Making Salt-Cured Quail Egg Yolks
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Salt-cured egg yolks are the most delightful addition to any meal.
Story and photos by Kelly Bohling. I hadn’t heard of salt-cured egg yolks until this past year, when I took a deep dive into cooking shows. Raising quail, I naturally found myself wondering if salt-cured quail egg yolks would be possible. I was then surprised to find that very little information is available on salt-cured quail egg yolks, so after researching salt-curing methods with chicken eggs, I set out to experiment with a few different approaches and to compare the results.
The process of curing is essentially one of dehydration. A food item is coated or buried in a curing medium, and that medium draws out moisture from the food, often also contributing flavors to the food through the natural curing process or by including herbs or other aromatics in the curing medium. Salt is a very common curing ingredient, as it does an excellent job of drawing out moisture and naturally inhibits detrimental bacteria growth. It’s played a vital role in food preservation over the ages, and many fermentation traditions also rely on salt for its bacteria-inhibiting properties.
Salt and Sugar
My guess going in was that I would use salt exclusively to cure the egg yolks. However, while some methods I researched use only salt, others use a combination of salt and sugar in a 1-to-1 ratio. I was surprised to see the use of sugar — and at such a high ratio to salt! I discovered that sugar is implemented in curing to balance out the overwhelmingly biting flavor of pure salt, and to enrich the overall flavor profile. I had come upon the first fork in the road of my egg yolk adventure: I’d make one batch of quail egg yolks with salt and one with salt and sugar.
I also found that some recipes call for grinding the curing medium in a food processor before using it, creating a finer and less granular texture. Others leave the salt or salt-and-sugar combination as is. I opted for the latter, to just use the salt and sugar right out of the bag.
There are two basic steps in the egg yolk curing process. First, place the yolks in the curing medium, and let them sit in the fridge for approximately one week. Second, remove the yolks from the curing medium, and either dry them in the oven on a low temperature or hang them in cheesecloth to dry in the fridge (an equally cool location). With this information, I decided to split the two batches of yolks (one salt, one salt and sugar) into two sections: One would be oven-dried, and one would be dried in the fridge. In total, I had four batches to compare how the methods may affect the flavor or consistency of the yolks. For curing egg yolks, it’s important to use a nonreactive dish. (Glass, ceramic, enamel, or stainless steel all will work.)
Nestle Yolks in Their Pans
I used two 9-by-5-inch glass loaf pans. The dish needs to be large enough to evenly distribute the yolks without them touching each other. I aimed for about 1-1/2 inches of space between yolks. I mixed up my curing medium first, whisking the salt and sugar together until uniform. To cure eight quail egg yolks in a 9-by-5-inch loaf pan, I used about 3 cups of curing medium. A quick note about the salt: It’s important to use only pure salt, without iodine or anti-caking agents, or else the curing process will be encumbered by these additives. As for the sugar, I used unbleached cane sugar, since it’s what I had on hand, but feel free to use regular table sugar.
You can use the curing medium as is, but I gained some experiential insight on this later in the process. After the initial drying stage, I noticed that the egg yolks inevitably accumulate granules during the curing process, crystalized in an outer layer covering the surface. I realized that grinding the medium would likely result in a nicer-looking yolk, as the granules on the surface would be smaller, and consequently be less prominent in the flavor when eaten. In the salt batch, the whole crystals did contribute a noticeable zing, which was not necessarily unpleasant. I do believe my results would be improved by grinding the curing medium briefly in a food processor. The consistency shouldn’t be powder-fine, but ideally wouldn’t be made of whole crystals.
Whether you’re using the curing medium as is, or have ground it in a food processor, pour about half of it into the dish. Gently shake to create an even layer across the bottom, aiming for at least an inch of depth. Next, gently press the large end of a clean quail egg into the medium, creating small wells where you want to yolks to be. (Remember to keep generous spacing between them.) Once all the wells are made, it’s time to separate the eggs.
Fresh Eggs are Best
Make sure your eggs have been washed and are as fresh as possible. Use the float test to choose your eggs. You only want the best of the best for this project. Separating the eggs can be the tricky part in this process, but I discovered a helpful technique: Holding the egg, make a restrained “thwack” with a sharp knife to break through the shell and membrane toward the base end. With the tip of the knife, saw around in a circle in shallow motions to create a little cap you can take off. Pour the egg yolk into the cap. White should spill out, and I found it most successful to gently pull off the egg white as it hangs out, instead of transferring the yolk back and forth between shell pieces. The fewer cap-to-shell transfers, the less likely it will be to break the yolk.
It’s important that the yolk remains unbroken and completely intact, free of the white. If the yolk or white looks unusual, discolored, or has a noticeable smell, discard it. When you have a yolk separated, transfer it to one of the wells in the dish, and repeat until all the wells are filled. Gently sprinkle the curing medium over the top of the egg yolks until they’re completely covered. You shouldn’t be able to see any yellow. (Aim again for at least an inch of topping.) This is important, as the curing medium will soak up moisture from the egg yolk, and a generous depth and topping is ideal. Avoid shaking the medium to even it out at this stage, as that could damage or dislodge the yolks from their spots. Cover them tightly with plastic wrap, and place them in the fridge for seven days. We just want a cool place for the yolks to cure, so if your fridge tends to freeze items toward the back, like mine, don’t place them too far back. Check in on the yolks after a couple of days. If you notice any yellow peeking through, add more curing medium over the top of them.
Drying after Curing
After seven days in the fridge, it’s time to move to the next step in the drying process. In examining the egg yolks, I was surprised to find that the yolks in the salt-and-sugar mixture seemed to firm up a bit more than the ones in salt, although that didn’t have much bearing in the final results. The drying times suggested for chicken egg yolks worked well for quail egg yolks, even though I had anticipated that they may require less curing and drying time. At this stage, the yolks won’t be rock-solid, but a little tacky and firm.
For oven drying, set your oven to 200 degrees F and fill a small bowl with cool water. Gently dig out a yolk from the curing medium, and brush off the excess with your fingers. Dip it in the water, and then gingerly dry with a paper towel. They’ll appear somewhat translucent (picture below). Set them on a drying rack placed in a baking sheet, and keep yolks from touching each other as you repeat this step with all of the yolks. Place them in the preheated oven for 30 to 40 minutes. The yolks should be firm and no longer translucent. Let cool.
For air drying, dig out the yolks and gently brush off the excess. We won’t be rinsing the yolks for air drying. Cut a length of cheesecloth, estimating about 3 inches for each yolk. I used butter muslin, which is a finer weave, but either fabric will do. Unfold until there are just two layers of the cloth. Place the yolks, evenly spaced, along the length of fabric in the center, and then tuck them in by folding one side and then the other side lengthwise over the yolks. If the strip of fabric is still much wider than the yolks, roll it into a long “tube.” With cotton string or cooking twine, tie the fabric at each end, and between each yolk. No yolk should touch another. Hang them in the fridge in a place where they won’t freeze or be disturbed for an additional 7 to 10 days. The yolks are done when they’re firm to the touch.
Whichever drying method you chose, the yolks are now ready to eat. Enjoy them grated or thinly sliced over pasta, salads, or soups, or lend a fancy element to a charcuterie board! Salt-cured egg yolks are a great alternative to topping with a hard cheese. Store them in a sealed container in the fridge, nested on paper towels, for up to a month.
In the end, I preferred the texture of the air-dried egg yolks. They became firm and were easier to grate and slice than the oven-dried yolks, which seemed slightly gummy. I also appreciated the taste of the yolks cured with sugar and salt over those from the pure salt batch. The sugar does help to cut the saltiness, and it made for a richer, more complex taste. I’ve tried them on pasta and salad, and really enjoy the additional flavor. I look forward to continuing to make salt-cured quail egg yolks and trying them out in more of my favorite dishes!
Kelly Bohling is a native of Lawrence, Kansas. She works as a classical violinist, but in between gigs and lessons, she’s out in the garden or spending time with her animals, including quail and French Angora rabbits. Kelly also spins the Angora fiber from her rabbits into yarn for knitting. She enjoys finding ways that her animals and garden can benefit each other for a more sustainable urban homestead.