what are cured egg yolks and how do you make them?

Eggs have always been the darling of brunch goers and Instagram vids. (Is anything more aesthetically satisfying than a perfectly poached egg?) Now, salt-cured yolks (egg yolks that are buried in salt until they become a thick, concentrated ball of umami) have become the newly minted pasta and toast topper of the moment.

They’re one of those magical treats that look and taste super impressive, but are actually really simple to make. In the past few years, you’ve likely seen photos of golden yolks neatly lined up on a tray, nestled in a mixture of sugar and salt. With nothing more than that and plastic wrap, any home cook can make their own glistening yolks to amp up their pasta, salad, or rice porridge game.

But let’s start with the basics:

What exactly are salt-cured egg yolks, and where did they come from?

Though the salt-cured yolk trend started taking off in the U.S. sometime in the past five years or so, it’s been a common staple of Chinese food since at least the fifth century, when it was used for preservation.

As with curing meats, the salt and sugar mixture pulls out the water from the eggs over time. Lowering the moisture content means microorganisms like bacteria, yeast, and mold, which are responsible for some food spoilage, won’t grow. Which is why cured yolks keep for up to two weeks in the fridge (also, it’s a great way to rescue that carton of eggs that you forgot you bought).

Many Chinese recipes use duck eggs and involve curing the entire egg, not just the yolk, usually by suspending them in brine or wrapping them in a mixture of clay and salt. The cured result is usually delightfully jammy on the inside and is often simply scooped out of the shell and eaten with congee, or incorporated into sauces for seafood dishes.

The salt-cured yolks are also used in sweets and desserts, tucked into the middle of mooncakes. In dim sum, the yolks are used in soft buns called liu sha bao, where they’re transformed into a sweet, creamy custard that flows out like lava. The mixture is so addicting that different places in Singapore, where the custard is particularly popular, are coming up with innovative ways to incorporate it—working it into croissants, potato chips, and even cocktails.

In the United States, the yolks are more often used as a kind of parmesan substitute, grated over pastas, pizza, and salads for a punch of umami. It’s also fabulous thinly sliced and eaten as a happy hour snack, like a fish-less version of Italian bottarga, or cured fish roe.

How do you make cured egg yolks?

Convinced by the magic of salt-cured yolks? All it takes is mixing together a roughly equal ratio of salt and sugar, spreading that out over a tray or shallow dish, and separating out a few egg yolks.

As you would when making fresh pasta or shakshuka, dig a small well for each yolk in the salt and sugar mix and plop it in. Gently sprinkle more of the mixture over them, so that they’re buried completely. Cover the dish with plastic wrap, refrigerate for a few days, and then bake the rinsed yolks on a tray. Keep the temperature low, at around 150 to 200 degrees.

If you can spare the pantry space, you can also air dry the yolks by simply wrapping them in cheese cloth and hanging them up, either from a small hook or over a pole, as you would with sausages.

Once your salt-cured yolks game is on point, branch out with some fun variations. Tweak the flavor by adding peppercorns or star anise to the salt and sugar mixture, which will spice up your congee. Or try out rosemary or truffles when you’re looking to add an extra dimension of fragrance to your pasta.

Instead of salt, you can also cure the yolks in soy sauce and mirin for a sweeter flavor. Another Japanese version (recently featured on Samin Nosrat’s Netflix series “Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat”) uses miso, though that process is a little more time intensive. Basically, you hard-boil the eggs first, then mold a layer of miso and spice mix around them like clay. Wait a few hours, and you’ll have salty, creamy eggs for extra flavorful ramen or a killer side dish.

Header image courtesy of Shutterstock.

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