Pickled eggs were once the mainstay of British pub snacks, especially in the northern counties, long before anyone thought of mass-marketing salty, deep-fried lumps of bristly, fatty, pig skin as actual food items. You’d have to visit a hell of a lot of pubs before you find one these days, though, and, when you do, it’ll more than likely be pallid and hideous, preserved in tasteless and viciously acidic spirit vinegar, or even just dilute acetic acid (neither having the complexity of proper vinegar), and without spices, instead of being the deep mahogany that comes from the traditional malt vinegar, replete with pickling spices. So I made my own.
Not having enough malt vinegar, or even pickling spice* – this just happened on a whim – I used Aspall Organic Cyder Vinegar, which has a remarkable complexity (I normally use it in salad dressings), spiked with mustard seed. And I always add a little Vitamin C (ascorbic acid), to anything I pickle, as an anti-oxidant – it extends the shelf-life dramatically. I always have a small jar of home-pickled chillies which, as I don’t use a lot (but always want when I haven’t got any, hence the pickle), tend to be kept for a long time. With a shot of ascorbic acid powder, about an eighth of a teaspoon, they’ll stay good for a couple of years.
* Since typing that line I’ve been to Sainsbury’s, where, of course, you can buy spices from all around the world, but you simply cannot buy traditional British pickling spice; why the hell not? True, I could have bought the components, but why should I have to? If I can’t go to a British supermarket, in an English suburb, and buy a traditional British spice mix, it’s a pretty poor show. By the way, their website lists two varieties of pickling spice, and two kinds of Sarson’s ready-spiced pickling vinegar – I saw none of these in my local store, at Upton, Wirral.
As I write, half a dozen fresh-as-possible (unless you can get eggs straight from the hen, buy the longest-dated you can find), Burford Brown eggs are quietly festering maturing in a jar of vinegar the fridge. I prefer to pickle small eggs like these, as their main function, for me, is to spike a salad and add a shot of protein at the same time, so small is better. As a snack to accompany beer, give me a big one every time. When I can find one.
Obviously, for this, you need hard-boiled eggs, but how you cook the eggs matters rather a lot. If you simply boil them, you’ll wind up with slightly tough whites. I coddled them. This normally gives an extremely soft egg, but it works very nicely for hard eggs if you do it for a longer time. Basically, to coddle eggs, pierce the shell at the wide end, put them in boiling water, or pour a kettle of boiling water over them, cover and leave for ten minutes off the heat. I put the eggs in a pan, poured over a kettle of boiling water then set it on a heat that held it just below simmering, and left them for 20 minutes. Result, perfectly hard-boiled eggs, but with tender whites. The pickling process will toughen them a little so, obviously, you don’t want them tough to start with.
Incidentally, some websites tell you to simmer eggs for 7-10 minutes to coddle them. That’s not a coddled egg, it’s a boiled egg.
By the way, always pierce the wide end of the eggshell – that holds an air-pocket and venting that prevents eggs from cracking, and always start with eggs that are at room temperature, not straight from the fridge, no matter what you’re going to do with them.
What persuaded me to pickle the eggs is that I waste so many. I’m on a diet that features mostly salads, with a little fish, so the opportunity for , say, fried eggs – my favourite, with just-set whites and runny yolks – is minimal, and boiling an egg to accompany a salad is something I can’t be bothered with. So generally I buy half a dozen, eat a couple and the rest get forgotten about.
So, I thought, if I pickle them, I can take one out when I fancy it, and the rest will keep for weeks. Actually, since I don’t have to bother cooking them, they’d probably go rather quickly, so I think Kilner jars may well feature in my future.
Interestingly, although I’ve bitched here about the difficulty of getting eggs that taste, well, eggy, pickling them seems to enhance the flavour, apart from the bite of the vinegar (if that worries you, you can sweeten it a little, just to take the edge off). And, as the eggs absorb a little vinegar, wiping the outside on kitchen towel will help if that bothers you (but if it does, you probably don’t like pickles anyway).
I also have pickled beetroot, in the same vinegar, but sweetened a little. The golf-ball sized roots are pickled whole, so that when they’re sliced, they taste of beetroot, not just vinegar, though they do absorb vinegar readily.
And on the subject of vinegar, I saw what might well be the most pointless product of the decade, if not the century – malt vinegar, from Sarsons, in a spray bottle! WTF?
OK, I know malt vinegar isn’t for everyone, and some poncy foodie types get very sniffy about it, but for me, and very many other northerners, malt vinegar, produced by the same process as beer (I grew up close to a vinegar brewery), but without the hops (but, hey, hoppy vinegar, anyone?), then acetified, is pure nectar. It’s as variable and complex as any wine vinegar, despite what the food snobs might claim, and it’s the only condiment, along with salt, for fish and chips. And no, lemon juice is not an acceptable substitute. Unlike vinegar, which still allows you to taste whatever you put it on, lemon juice is way to dominant. I do, though, use the thinly pared peel of unwaxed lemons in a winter stew of chicken, parsnips and butter beans.
The whole point of malt vinegar is its taste – just slosh it on, don’t be a wuss! So just who wants spray-on vinegar? There is no middle ground with malt vinegar. People love it or loathe it, and I can’t think of a single situation where a delicate little spritz of the stuff would be appropriate, or even desirable. If you don’t like the stuff, fine, don’t use it, but trust me, it won’t taste any better to you if you spray it rather than sprinkle it.
Whatever vinegar you use for pickling, it has to be at least 5% acidity. Weaker vinegars just don’t have the keeping qualities. For that reason, beetroot-pickled eggs, which are a pointless affectation, replace half of the vinegar with the liquid from a jar of pickled beetroot, should be avoided. The beetroot liquid will almost certainly not be the required strength, having been diluted with water leached out of the beetroots, so either just don’t bother, or eat them quickly.
Traditionally, pickling spices are boiled with the vinegar, strained and discarded – I just toss them in the jar, or buy spiced vinegar (when I can get it!). Not least because boiling vinegar can seriously impair breathing. Although, when I finally found some pickling spice, the pack instructions suggested bringing it to the boil with the spices in it, then removing from the heat and allowing it to cool, covered. My preference is still to put the spices in the jar with the eggs – way tastier. In fact, a simple teaspoon of mustard seeds is as good as anything.
Note:- The question of “how to pickle eggs and keep the eggs soft” has cropped up several times in my search engine section and there’s just one answer – you can’t. You can, perhaps, just leave the eggs in the vinegar for a day or two, when they’ll still be soft-ish. The bottom line, though, is that’s not pickling, and pickled eggs aren’t supposed to be soft.
On the question of how long they keep, I’ve just eaten two that were 4 months old, and they were excellent, and rather more mellow than when they were fresh.