It’s an unfortunate fact that many of the best things on the traditional British picnic menu are sausage-based, leaving vegetarian and non-pork-eating guests stuck with bread and cheese. This would be no real hardship were not for the fact that even many non-meat eaters find that scotch eggs have a way of making eyes at you from the other side of the rug, flaunting their bright yolks and crunchy crumb in a way that’s really quite unreasonable.
The popularity of the scotch egg at such occasions is partly explained by the fact that, like the Cornish pasty, or the sausage roll, it’s a robustly portable sure-fire crowd pleaser that is likely to arrive in better condition than the unfortunate quiche or sweating salad; and given the existence of the vegetarian sausage, there seems no good reason that non meat-eaters should miss out. There are a few commercially produced examples on the market, but you can’t beat a freshly made scotch egg, the coating still crisp, the egg just warm – and, in most cases, that means getting stuck in at home.
Let’s start with the most important bit – the bit that isn’t sausage meat. Opinions diverge on the best replacement for meat in this context, with some, such as Gizzi Erskine’s Bombay potato version in her book My Kitchen Table making no attempt to recreate the flavour or texture of the original, and others, such as Deri Reed of the Ethical Chef, proudly declaring that people are often shocked when they find his tofu and chestnut-based take contains no meat. Jacqueline Meldrum’s recipe using vegetarian haggis seems to fall into the first camp, while the chipotle and chickpea eggs in Alice Hart’s book the New Vegetarian and Mark E Johnson’s stilton, walnut and apple numbers on his blog Yorkshire Grub, seem to cock a snook at the very idea of pork.
This leaves me with a problem. All five are delicious, though most of us find deep-fried blue cheese rather too rich a pairing for an egg. Hart’s pulse-based version, by contrast, is delicately flavoured enough to allow the egg itself to take centre stage, which reminds us – when we stop to think in between shovelling bits into our mouths – that if this is going to be at all faithful to the original, the filling ought to be the star. Sausage, though undoubtedly important, is definitely the best supporting actor in a scotch egg. This means that, much as we love Erskine’s warmly spiced potato jacket flecked with coriander and zingy with lemon juice, it doesn’t quite feel like a scotch egg in anything but basic concept. It’s also quite delicate to transport, which is an important factor in a picnic product.
Meldrum and Reed’s are the closest to the original ideal, though unfortunately the latter’s coating melts away in the fryer, somewhat puzzlingly, so although I can confirm it’s delicious, with a good crunch, I can’t say exactly what it’s like wrapped around an egg. The haggis proves a far more amenable victim, especially when mixed with peanut butter and oats – the texture is just right. However, it does taste of peanuts and cumin, neither of which are flavours I’d associate with a traditional scotch egg. Swapping the nuts for the similarly binding qualities of a raw egg, and the spices for mustard powder, mace and fresh herbs does the trick – and I’m also going to use crunchy pinhead oatmeal rather than rolled oats, because I think it gives the coating a more interesting texture.
I consider adapting my own vegetarian haggis recipe for the purpose, because the ready-made stuff feels like cheating, until I reflect that most ordinary scotch egg recipes begin with sausages and, really, in high summer, few of us want to spend any more time in the kitchen than we have to. There are several very good examples on the market all year round which are perfect for the role, and some brands will even ship internationally, although if you don’t live somewhere where it can be found in most large supermarkets, you may wish to do a bit of experimentation of your own.
I know soft-boiled eggs look better on social media, but I’ve finally admitted to myself that I don’t much care for them cold, so I’m going to plump for the soft side of hard boiled: firm, but still fudgy (happily they are much easier to peel than their more delicate counterparts. Should you wish for a liquid centre, Erskine’s six-minute eggs are just perfect. Either way, I’d recommend rolling them in flour before coating, as this will help the haggis mixture to adhere to their shiny surface.
Reed uses duck eggs, which are both meatier and more substantial. If you go down that road, you will probably need to increase the quantities of the other ingredients by about a third to account for their larger size.
Meldrum coats them in rolled oats and Hart in mixed seeds but, for a traditional scotch egg feel, it has to be breadcrumbs, and preferably the dried variety (panko, if you have them, will add extra crunch). The usual flour, egg, crumb routine is the best bet for a robust outer shell – go for two layers for a good bite.
Hart and Meldrum both bake their eggs in a hot oven, but this is not a course I’d recommend unless in dire emergency – not only will your eggs come out very firmly hard-boiled, but without the fat that lubricates a pork sausagemeat coating, they will also be rather dry. Deep-fat frying gives infinitely superior results, and needn’t be intimidating as long as you’re careful. Trust me, these are worth it.
Perfect vegetarian scotch eggs
6 medium eggs
300g vegetarian haggis
2 tbsp chopped mixed herbs (eg sage, chives, thyme)
1/2 tbsp English mustard powder
A pinch of ground mace
25g pinhead/coarse oatmeal
Splash of milk
50g dried breadcrumbs
Sunflower or vegetable oil, to deep fry
Put 4 of the eggs in a pan, cover with cold water and bring to the boil. Turn down the heat and simmer for 5 minutes, then plunge into a sink of cold water to cool.
Meanwhile, crumble the haggis into a bowl and stir in the herbs, spices and oatmeal. Beat one of the remaining eggs and add to the mixture.
Put the flour in a shallow bowl, the final egg, beaten with a splash of milk, in a second, and the breadcrumbs in a third.
When cool enough to handle, roll the eggs along a hard surface to crack the shells, then carefully peel. Roll each in the flour, then take about a quarter of the mixture into one palm and flatten it slightly. Put the egg in the middle and close the coating around it. Repeat with the other eggs, and then if you have time, put the eggs in the fridge for 20 minutes to firm up.
When you’re ready to cook, roll the eggs in the flour, followed by the egg, followed by the breadcrumbs. Repeat the last two layers if you have enough left to do so.
Fill a deep pan a third full of oil and heat to 170C (or when a crumb of bread dropped in sizzles and turns golden, but does not burn). Gently lower in the eggs and cook for about 5 minutes until crisp and golden, then drain on kitchen paper.
Vegetarian scotch eggs – a contradiction in terms, or would you prefer something even less like the original meat-based version? And what else would you recommend for a meat-free picnic?
Brush the glaze over each of the scotch eggs – this will help the breadcrumbs stick and stop the meat from cracking. Gently roll each scotch egg through the breadcrumbs, so each one is coated evenly. When done you shouldn't be able to see the sausage meat on any of the scotch eggs.
Soft boiling the eggs to just the right level of doneness. Peeling the eggs without them falling apart. Making sure the scotch eggs are the same size so you get consistent results when frying. Making sure the scotch eggs are the right size so the sausage meat and egg whites cook through, while leaving the eggs runny.
a whopping 50% more protein than your standard hen's fare, plus double the heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids. Adding iron-rich black pudding to your sausage casing pumps up the body-bulking calories, while coating it with pine nut-spiked breadcrumbs gives you a bump of cholesterol-crushing fats and fibre.