Eggs. By far the world’s most perfect food, in my opinion. As every chef knows, the whites lift, the yolks bind — where would foodies be without the humble egg? I must eat about 15 of them a week in a variety of forms — and why not? They’re so versatile! But lately I’ve been frying with a little butter, olive oil, salt and pepper on toast. Perfection!
As the owner of 20-something pasture-raised hens, I consider myself something of an expert on this most excellent of food sources. That is, until I read acclaimed “chicken whisperer” Pat Foreman’s great book City Chicks (a must read for urban flock owners) and heard one of her lectures about the nutritional component of the egg. “People need to know more about eggs,” she says. “They are the most easily digested, highly nutritious forms of protein on the planet. And the egg protein from family flocks or local family farms don’t have to travel 1,200 miles through a feed lot to arrive at your table.”
Here, 4 surprising facts about the world’s most complete food:
1. A commercial egg can be nearly four months old by the time the consumer eats it — and it’s perfectly safe to do so.
A commercial egg can be as old as 66 days prior to the sell-by date printed on the outside of the carton, according to the USDA. “It’s complicated as to why [the 66 days],” says Foreman. “But after purchasing the eggs, consumers have an additional 3 to 5 weeks to use the eggs and still be considered safely edible. Amazing, isn’t it?” It’s because the shell — assuming it’s clean, not cracked and is of normal thickness — largely acts as a preservative. Eggs don’t really go bad! They just dehydrate. Read point 2 to learn more.
2. Commercial eggs must be refrigerated; farm fresh eggs don’t (with one big caveat).
Europeans never refrigerate their eggs, yet we’re fanatic about it in this country. Why the vast difference? It goes back to the laying process. When a hen lays an egg, a water soluble film covers the shell and serves as a protective layer to keep bacteria out of the egg. This is called the “bloom.” Europeans don’t like to tamper with the bloom because research shows egg washing makes the egg more vulnerable to contamination (anytime you combine standing water and food, you increase the risk of contamination).
Egg washing in many countries is actually illegal as it encourages better animal husbandry practices by forcing egg producers to produce the best, cleanest egg possible (since who would buy a dirty egg?). An intact, healthy shell essentially acts as a preservative. “If the egg still has its protective bloom, and the shell is in good shape, then the egg won’t go bad,” says Foreman. “It just dehydrates.” Meaning, you can leave eggs out on the counter for months and they’re still perfectly fine to eat. They might taste a little dry, but they’re perfectly safe.
In this country, it’s a vastly different story. U.S. commercial egg producers are required by regulation to wash and refrigerate all eggs to ensure the eggs do not become infected by dangerous bacteria, specifically Salmonella enteritidis. American hens, unlike European hens, are not vaccinated against salmonella, which can pass from the hen’s body to the hen’s eggs. Refrigeration has been shown to dramatically slow bacterial growth inside the egg. The eggs are also washed, but this also dissolves the natural bloom. The eggs are then recoated with a substance to seal the egg shell pores. “This coating is not as effective as a hen’s natural sealant,” says Foreman. “Therefore, commercial eggs are required to be refrigerated within 36 hours from when they’re gathered to keep bacteria from developing.”
The one big caveat to the washed vs. unwashed debate is that eggs can only be left unwashed and unrefrigerated if they come out clean. If the shell has dirt or manure on it — not an uncommon occurrence in a typical backyard flock (big commercial flocks, on the other hand, never get to touch their eggs once they’re laid) — then the egg has to be washed which also removes the bloom, exposing the egg to possible bacteria contamination, and should therefore be refrigerated.
3. Eggs from hens raised on pasture are practically a different food source from commercial eggs purchased at the grocery store.
Eggs from a backyard flock have 4 to 6 times the amount of Vitamin D, 1/3 less cholesterol, 1/4 less saturated fat, 2/3 more Vitamin A, 2 times more omega-3 fatty acids and 3 to 7 times as much beta carotene as eggs from factory farm chickens, according to a 2007 egg testing project by Mother Earth News. The reasons are largely because free range birds (and by “free range,” we mean genuinely that; birds allowed to scamper on fresh grass at will. The commercial label “free range” only grants chickens access to the outdoors, whether or not the chickens actually get to use it) are allowed to forage for an all-natural diet consisting of plants, seeds and insects usually supplemented by some kind of feed or mash.
Factory farm birds, on the other hand, do not get to forage but are fed the cheapest possible mixture of corn, soy and/or cottonseed meals, plus a lot of additives, which is then passed on to the consumer. (Just what Americans don’t need: More processed starch in their diets.)
4. Super fresh eggs are terrible for hard boiling.
Most people realize this fact only after they’ve been tasked with making farm fresh deviled eggs for the annual pot luck. Recently laid hard boiled eggs are impossible to peel; the shells splinter off in tiny shards, taking off large chunks of the egg with it. “The reason is because the albumen (the egg white) sticks to the inner shell membrane,” says Foreman. “As the egg ages, it releases carbon dioxide and takes in air. The albumen also shrinks and the membrane loosens and pulls back making the egg easier to peel.” So it’s recommended to wait anywhere from two weeks to a month before using fresh eggs for hard boiling. If time is of the essence — and when isn’t it of the essence — try Foreman’s top strategy here. It’s a little involved, but well worth it:
1. Poke a teeny-tiny-shallow hole on the top where the air sac is. Don’t puncture the egg white.
2. Boil the eggs as usual — about 15 minutes.
3. Put the egg in an ice bath to chill quickly for 2 minutes.
4. Put the egg back into the hot water for 2 minutes to reheat.
5. Transfer the eggs back into the cold bath again until chilled.
“The dramatic changes in temperature helps pull the inner and outer egg membranes from the shell making it easier to peel,” says Foreman. Happy hard boiling!
Want to know more about eggs and good poultry husbandry? Check out Pat Foreman’s “Chickens and YOU” online training series, a collection of online classes for poultry buffs, beginning April 29 through May 29. (FYI, the fourth class is called “Eggs-traordinary Eggs: The Tips, Tricks and Traps of Egg Management and Preparation.”)