By Diane Hollister.
So, like many of us, you are trapped in your house. You might find yourself not only a bit stir crazy but also missing some ingredients when you plan things. The other day, I was thinking about that. Our ancestors did without things…for example, you can find cake recipes that don’t use butter, eggs, or milk. And they DO taste good (look up something like a ‘depression cake’ or “wacky cake.”) Maybe you, like us, have some allergies in your household, too, so you have to find creative ways to prepare certain foods or do certain things.
Like making your Easter eggs.
If you were lucky enough to nab extra eggs at the grocery store, you’re thinking it’s time to get them ready for Easter. Maybe, however, you just realized that you don’t have all the food coloring you need. Or, like me, you’d prefer to find a non-toxic way to dye your eggs this year.
My grandmother and my other Pennsylvania Dutch relatives had the answer. Forget the technicolor dyes: your solution is in your vegetable drawer or pantry. Believe it or not, onion skins are all you need to produce some lovely eggs. And, with the idea of ‘waste not, want not,’ this is a great way to make sure you use as much as possible of the onion.
Involve the children
If you’ve got little ones around, don’t worry. This project is easy: simmering, dunking, and soaking don’t take a whole lot of attention or skill. The results are awfully pretty, even more so when you use a combination of brown and white eggs.
You are going to need a lot of peels. Maybe 10-12 onions’ worth. I found different recommendations online. I just know we had a “big bowl” of them at home when I was a kid or did it with my own children. You can either buy all of those onions, peel them, and save the onions for another use, or call up your nearest grocery store’s produce manager and ask them to save some for you. That’s probably out of the question at the moment, so check with your local farmer maybe?
A side note before you start. Pennsylvania Dutch moms and grandmas learned over time. The number of dips is more important than the time spent in the dye. Put the eggs through a few cycles of dipping, drying, and dipping again and you’ll get a deeper color.
Ready to try it?
You’ll need those onion skins, 4-4.5 cups water, some white vinegar (about 3 tablespoons) and your dozen hard boiled eggs (mixed are nice).
In a medium (3-quart) stainless steel saucepan, combine the onion skins, water, and vinegar. Use a spoon to stir all the onion skins into the water. Bring up to a boil. Then simmer for a while. I’ve seen recommendations for 20 minutes up to 30 minutes.
Next, you need to strain the mixture into a non-reactive measuring cup or bowl, and allow to cool. It doesn’t have to be cold…but you don’t want to boil the eggs. Use a slotted spoon to gently lower the eggs into the dye.
The longer they soak, the darker they will be. Then, remove the eggs from the dye with the slotted spoon and allow to cool on a wire rack. Yellow onion skins will dye the eggs a light tan, while red onion skins will yield a richer brown color.
PA Dutch decorated eggs
During the early egg decorating era, the Pennsylvania Germans developed varying methods to add designs to eggs. Some families would wrap a piece of calico fabric around a raw egg. The cloth-wrapped eggs would be placed in boiling water, and once removed, that pattern of the cloth would be transferred to the egg. Children could draw patterns or pictures on the uncooked eggs. I know my mom did this with us when we were little, but the results weren’t that artistic. We had fun anyhow.
Some eggs were not to be eaten but used as decorations. Rather than being boiled, the eggs had small holes poked at each end, and the contents were blown out. The eggs were carefully decorated. I decided early on I didn’t have the patience for this but have seen some that were made and saved for years. This Pennsylvania German tradition was known as oier gritzel, or egg scratching, and generated colorful Easter eggs from chicken, goose or duck eggs.
Diane (Burkhardt) Hollister, of Topsham Maine, is a Berks County native.
For more examples of decorated eggs, see this article from Pennsylvania Folklife magazine, Spring 1968: Easter Customs in the Lehigh Valley