Eggs are becoming more expensive and scarce recently because so many chickens have died from avian flu. So bakers, in particular, are looking for cheaper ingredients that can work just as well. (This story previously aired on All Things Considered on July 22, 2015.)
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Eggs are one of our most basic and familiar foods, and this year, they're in short supply. That's producing a frantic scramble in the baking business to rewrite recipes, so some bakers are turning to high-tech alternatives. Here's NPR's Dan Charles with his encore presentation.
DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: Long before Nicole Reese went to work for a high-tech food ingredient manufacturer called Glanbia, she was a pastry chef.
NICOLE REESE: That's how I got into this whole crazy business.
CHARLES: I met Reese at the annual meeting of the Institute of Food Technologists, a giant celebration of food processing, but honestly, she seems a little ambivalent about replacing the simple, traditional egg.
REESE: Because, personally, I like eggs. People like eggs. We would prefer to be using eggs.
CHARLES: Right now, though, egg replacement is very hot. Millions of chickens died last spring because of bird flu, and now there aren't enough eggs to go around. Egg prices have doubled. Bakers, in particular, are desperate.
REESE: Because all the sudden, companies are being told they're going to have supply. Their phones ringing, and then our phone started ringing, saying we need to test products today.
CHARLES: Glanbia, her company, was one of several at this convention showing off ingredients that can take the place of eggs, but coming up with egg replacements is complicated because eggs do a lot of different things in baking. The yoke brings moisture and richness. The egg white builds the structure, for instance, of a sponge cake. And that's before you even get to flavor.
REESE: It is so primal to baking and to our food system that to remove it requires a lot of work behind the scenes that no one sees.
CHARLES: The easy part is replacing the yoke, she says. You need an emulsifier, something that helps oils mix with other ingredients. Glanbia uses a gum-like substance extracted from flax seed.
REESE: It can behave sort of like a guar gum or a xanthan gum or some of the emulsifiers that you see out in the marketplace - sodium sterolactolate, you know, GMS-90.
CHARLES: But food companies would much rather put flax on their list of ingredients then, say, sodium sterolactolate. Shoppers want what the industry calls a clean label. Replacing the protein in egg whites is a lot harder, Reese says, especially in foods like angel food cake, where it's really important. For this part, some companies use protein from the whey that's a byproduct of making cheese. Others use bean protein. Others - protein from algae. Reese says these products can get close to egg white, but it's never a perfect match.
REESE: Can we replace a hundred percent of eggs in an angel food cake - the egg white - and make an angel food cake? Is it identical? No. Is it a cake? Yes.
CHARLES: That leaves the final piece - the flavor. And for that, companies turn to people like Michael Walsh.
MICHAEL WALSH: I'm a senior flavor chemist at Flavor Artistry, which is a Glanbia company.
CHARLES: Walsh says flavor chemistry is both science and art.
WALSH: If you look at it like a painter, a painter has a palate of colors. He's going to blend them together. Or a musician has a bunch of different notes. Flavor's very much the same. Each flavor component is a note.
CHARLES: There's a symphony of these flavor notes in the food itself. Some come from the egg. Others emerge during the process of cooking. Walsh's job is to use the notes at his disposal - hundreds of flavors extracts, mostly distilled from products of nature - to re-create the smell and flavor of the original. He comes up with an egg flavor formula, usually including anywhere from 10 to 20 different flavor extracts. It may be a different formula, depending if it's for a sponge cake or a custard. Glanbia will add this flavor combo to the rest of the egg replacement product - the flax and the whey protein. Together, they'll play a starring role in some commercial bakery - a collective understudy for the simple egg. Dan Charles, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.