For a year or two of my life following college I flirted with The Very Modern and Sophisticated Vegan Lifestyle, the influence of my cute animal activist boyfriend who my friends called Boring B. In an effort to take our dining above stir-frys, salads, and hummous, I took over cooking responsibilities and began plowing through the vegan bibles of the era, including a Seventh Day Adventist cookbook that focused on creating vegan items that imitated meat-full comfort foods like sour cream, meatloaf and mac and cheese with generous helpings of soy, nuts, and brewers yeast.
One of our stock pantry items was the ubiquitous brown box: Ener-G's egg replacer. I remember wondering how I could create a delicious-looking quiche like the one on the front of the box and the disappointment that followed as I pulled the resulting failure from the oven and, following a bite, dumped it in the trash.
And like that, Ener-G egg replacer and I were through. Soon after Boring B the Vegan animal activist moved across the country to the city where young people go to retire and I started buying eggs and dairy again. I didn't miss the hours-long sessions kneading seitan at the kitchen sink or struggling to find something on the menu that Boring B could eat when we dined out. I also didn't mind never hearing again the jailhouse confessionals from my mother after dinners at her house, dinners that were, as I later found out, full of hidden animal products added not for flavor but to give my mother secret satisfaction that she had forced Boring B to eat something he would have otherwise refused.
My next boyfriend was vegetarian. Cooking for him was a pleasure. And I totally forgot about my brief flirtation with egg replacer. I could walk down the aisle of a store, pass right by the weird products packed inside brown boxes and not even turn my head. I could make a quiche, an egg custard, heck, I could have an omlette. I didn't have to think about egg substitutes ever again...
Until I started a new job as the food developer at a company that makes baked goods free of eggs, dairy, wheat, nuts, soy and a host of other ingredients that are collectively known in the US as "The Top 8" (lucky us! - in Canada its" the top 10" and in the UK "the top 12"). In 20 years I had ended up exactly where I had started after college: desperately needing an egg substitute for vegan and allergy-friendly recipes I develop for our website (that's actually the easy and fun part of my job - the hard part is developing new products for the retail market that people want to eat and that taste good - have you tried gluten-free products lately? Most of them are terrible, though things have gotten much better).
Most egg substitutes are combinations of gums and starches that are added dry to a mix or hydrated briefly in cold water and added with the wet ingredients. They provide little binding and can, as in the case of flax gel, cause stomach discomfort in some. Ener-G's substitute is mostly potato and tapioca starch, with some leaveners and binders added. It is also expensive, retailing around $6 for a 16 oz box. A quick online search for other egg substitutes shows there's not much creativity in the world of binding, spreading and rising.
When I was developing a better version of my blondie recipe, I decided to play with the idea of a cooked gel as an egg and gum substitute. I had used flax gel in my first version and although I liked it, I didn't think it made a moist enough product. I also wanted to find an egg substitute that I could use when frying foods. I had seen some allergy-friendly cooks using flax gel, but again, I wanted to avoid using flax (and...just for the record: if you cook flax, you don't get the benefits of the omega 3 fatty acids - they're effectively destroyed by heating).
Since I don't like potato starch or corn starch, I started off with tapioca starch, which is bland (a good thing) and known for its excellent cooking and baking qualitites. I combined 1 T of tapioca starch with 1 C cold water (8 oz). I stirred it until the tapioca dissolved and then heated the mixture to boiling, stirring constantly, for about 30 seconds after it had begun to boil. I removed it from the stove and allowed it to cool. Once cooled I checked the viscosity - it was a little too gummy and thick. I watered it down to the consistency of egg whites. And used it as a 1:1 substitute for eggs in my recipe.
The results were spectacular. The blondies rose beautifully and were exceptionally moist.
A day prior I had been talking to one of my friends about a starch substitute he had been using on an industrial level to give soft pretzels a better sheen before alkalizing and frying them. It reminded me of some work I had done at my former employer, The Extremely Large Food Company With No Soul, when we had used a starch coating to give our baked goods shine without the high cost of real eggs. Which made me think: this tapioca gel may be just what I need to make a coating stick to food prior to frying.
I tried two different foods: chicken and eggplant. I gave each a dusting of rice flour, then dipped them in the tapioca gel (and shook off the excess) and then coated each in a gluten-free bread crumb substitute. I pan-friend one piece of eggplant and oven-baked another. Although the appearance of the pan-fried piece was prettier - it was golden brown - both were uniformly crunchy on the outside and moist on the inside, with absolutely no leaching of liquid into the pan or the baking sheet and minimal oil absorption of the food. The chicken also worked well. Here's a picture of the baked eggplant disks - not really interesting, but it shows how well the coating held to the eggplant:
One thing to note about using the tapioca gel in high fat and sugar baked goods is that it allows you to omit gums and gelling agents (such as xanthan, guar, agar agar, pectin, carageenan) from the recipe - unless you're in an industrial setting, which, if you are reading this blog for fun, I suspect you are not. The gel binds well and retains moisture - and survives the freeze-thaw cycle (as in, it retains its gelling property even after it is frozen and thawed out, something a basic corn starch cannot do). I'll try it in cake soon and see if the results are as satisfying as they are with cookies and bars. I've adjusted the recipe so that you won't need to water down the resulting gel - use as-is.
Cake and Commerce's Tapioca Gel Egg Substitute
- 2 t (approximately 5.3g) Tapioca Starch
- 1 C (226 g) Cold Water, filtered
Stir together starch and cold water and, stirring or whisking constantly, heat in a stainless steel pan (or other non-reactive pan) until boiling. Stir for 10-20 additional seconds after it comes to a boil but no more than that (do not overcook it - this can damage the gel structure).The color will become translucent. Remove from heat. Allow to cool before using. Because starches tend to retrograde (break down, causing water to leech out of the bound starch) over time (tapioca does this very very slowly), use this within 8 hours of making it and dispose of the gel when finished.
A 2t tapioca gel is close to the viscosity of an egg white. Simply water down, one tablespoon at a time, for a thinner gel. For frying, thin the gel by about 1/4-1/2 cup, until it is still viscous but not too gummy and thick.
Use it one for one in recipes as an egg substitute. Use 1/4 C of Tapioca Gel for one egg. I use a little more - about 1/3 C - with excellent results. May also be used as an egg substitute for r coating foods for oven-frying or oil frying.
For a thicker gel, increase tapioca to 1 T. For a thinner gel, decrease to 1 t.