Chances are, if you remember that commercial jingle then you might be of a certain age. Old enough to have seen the humble egg go from every day breakfast item, to founding member of the food “pyramid” seen in every 7th grader’s nutrition textbook, to being disparaged as unhealthy. The egg has come back around again to not only “healthy”, but revered as many restaurant menus now feature at least one dish with a poached egg on it as well as being the product of many a newly minted backyard suburban chicken coop. It’s been almost 40 years since that jingle entered our collective consciousness and of course, it’s now available as a 21st century ring tone, a perfect nostalgic reminder right on our smartphones. (http://www.incredibleegg.org/egg-facts/incredible-edible-egg-jingle)
It’s no surprise there has been a resurgence of interest in the egg. It is truly one of nature’s perfect foods, packed with protein, vitamins and amino acids, inexpensive, and extremely versatile cooked in its whole form or used as an ingredient. A single large egg contains 6.3 grams protein and 71 calories. All of the egg’s 186 mg of cholesterol exist in the yolk, as does the egg’s approximately 5 grams of fat.
As an ingredient, the egg is the workhorse of the food world, a veritable miracle element. It can be used as a leavening agent in cakes and breads, and creates the lift needed to fluff soufflés, chocolate mousse or angel food cake. Egg yolks work their magic to emulsify mayonnaise and hollandaise sauce, and egg whites are used to form a “raft” to filter and clarify stocks to make consommé. Cooked to just the right temperature with milk or cream, egg yolks thicken the base needed to make custards and ice cream. Brushed on dough before baking, an “egg wash” can add a nice shine to pastries and breads.
All eggs are not created equal. Like many factors in the food supply of an industrialized nation, commercial egg production has been altered over the decades to increase supply and decrease cost. With those changes in production, have come a decrease in the nutritional value of a commercially produced egg. The health of the egg is 100% dependent on the health and happiness of the chicken which lays it. There are varying methods of how chickens are raised for egg laying.
The most common method for raising chickens is in a factory farm where the chickens are caged, fed antibiotics to keep them healthy (because of the deplorable caging conditions) and given the cheapest feed possible. Both “cage free” and “free range” eggs are from chickens which are allowed to move around in their environment, but even this can be misleading because often the sheds in which they live contain tens of thousands of birds with barely any room to move. Neither method refers to the type of feed used.
“Organic” eggs are a step healthier but mostly refer to the type of feed given to the chicken (organic, no antibiotics). Legally, the chickens must have “access” to the outside, but on commercial organic farms (an oxymoron for sure) this is typically a small pen, sometimes with a door two feet square, attached to a giant building. Realistically, most organic chickens never see the light of day or have grass under their feet.
The healthiest eggs come from chickens that are “pasture-raised” on organic feed without pesticides. Pasture-raised chickens have access to the outside, and besides eating chicken feed, they forage for seeds and insects and eat grass, grains, and plants. Eggs from pasture-raised chickens are higher in Omega 3, beta carotene, and Vitamins A and E. They also have lower levels of cholesterol and fat. These eggs usually have dark orange yolks from the beta carotene the chickens get from eating grass and other greens in addition to standard chicken feed. True pasture-raised eggs are most commonly found coming from small family farms or backyard coops so check your local farmer’s market. My friends who raise chickens at Mount Royal Farms (and one of my other blogs) can certainly attest to this; these chickens are so happy and healthy and the eggs yolks are the brightest orange I’ve ever seen! You can see it in the photo below and in the recipes coming in the next post.
Small reddish or brown spots (“blood spots”) on the egg yolk are often thought of as fertilized eggs but are in fact simply a cosmetic defect resulting from a small blood vessel tear when the egg is being formed.
Chalazae are the thick strands of egg white which hold the yolk in place. They are neither imperfections nor beginning embryos. The more prominent the chalazae, the fresher the egg (egg whites thin as the egg ages).
Contrary to popular belief, brown eggs are not healthier than white eggs. Eggshell color is dependent on the breed of chicken and it just so happens that those chickens that lay white eggs tend to be more prolific layers. Eggshell color can vary widely; from white to pale pink, from tan to copper, green, blue, speckled, or dark brown.
Commercially produced eggs have thinner shells because the chickens aren’t fed enough calcium.
Chickens are omnivores so beware of any eggs touting “vegetarian feed”. Chickens are not vegetarians.
How to purchase and store eggs:
Egg grades; the USDA grades eggs of all sizes A, AA and B, based on the interior quality of the egg and the condition of the shell. “U.S. Grade AA eggs have whites that are thick and firm; yolks that are high, round, and practically free from defects; and clean, unbroken shells. U.S. Grade A eggs have characteristics of Grade AA eggs except that the whites are “reasonably” firm.” U.S. Grade B eggs “are usually used to make liquid, frozen, and dried egg products.”
The size of the egg listed on the carton (Jumbo, Extra Large, Large, etc.) is based on the combined weight of a dozen eggs. Jumbo eggs have a minimum weight of 30 oz. per dozen, Extra Large are 27 oz. per dozen and subtract 3 ounces for every size range below that.
Age of eggs: Most egg cartons display the “pack date” which is a 3 digit code representing the day of the year on which the eggs were packed (Jan 1st=1, Dec 31st=365). Eggs are usually packed within a day of being laid. The “sell by” date on the carton may not exceed 45 days from the pack date. The USDA also recommends you use the eggs within 3-5 weeks of purchase.
When cracked, fresh eggs have firm yolks and whites, older eggs have runny whites because aging causes the protein in the albumen to break down.
Fresh eggs will sink to the bottom of a pot of water and lay on their sides, an older egg may float upright, and eggs which completely float are best discarded because they are probably very old.
Fresh eggs take longer to cook than old eggs because they coagulate at a higher temperature. Yolks coagulate at a higher temperature than whites which is why they stay softer longer when cooking.
Why you should store eggs in the coldest part of the refrigerator: Many cultures sell and store eggs unrefrigerated but this is not recommended in the US, especially regarding commercially produced eggs that have been washed of all bacteria. The washing also strips the egg of its natural protective coating. Eggshells are porous and can then be open to contamination. For this reason, eggs that have been refrigerated should never be left out for more than two hours. Once out of the refrigerator, cold eggs can form condensation which will facilitate bacterial growth in that moisture.
Food safety and eggs:
Eggs can harbor the salmonella bacteria which can cause illness in humans. Fortunately, salmonella is destroyed by the cooking process. The bacteria can live on the outside of the eggshell as well as in both the white and the yolk. For this reason, it’s very important to avoid cross contamination when cooking with eggs. Wash your hands and any surfaces which come into contact with raw eggs with hot water and soap.
If you are planning to use raw eggs in a dish, consider buying pasteurized eggs in the shell, or liquid pasteurized whites or yolks. While you might be tempted to try pasteurizing eggs on your own at home, according to the USDA, “The equipment to pasteurize shell eggs isn’t available for home use, and it is very difficult to pasteurize shell eggs at home without cooking the contents of the egg.”
I learned huge amount in researching for this post and I hope you have enjoyed it as much as I have. Did you learn anything new?
Up next…All About Eggs~Part Two; Recipe and tips on how to cook eggs in a variety of ways for the best results…