water glassing lets you enjoy the rich taste of farm-fresh eggs year-round, declutters your fridge, and keeps your hens happy and healthy.
Water glassing should only be used for preserving freshly laid, clean eggs. Processed eggs from the store are cleaned, bleached, and can be up to a couple of weeks old by the time they make their way from the shelf to your fridge. Eggs preserved in water glass must be freshly laid and free of dirt, debris, waste, or egg remnants.
Wiping your eggs clean can remove its bloom, or protective outermost covering, which can leave the delicate porous eggshell defenseless against the harsh water glass solution. Rather than using every egg and wiping it clean, plan to pick the cleanest freshly-laid eggs over a week or so.
Water glassing can be done using a sodium silicate or a hydrated lime (calcium hydroxide) solution. Sodium silicate is a food-grade chemical commonly used to seal concrete surfaces. Hydrated lime is a combination of oyster shells, bones, and limestone burnt in a kiln and rehydrated with water. There doesn’t seem to be a discernible difference in each solution’s ability to preserve eggs, but hydrated lime (also called pickling lime or slaked lime) is a much more natural option.
For the most natural hydrated lime powder, use a pickling lime found in your local store’s canning department. You can buy pickling lime online on Amazon, My Spice Sage, or TheVitaPrime.com. Hardware and rural supply stores like Home Depot, Ace Hardware, True Value, or Rural King are also good spots to find hydrated lime powder. Industrial or agricultural lime powder found at these stores might not be food-grade or processed in a way that removes and keeps out impurities—use these at your own risk.
The lime powder can be very drying and irritating to sensitive skin, so be sure to wear gloves when working with your water glass solution. Your leftover pickling lime can be used to create homemade, crunchy pickled cucumbers and other vegetables!
The size of your bucket largely depends on how many eggs you have to preserve. Most recipes suggest using a three- or five-gallon food-grade bucket commonly found in restaurant supply or hardware stores. Earthenware crocks can also be used, but they will be significantly heavier after the water and eggs are added. Regardless of size, your container should have a sealable lid and needs to be clean of dirt, dust, and debris.
Since all your ingredients are dependent on your own egg count, your “recipe” might change from season to season. When mixing your water glass solution, remember these handy tricks: one quart of water will typically cover a dozen and a half of medium-sized eggs, and always use a 1:1 ratio of a quart of water to an ounce of lime powder. And as always, the cleaner the ingredients, the better: only use distilled or filtered water for your water glass solution.
Eggs preserved in water glass are ready-to-eat for up to two years, although I recommend eating your eggs within six to nine months (that’s usually enough time to make it through the cold season, anyway—then it’s back to fresher eggs). You can pick eggs two or three at a time as you need them, or you can pick out a dozen for the week to save yourself multiple dips into your water glass. Make sure to refrigerate any water glassed eggs you don’t plan on using immediately.
Your eggs will feel smooth after sitting in their hydrated lime solution, so be careful when you’re transferring them from the bucket to the counter. Thoroughly wash your eggs to completely remove the water glass from the outer shell. If any lime solution drips into your eggs as you crack them, the solution will cause the eggs to curdle.
Water glassed eggs can be cracked and baked, fried, scrambled, etc., as usual. If you plan on boiling your eggs, always be sure to poke a small hole in the shell using a pin before placing it in the water. Because the shells are no longer porous after soaking in the water glass, boiling them without creating an air hole to release inner pressure can cause your eggs to explode in the pot.
In this new age of self-sufficiency, returning to age-old techniques can be as practical as it is aesthetic. So no matter what the rest of 2020 (or human existence as we know it) throws at you, you can bake your bread, tend your garden, and harvest and preserve farm-fresh eggs like the true pioneer bada$$ you are.