Your Everything Guide to Eggs
Does this sound familiar? On your weekly shopping trips, you just pick up a carton, check for cracks (or forget to and regret it later) and keep shopping. While you dote over your latest cult-favorite hot sauce finds and experience a slight feeling of superiority weighing your fresh organic green beans as someone with *gasp!* canned green beans in their cart passes, your decision about which carton to buy is based on quantity, egg carton type or maybe even which color you think looks nicest or is the healthier option.
But the humble egg is much more interesting than all that, and there are a lot of misconceptions about it, as I was reminded not long ago by my partner, who'd somehow made it into adulthood with a very serious misconception about what an egg even is.
Eggs are not (necessarily) baby chickens
In foul-based sex-education news, eggs are not (necessarily) baby chickens. The spit-take-inducing assertion to the contrary by my partner is apparently a common one. He literally thought the refrigeration process or some kind of "processing" stopped the chick from growing so we could eat it.
Hens (female chickens) lay eggs whether or not those eggs have been fertilized. No contact with a rooster (male chicken) = no fertilized eggs. Anyone who's collected eggs to sell for food (be they small local farmers or corporate poultry farms) has likely been as careful as possible about preventing any bom-chicken-wah-wah between hens and roosters unless they're intentionally breeding more chicks.
How do they know, like, for sure, they aren't baby chicks?
Hey, roosters are a randy bunch, and no amount of humanly possible rooster-hen chaperoning can 100 percent guarantee the little scamps didn't sneak into the hen house for a nooner at some point unless you literally don't own roosters.
That's why they scan the eggs before selling them to the public. In the old days, they'd hold them up to a candle, where they could tell if it was a fertilized egg because it would be opaque. These days, they have more modern (and much faster) techniques, at least for larger farmers or factories.
Is either method perfect? Actually, they damn near are. I've calculated that I've eaten or cracked open well over 200,000 eggs in my lifetime (probably double that or more) — including the "farm-fresh" eggs from my great-grandmother's backyard coop and commercial. And in that time, I've come across only one egg that had an actual developing chick inside.
If farmers do find a fertilized one, they can save those to breed more chickens. I mean, if you can determine the sex of a newborn chick, surely you can tell if an egg is fertilized. Yep, turns out the latter is actually easier than the former.
Note that seeing a small dot of blood in the yolk doesn't mean it was fertilized either. That dot of blood is caused by a vessel rupturing while the yolk was forming. It's OK for that to weird you out anyway, though.
Why are some eggs different colors, like blue- or green-speckled and brown?
Contrary to a misconception I've heard, white eggs are not bleached or processed to rid them of color. The color of the shells is determined by the breed of the chicken.
The brown & green-speckled eggs are healthier, right?
It's not like the wheat vs. white debate in bread. The color of the egg doesn't affect the nutrition at all. The way the chicken and its egg are cared for does. If you like the brown or green-speckled ones (those were always my favorite when I was a kid), more power to you. But don't pay extra because you think it's healthier or "organic." (That said, only a monster buys anything but white eggs for dyeing during Easter.)
Are farm-fresh eggs healthier?
Not necessarily. They're certainly fresher. It takes time to pasteurize, box and ship, meaning those eggs were laid about three days ago by the time they show up in your grocer's refrigerator section (but they'll be placed in the back to allow older eggs to be purchased first). Farm-fresh eggs are typically sold direct-to-consumer at farmers markets and the like, and since they don't have the means to store that many eggs long-term, they're probably only a few days old if they weren't collected just that morning.
That said, farm-fresh eggs are raised by smaller farmers who likely don't use the "industrialized" money-saving feeding tactics, so they may be lower in cholesterol and saturated fat and higher in beta carotene, omega-3 fatty acids and vitamins A, E and D. The chickens who lay them also may receive more individualized care (including veterinary) because they aren't just a number to their owners — they're less expendable.
Speaking of nutrition…
It's true that the egg whites are lower in calories than yolks and are fat-free, but much has been made of the cholesterol in yolks. Shouldn't you avoid that? Only if your doctor tells you to so long as you're eating them in moderation.
According to A Healthier Michigan, while it's true that "egg yolks carry the cholesterol, the fat and saturated fat of the egg […] what is often overlooked are the many nutrients that come with that, such as the fat-soluble vitamins, essential fatty acids and other nutrients. One egg yolk has around 55 calories, 4.5 grams of total fat and 1.6 grams of saturated fat, 210 mg of cholesterol, 8 mg of sodium, and 2.7 grams of protein." The organization also lays out the 24 other vital nutrients eggs and egg whites alike contain to varying degrees, making eggs a little superfood quasar if eaten in moderation.
But what about salmonella?
The risk of contracting salmonella is actually exceedingly low, though it always pays to be safe since it's such a potentially dangerous bacteria. In the U.S., commercial eggs have typically been pasteurized, which is intended to reduce that risk among others.
In reality, the egg-pasteurization process is meant to protect you from eggs that aren't cooked to full temperature, as in mayo, hollandaise sauces and even sunny-side up. In fact, the biggest risk of sickness from raw cookie dough is actually the flour, not the raw eggs.
Note, however, that farm-fresh eggs may not be as susceptible to things like salmonella if they haven't yet been washed. When eggs are laid, there's a protective layer called the bloom that prevents bacteria from attacking the egg.
But even with farm-fresh eggs, you need to make sure the shells are properly cleaned before using them. And afterward, you can even pasteurize them yourself — quite easily in my experience with sous vide equipment (Amazon, $89).
It's also worth noting that you shouldn't eat any egg that's already cracked, as bacteria may have spread into the egg itself. Much of it would be killed during cooking, but why take the chance?
What do all the commercial egg labels mean, anyway?
Grade A, cage-free, free-range… what does that all mean? Overall, it could mean anything unless you research it. The USDA has standards, but those thresholds may not be what you'd want them to be. If you're looking for true free-range or cage-free chicken eggs, make sure you know how the manufacturer actually produces their eggs, including how the raise their hens (cage-free doesn't mean cruelty-free).
Eggs spoil really fast, right?
Not as fast as you think. Commercial eggs take a few days to get to stores and are good for sale for up to 30 days after. When you get them home from the store, sure, they've only got a couple of weeks left on their expiration date since they obviously try to sell the older unsold eggs first. But when properly refrigerated, commercial eggs actually last up to five weeks according to the FDA — the reason you think it's a week or two is because the dates on the eggs you buy are based on the actual FDA requirements, but they may have been the supermarket for three weeks by the time you get them. After all, they're a staple, so it pays to have them on hand, right? If you want them to last longer, pull a my-mom — reach for the back of the shelf instead of grabbing what's in front.
But if you raise your own chickens, all you have to do is keep the eggs unwashed until you're ready to use them since the protective bloom hasn't been removed, and you can keep them on the counter for up to a month. That said, if your refrigerate them, they'll be good up to six months. Just make sure you use a pencil or crayon to write the date they were laid on them.
Let's talk flavor
Flavor is subjective, of course. That said… hands down farm-fresh eggs are better in my experience. Supposedly, their flavor is "the same," according to a not-so-scientific study by a Washington Post writer with a handful of supposed "experts." They were just chefs and foodies — not necessarily anyone who was an egg specialist — an egg sommelier, if you will. But, you know, what evs.
The farm-fresh seem to have more texture and umami to me — more oomph if you will. They also have more golden yolks (rather than yellow) and may have a stiffer white and more robust shell.
But it's obviously your call so long as you know everything you need to know about the incredible, edible and apparently incredibly deceptive egg.