Sunday, 4 August 2013

The Quest For Egglessness

So... I've been away a while.

I could spend a whole post talking about my reasons and the activities of the last eleven months. But it wouldn't be very interesting or relevant, so I'm not going to bother. I'm here now, and I hope to get back into blogging more consistently.

Eggs have been a problem for my whole baking life. My dad is allergic so I've always tried to figure out ways to avoid using them when I can. But recently, my brother also developed an intolerance to egg white. Which means that 2/3 of my main target audience are now egg-free. It's all very well to make chocolate biscuits for the non-egg people once in a while, but sometimes I just want to be able to make a cake that my whole family can eat.

So I began to do research. I trawled through pages and pages of vegan baking blogs, lists of egg substitutes, and countless articles telling me that eggless baking was impossible. I was starting to believe it. I experimented with lots of different alternatives but nothing had just the right qualities. Yoghurt adds fat and moisture but at the expense of structure. Mashed fruit provides binding but also has a strong flavour of its own. Baking powder creates lift but no additional substance.

My experiments consistently returned dense, sticky, caved-in cakes. Always completely unsuccessful. I decided I needed to get right to the source, and figure out why eggs were so special and unique. The composition of a whole egg is about 75% water, 15% protein, and 10% fat. It doesn't seem too special. But actually, one of those is missing from every egg substitute ever suggested - the protein. It's not surprising. Protein is unexpectedly hard to come by in baking. Eggs have some. Flour has some. And that's pretty much it.

But protein is incredibly important. In fact, without it, pretty much anything you put in the oven would come out a soggy mess. Protein is made of long chains that hold things together and - most importantly - solidify when heated. It's no wonder my eggless cakes were always a sticky, collapsed mess. There was nothing to hold onto the bubbles that are supposed to make the cake rise, so they fell out of the mixture as soon as the heat was gone.

Then I had a revelation while I was thinking about protein. Bread. Bread doesn't have eggs in it. All the structure and texture comes from the protein in the flour. So why shouldn't that work for eggless cake?

I experimented some more, and gradually refined my method. It took me more repetitions than any other single technique to get right. Of course it's not perfect, the cakes are still a bit more prone to sinking. You could still probably tell the difference between a cake made with this substitute and a cake made with eggs. But it's much more passable than any other alternative I'd tried before.

And it's actually really simple. There are only three ingredients: baking powder, bread flour, and yoghurt. For the weight of eggs being replaced (one egg generally weighs 50-60g), replace with ingredients in these proportions:

10% Baking Powder, 90% Bread Flour
  • Mix them together. Then add as much yoghurt as you need, so that it comes together with a sticky, doughy texture. If you wanted, you could swap the yoghurt for milk or even water. But I prefer using yoghurt because it provides moisture which is otherwise missing. 
  • Once it's a stir-able consistency - get stirring. What we're essentially doing is 'kneading' in the same way as for bread. Stretching and exercising the flour to form strong gluten, which will be doing the job usually done by egg proteins. It's probably easiest to use a spoon or fork to mix it because of how sticky it gets. Mix it vigorously until the texture is noticeably smooth and elastic. A few minutes by hand will probably be enough. It starts out looking like this:

and end up looking like this:

  • And it's as simple as that. You can add it into any cake, muffin, or even biscuit recipe - just as you would add eggs. Because of the way it's made, it will slightly increase the volume of the mixture, compared to the same batter using eggs. If you want, you could compensate by slightly reducing the size of the recipe, but the difference probably won't be significant enough to cause problems.
One thing to note is that you shouldn't make it too far in advance. The baking powder starts to react as soon as it comes into contact with liquid. If it's left to sit for more than a few minutes it'll use up all of its rising power before making it to the oven.

It should be perfectly easy to make this completely vegan, by substituting soy yoghurt or another alternative. But unfortunately, it's not possible to make it gluten- or wheat-free. It's too central to the mechanism of this substitute. A gluten-free alternative would have to be something completely different developed from scratch, and is a project for another day (or maybe for another blogger).

Pound cake drizzled with honey = perfect dessert for all occasions.

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