34

I do some historical cooking out of old cookbooks, like Amelia Simmons' American Cookery or The Art Of Cookery Made Plain and Easy. One thing I've noticed is that these cookbooks use way more egg yolks than whites. For example, I prepared an 18th century feast one night and ended up with 10 leftover egg whites in a jar.

This left me wondering, what did they do with the egg whites? Given the extreme frugality of cooks centuries ago, which included using every scrap of stale bread and every bit of a pig including the oink, I find it impossible to believe that they were wasted. They must have used them for something ... but that's not in the recipes I have. So, questions:

  1. Are the cookbooks we have simply not representative of actual cookery of the 15th-18th century? That is, are they purely posh cookery and as a result did actually waste the egg whites?
  2. Or were the egg whites used for some other purpose that required a lot of whites, maybe even a non-culinary purpose?

Help me solve this mystery. Thanks!

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  • 5
    Not quite an answer, but this history of meringue begins in 17th century England. It may be useful to finding/formulating a complete answer
    – AMtwo
    Jan 2 at 9:21
  • 2
    I'm sure there were non-culinary uses for whites, though egg tempera paint used just the yolk. You can of course throw an odd half egg into an omelette or scrambled eggs, but that requires using yet more eggs.
    – Chris H
    Jan 2 at 16:24
  • 4
    Egg whites can be used for fining, i.e. removing impurities, especially bitter acidic impurities, from stocks, which would surely have been required in a large quantities. They can be used in a similar way in brewing: a large country house might perhaps have brewed its own beer. Jan 2 at 16:53
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    "Are the cookbooks we have simply not representative of actual cookery of the 15th-18th century?" You seem to expect that a given cookbook answers the question "how to use all of my ingredients", but in reality recipes tend to focus on the outcome (the dish), not the start (the ingredients) and thus answers the question "how do I make this dish?". You can't just assume that because a given set of recipes doesn't include a particular ingredient, that this invariably means that those ingredients must have been thrown out.
    – Flater
    Jan 3 at 16:49
  • 2
    Flater: great, if you can find some 16th-18th century cookbooks that use lots of egg whites, then you have a potential answer.
    – FuzzyChef
    Jan 4 at 16:34
27

Another high-volume specialist use for egg white was mortar. Specifically, it was used very frequently in the Middle Ages, in the standard lime and sand mortar: a 2017 study suggests that 6% egg albumen (I assume by weight) provides the strongest mortar.

It was not the only binding agent available to construction, but at least in the Middle East and in Europe, it was one of the most easily procured. Its role is to aerate the mortar, which is essential in preventing thermal contraction damage (ice or heat), and modify its hydration (usually by allowing a lower water-to-cement ratio, increasing strength and water resistance while still being workable).

The use of egg white in construction persisted into the late 19th century in the colonial Philippines. According to one report, this use of egg white in the buildings transformed native Filipino desserts.

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  • 1
    That's interesting because unlike my non-culinary suggestions it would use decent quantities - rather a lot in fact, all in one place and at one time, leading to almost the reverse problem
    – Chris H
    Jan 4 at 10:28
  • 5
    @ChrisH Which is probably why people were looking for uses of egg yolk ;)
    – Luaan
    Jan 4 at 14:56
  • Oh, wow, interesting. And even when the medieval church-building spree ended, the habit of making things with egg yolks would have continued, becuase that's the the recipes they had. OK, picking your answer simply because it shows a substantial use of egg whites and you cited all your sources.
    – FuzzyChef
    Jan 4 at 18:08
  • They could use the yolks for paint if the glut went the other way - en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tempera
    – unlisted
    Jan 4 at 19:47
  • 1
    As child I was told that egg white is an important part of the infill for timber framed houses: wikipedia/timber-framing I found it on the german wikipedia page "for better lasting against weather" but not on the english page... Jan 5 at 14:52
29

There were certainly uses for egg whites that didn't involve eating them:

None of these would use a lot, of course. I suspect that most leftover whites would have been used up in cooking. Apart from the obvious meringues of various types, they can be used:

  • As an egg wash on pastry.
  • In place of whole egg before coating something in breadcrumbs
  • Finings are also used in clarifying stock (link is to an alternative method proposed by Heston Blumenthal). Consommé was probably popular around that time; certainly Mrs Beeton, writing in England in the 19th century included several recipes. While she mentioned that clarifying may be required, her consommé recipes don't call for the use of egg. Fannie Farmer's Boston Cooking-School Cook Book (1896) does explain this method, though without quantities.
  • Or simply added to many things that use beaten egg (I use up half eggs, either half, in an omelette with whole eggs). In fancy households that could mean servants' food - after all there are many low-effort ways of preparing egg. In a smaller household, everyday meals could use them up, though quickly without refrigeration

They can also be fed to many domestic animals, but given that most animals probably lived on scraps, this is effectively discarding them.

9
  • Thanks for all of the ideas! For a complete answer, can you provide citations/reasons why any or several of the above uses would have consumed a lot more egg whites in 1796 than they do today?
    – FuzzyChef
    Jan 2 at 18:45
  • TBH I don't think the non-culinary uses would have used up huge amounts, at least not within even large domestic establishments. That's why I reckon my last bullet would account for most, but I'll add one point to it
    – Chris H
    Jan 2 at 19:20
  • which do you mean by "last bullet"?
    – FuzzyChef
    Jan 2 at 21:56
  • @FuzzyChef the last bullet point, starting "or simply added to many things that use beaten egg"
    – Chris H
    Jan 2 at 22:29
  • 1
    I've seen text saying that servants at least sometimes had to make do with basic food and leftovers, though not recently. That's probably not specific enough anyway. I might have one more look later, as this leads to some quite interesting reading, but I might have to settle for writing a (hopefully) interesting answer rather than a definitive one.
    – Chris H
    Jan 3 at 8:39
26

Just the other day I was watching an episode of the Great British Baking Show (sorry, don't remember which one), and they mentioned that egg whites were often used to stiffen clothing, something we'd do with starch today. That left an excess of egg yolks, which was supposed to be the explanation for why so many recipes back then used egg yolks.

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  • 7
    Isn’t that how some Portuguese pastry came to be? Using up leftover yolks from the whites that went to the monastery’s laundry?
    – Stephie
    Jan 2 at 18:08
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    Yep - Pastéis de nata.
    – Stephie
    Jan 2 at 18:10
  • 1
    Hmmm, intriguing. Got a link for this?
    – FuzzyChef
    Jan 2 at 18:43
  • 3
    @FuzzyChef en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pastel_de_nata
    – Stephie
    Jan 2 at 22:33
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    @FuzzyChef From the linked Wikipedia article: "At the time, convents and monasteries used large quantities of egg-whites for starching clothes, such as friars and nuns' religious habits."
    – njuffa
    Jan 3 at 9:10
5

Apparently divided culinary uses for eggs were not uncommon, in addition to industrial uses for egg whites mentioned by others. (Filipino egg-yolk cookies, among other things, are attributed to the massive use of egg whites in the cement for local churches, and egg whites made medieval cement water-resistant.)

Egg whites were reportedly used to make egg white omelettes and egg white pasta in the first printed cookbook, 1465's De honesta voluptate et valetudine from Italy.

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    My first thought "was make an omelette with them". That's what I'd do if I had ten egg whites and was hungry
    – Richard
    Jan 4 at 16:05

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