Linda Crampton is an experienced teacher with an honors degree in biology. She writes about nutrition and the culture and history of food.
The Many Uses of Egg Whites
Egg whites are surprisingly versatile and have many uses. They are used to make some delicious desserts, including meringues, pavlovas, angel food cakes, souffles, mousses, and marzipan. Some people like to use them instead of whole eggs to make high protein, low fat omelets and scrambled eggs. Egg white is also used to make a paint, a glue, and some vaccines.
About ninety percent of egg white is composed of water. Most of the other ten percent consists of a wide variety of different proteins. Raw egg white has the interesting ability to change its appearance and texture when air is whipped into it. It changes from an almost colorless liquid to a white foam that contains peaks. This ability is put to good use in food recipes.
This article focuses on egg white, but the yolk of an egg is also valuable. It contains some important nutrients. There's no need to remove or discard the yolk unless this is necessary for a recipe or other use or unless it's medically recommended.
Nutritional and Health Benefits of Eggs
Eggs are a very nutritious food. The yolks contain vitamins A, D, and E, other vitamins, a range of minerals, and some protein. They’re also a good source of choline, which is important in nervous system function and cell membrane structure. Other important nutrients in egg yolk include lutein and zeaxanthin, which are beneficial for eye health. Egg yolks do contain some fat, but they are low in saturated fat, which nutritionists say we should limit in our diets. They also contain cholesterol. For most people, however, eating eggs doesn’t raise the level of cholesterol in the blood.
Egg whites have a more restricted range of nutrients. They are a good source of protein, selenium, and riboflavin and contain no fat or cholesterol. Both egg yolks and egg whites are low in carbohydrate.
Tips for Beating Egg Whites Successfully
If you’re trying to turn liquid egg whites into a stiff foam, there are two problems that you need to deal with. First, the foam has to be created. Once it forms, it must be prevented from breaking down. Here are some tips for producing snowy peaks of egg white.
- Use clean and dry equipment.
- Warm the eggs to room temperature.
- There must be no egg yolk or fat in contact with the egg whites.
- Add a pinch of salt to the whites before you begin whipping them to help firmer peaks form.
- Whites from older eggs turn into a foam more easily than the whites from very fresh eggs.
- If you’re beating the egg whites by hand, use a whisk and be prepared to beat for about five minutes. An electric mixer will create a foam more quickly and will be much easier to use.
- When beating by hand, a copper mixing bowl works best. If you don’t have a copper bowl, use a ceramic or stainless steel one. According to some sources, a glass bowl works as well, though I’ve never used one for beating egg whites.
- When a froth starts to form during the whisking process, add about one eighth of a teaspoon of acid per egg white to stabilize the foam and prevent the bubbles from collapsing. Suitable acids are vinegar, lemon juice, or cream of tartar. Don't add acid if you're using a copper bowl, since it stimulates leaching of the metal. Copper is an essential element in our body, but too much can be dangerous.
- If you want to sweeten your foam, add the sugar gradually and in the last stages of beating after soft peaks have formed.
- Don’t beat the whites for longer than necessary and use them right away. Even if the foam is beaten past the soft peak stage to the stiff peak stage, the peaks should still be shiny, smooth, and moist.
A copper mixing bowl is useful for beating egg whites. One theory to explain this fact is that copper ions form a bond with an egg white protein called ovotransferrin or conalbumin. This stops the protein from denaturing (unfolding) and maintains the stability of the peaks. It’s also thought that the ability of copper to react with sulfur groups in the egg white helps peaks to stabilize.
Two Desserts Containing Meringue
When raw egg white is beaten into peaks, sweetened, and then baked, meringue is created. Meringue may be eaten in individual portions known as "meringues," which are often accompanied by cream. It may also be used as a pie topping or in desserts such as pavlovas. A pavlova consists of a layer of meringue topped with whipped cream and fruit. Ideally, the outer part of the meringue in a pavlova is crisp and the inner part resembles a marshmallow in texture.
Meringues are my favorite type of egg white dessert. I love them when they're crisp on the outside and slightly gooey and sticky in the middle. Thick and rich cream is a delicious addition, especially when it's sandwiched between two meringues. This is the way my mother served meringues when I was a child and is still my favorite way to eat them. Some people make small meringue cookies that are served without cream.
Pavlovas are also delicious. Fruit, cream, and meringue is a wonderful combination. The dessert may have been named after Anna Pavlova (1881–1931), the famous Russian ballerina. Its name is sometimes capitalized for that reason. It's a popular dessert in Australia and New Zealand. It has been suggested that it was created in one of these countries to honor the dancer's visit there. The origin of the pavlova is still somewhat mysterious, however.
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Other Desserts Containing Egg Whites
Whipped egg whites provide a light and fluffy texture to desserts such as mousses, angel food cake, and chiffon pies. They are also used to make marzipan and sweet or savory souffles.
A basic and delicious chocolate mousse can be made by melting sweetened chocolate, removing the chocolate from the heat, stirring in egg yolks and then gently folding in beaten egg whites. The mousse needs to be refrigerated until it's set.
Angel food cake is made by adding beaten egg whites to cake batter, which gives a beautifully light texture. Traditional marzipan is a paste made from a mixture of ground almonds, sugar, and beaten egg whites. It's eaten on its own as a candy or is used to decorate cakes.
Traditional Marzipan Ingredients and Safety
I love marzipan. It isn't a cooked product. It contains raw egg white, which may contain Salmonella bacteria. The bacteria are more likely to be found in the yolk of an egg than the white, however. Refrigerated products made from raw egg white are considered to be low risk foods for healthy people. Still, it's a good idea to buy pasteurized egg white from a store if you make marzipan or another uncooked or lightly cooked product. It's also a good idea to look for the word "pasteurized" on any store-bought marzipan. Pregnant women, elderly people, very young children, and people with health problems that hinder their immune system should avoid eating raw egg whites.
Egg White Paint and Glue
Egg white mixed with food coloring can be used to paint cookies and other food, creating colorful and attractive treats. (Remember to use pasteurized egg ingredients for safety when decorating food.) Egg white is sometimes mixed with pigments to create a paint for artists. This type of paint is definitely not edible.
The white of an egg has adhesive properties and can be used as a glue to join lightweight objects together. The glue is waterproof once it has dried. If the whites are beaten and acid and sugar are added, a sugar glue—also called royal icing—is created. This icing is great for holding parts of a gingerbread house together. Some stores sell meringue powder, which contains dried, pasteurized egg white that is often mixed with cream of tartar and sugar. This powder may be more convenient to use than mixing ingredients separately.
A Homemade Beauty Product
Some people say that egg white makes a good facial mask, tightening pores, softening skin, and improving acne. Other people say that the benefits of egg white for the face are just a myth and that although the skin is temporarily tightened there is no lasting benefit to the facial mask. The mask may even be harmful if it’s contaminated with bacteria. Egg white is also used in homemade hair conditioners and is said to remove excess oil from the hair. I've never tried this myself and have no idea whether it works.
Egg White Proteins and Allergy
Eggs contain a high-quality mix of proteins that provide all of the amino acids that we need. Unfortunately, some people—especially children—are allergic to some of the egg white proteins, which are more likely to trigger an allergy than the yolk ones. Possible allergy symptoms include the following:
- an itchy skin rash
- swelling and/or itching of the lips or tongue
- swelling in the throat
- stomach pain
- a runny nose
- wheezing and breathing difficulty
Anyone who suspects that they have an egg allergy should visit a doctor for a diagnosis and treatment recommendations. This is important because sometimes the allergy can be serious.
Someone with a serious egg protein allergy may experience anaphylaxis after eating eggs. This is a medical emergency. In anaphylaxis, the allergy symptoms are severe, develop within seconds or minutes after ingesting the protein, and are life threatening. The throat may swell up so much that it's extremely hard to breathe. The airways may constrict as well. The blood pressure often decreases rapidly and dramatically. People with a serious food allergy usually carry an epinephrine injector around with them, which counteracts dangerous allergy symptoms.
Vaccine Manufacture and Administration
Some vaccines depend on egg whites for their production. For example, to make a flu vaccine, influenza viruses are often injected into hen eggs. The viruses multiply within the white of the eggs. At the end of the replication period, the viruses are removed from the egg white and inactivated. These inactivated viruses are used to make the flu vaccine. There may be a tiny amount of egg white protein present in the vaccine.
People with an egg allergy should discuss vaccines with their doctor. If they are advised to receive a flu vaccine, it might be a good idea to be vaccinated in a doctor’s office or a medical clinic instead of in a drug store or supermarket. This would enable emergency substances and equipment to be used should this be necessary.
A Nutritious and Versatile Recipe Ingredient
Eggs are rich in nutrients and are a useful food to have in the kitchen. I nearly always have some in my refrigerator. Though intact eggs are nutritious, separating an egg into two parts can have benefits. Both parts can be useful on their own.
Egg white is a versatile substance to use both inside and outside the kitchen. Its properties make it a great ingredient in desserts. Now that many stores sell pasteurized products, even raw egg white can be used in fun, creative, and tasty home projects.
- Nutrients in raw egg yolk from the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture)
- Nutrients in egg white from the USDA
- Information about egg allergies from the Mayo Clinic
- Facts about the flu vaccine and people with egg allergies from the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)
- Copper and egg whites from the American Chemical Society (Chicago Division)
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.
© 2011 Linda Crampton