Consider the egg. Eggs are fairly amazing. We use them in such an off handed way, really. But what they do is incredible. They are a building block of baking, a sky high dessert topping, integral to spreads such as mayonnaise, a perfect protein, great on top of almost anything as a little fried runny hat, a breakfast staple, and stunning in simplicity when hard-boiled and made into deviled eggs, egg salad, or chopped on a cobb. They come in a dazzling array of shades and sizes though we have come rather accustomed to the uniform white or brown ones at the grocery store. But they come in many sizes and grades too.
Every once in a while I look into all the information available about eggs…and promptly forget it all. I thought I might just write it all down here so I don’t forget again I also thought perhaps you might be curious too, but too busy to sit and ponder the minutiae of this reliable staple.
[This gorgeous bowl of eggs is from The Greer Farm near Daingerfield, Texas. Eva and Sid have a gorgeous flock. Here is a link to the Edible Dallas & Fort Worth article on their farm. I was lucky enough to go take the photos for the story. It is something of a fairy-tale farm. Gorgeous.]
There was a time when buying eggs meant nothing more than opening the carton to make sure the little treasures had survived the trip to the store. Now, it is a dizzying selection process. There are regular eggs, cage free, pastured, brown, white, vegetarian fed, omega-enhanced, local, sustainable, and every combination of the above. I’m a fan of pasture raised hens, personally. Mostly because if I were a hen, I’d like to be in a pasture. But, I buy plenty of Grade AA commercially produced eggs at my local grocer, too.
There are AA, A, and B. There are jumbo, extra-large, large, medium and small. And while the conditions under which your hens were kept is important to your mental well-being (maybe), it is the grade and size which can monkey with the quality of your output. So, let’s just go through those.
Eggs which are headed for the retail market are graded as AA, A or B. A person will analyze a given number of eggs and issue a grade based on the following factors affecting both the interior and exterior of the egg. Most eggs you will find will be A and AA. The differences are really minimal. They have the same nutritional value. The AA eggs will be just slightly more perfect in appearance. They should be free of stains and cracks. They should be smooth. The whites of the egg are judged to be thick and firm, and the yolks are high and round. AA eggs will have the smallest air cell at the top of the egg. Grade A eggs are all these things, just slightly less so. Grade B eggs are given a little more leeway to be misshapen, less smooth, and to have stains. They have larger air cells and might be less attractive when cracked open, but they are not defective, just less lovely. Now, does this mean the the eggs are safe or pass any sort of taste test? No, it is solely about appearance. Grade B eggs are often used in commercial contexts to be made into “egg products” instead of being sold directly to consumers. They might have bumpier shells and might have spots in the yolk. But as far as I can tell, Grade B eggs are not “inferior” eating. Also, if you get your eggs directly from a farm, you may not be given a grade and that is OK, too. The sizes are a little more easily understood.
Generally, recipes call for “large” eggs and that is what is expected even if not specified. There is almost two times as much egg in a dozen jumbo eggs than there is in a dozen small eggs. In this context, size matters, especially if you are baking. If you are just frying eggs for breakfast, well, it isn’t that critical. You can substitute, of course. If you have only jumbo eggs, for instance, you can use a conversion chart. Here is a chart from the American Egg Board on egg sizes so you can compare. Be aware that the egg sizes are “per dozen” so the carton weighs a certain amount, but each individual egg is not necessarily the exact same size. Freshness is a tougher issue to determine. I once thought that grade AA meant the eggs were fresher, and while there is a correlation, it isn’t necessarily an age-specific grading. Here is the correlation. As an egg ages, the air pocket at the top of the egg gets larger. The larger the air pocket, the lower the grade. So, you can generalize that a small air pocket means a fresher egg. But the pocket size varies from egg to egg so freshness is better judged by the “sell by” date.
The carton has a lot of numbers on one end. These numbers are generally the “sell by” date, the plant number and the packing date, expressed in Julian date terms. Julian date just means that January 1 is “001” and December 31 is “365” and every day in between is numbered in sequence. We could have a conversation about why they chose to employ Julian for the packing date and the calendar date for the “sell by” date on the same package of eggs, but I might come off a little cynical…so I’ll skip that bit. But if your box says “131” on the packing date, you will know that the eggs were packed on May 11th. The carton above was packed on February 24th. That is not the “laid by the chicken” date necessarily, but I guess it is fairly close. If you have a “use by” date or an “expiration date” then follow that date for consumption purposes. If there is a “sell by” date, it is apparently not allowed to be further out than 30 days from the packing date, and the USDA says they will keep for an additional 3 to 5 weeks beyond that date. I suppose that during that 2 week gap between 3 and 5 weeks, you should simply inspect the eggs closely, one at a time once broken, to make sure they still appear and smell fresh. For the life of me, I cannot find a U.S. resource for tracking the producer code.
Here are answers to a few questions that all parents have heard, and that I suppose we all asked someone at some point: No, you are not murdering a baby chicken by eating this egg. No, this egg will never turn into a chicken. No, this egg would not have developed into a chick if we had left it with its mom. A little on egg and chicken anatomy. The yolk is not the pre-chick goo. In fact it is the sack of nutrition that a developing chick would consume while developing. The hen releases a yolk sack which then travels through the hens reproductive tract picking up parts like it is on an assembly line. Over the course of about 1 day, it obtains the whites, gets fertilized (if the hen was dating), and develops a shell. It is baffling that a hen can create that hard shell in one day, but it does. Females are amazing. I just have to say that. Anyway, if the hen is not exposed to a rooster, there is no rooster business inside the hen. The egg passes along and is lain, unfertilized. And these are the types of eggs we buy in the grocery store. I believe fertilized eggs can be obtained, but someone will have to explain the point of that to me outside of the context of trying to actually create chicks. I’m not in the market, personally. But, fertile eggs raised by conscientious egg producers are picked up daily before anything interesting starts to happen in the egg. They are apparently just fine, if that is your thing. Fertile eggs can be obtained more readily from those with backyard flocks or smaller operations. But my understanding is that there are no roosters anywhere near commercial egg production because they simply aren’t needed for the process. Sorry gents.
Look at the Egg
When you crack an egg, look at it. In fact, when I bake, I rarely crack directly into the mixing bowl…well, never, really. Ideally, I will break and add them one at a time from a small bowl, which allows me to fish out shells and inspect the eggs. There shouldn’t be blood spots or “meat” spots. In big operations, these imperfections are usually spotted by electronic devices and never reach market, but occasionally you will find some. They are fit to eat as is. But you can discard them or just scrape off the offending portion with a knife. You will also see ropy white stringy membranes. This is called the chalazae and it actually anchors the yolk to the egg shell so that the yolk stays protected in the middle of the egg. Completely brilliant I think. They are totally fine to eat. If you are making a really delicate custard or something where they might not mix into oblivion, you can just pull them off with impeccably clean fingers. I very rarely bother. In the photo above you can see a tiny white dot on a few of the yolks. That is called the germinal disc. That is the spot where the hen’s genetic information is stored. Were she to lay a fertilized egg, that white disc would turn into the embryo. What else? Yolk color. Well, the range of egg yolk color is actually very wide. Anything on the range of yellow to orange is good. Anything colorless, or green…not so good, methinks. But, the degree of yellow/orange is apparently just a diet issue. The key chemical is called xanthophyll and the concentration of that affects the color. The more xanthophyll, the more orange the yolk. The backyard chicken folk love the orange yolks. Apparently chickens with leafy green diets will have a more orange pigmented yolk. Some say this makes an egg more nutritious. I don’t know the answer to that. But just know that there is a perfectly acceptable range of yolk color.
I’ll be brief…but when scrambling eggs I do not add any milk or dairy. I place the whisked eggs in a medium-hot skillet and let them cook for awhile before gently scraping them around a bit. There is no “scrambling” or violence involved for me. It is a slow, silky process of moving eggs around the pan as the uncooked egg flows into that void and continues to cook. Turn off the heat completely before the eggs are finished. They will continue to cook in the hot pan. I always turn off the heat while my eggs are still rather wet looking. Salt, pepper, sometimes cheese. Done.
Hard-boiling. For an easier egg to peel (theoretically) don’t use spanking new eggs. Apparently it is a pH issue. But beyond that I use the following method: Place eggs in a saucepan large enough for them to sit in one layer. Cover them with cool water by at least an inch. Bring to a boil over high heat. As soon as the water boils, turn off the burner and let the eggs sit in the hot water, covered, for exactly 10 minutes. Meanwhile, fill a big bowl of ice and water. When the 10 minutes have elapsed, transfer the eggs to the ice water using a slotted spoon. Allow the eggs to sit in the ice bath for 5 minutes. Now your eggs are ready to peel or to put in the refrigerator for later use. People say the ice bath helps with the peeling and people say the somewhat older eggs help. I gotta tell you, it is hit or miss with me and if I need perfect eggs, say for deviled eggs, I boil a lot of extra eggs as a safeguard. You can use the extras to make egg salad, a cobb salad, or to mix into a tuna salad. And, an unsightly (and discarded) white still has a perfect yellow to use in the filling, so you do not need to worry about sufficiency of the yellow filling for dividing among the pretty whites. For a fried egg, well this can be a life long pursuit for perfection. I can’t write about it any better than Felicity Cloake did in this article for The Guardian. So, if you want to bone up on the fried egg techniques to be played with…read her article. For me, it is a bit hit and miss. If I’m cooking an egg for a post photo, I’d say it takes me at least three eggs to get a perfectly gorgeous one. But I like her advice about using NEW eggs for frying. Hadn’t heard that. And she also advises to bring it to room temperature first, which makes all the sense in the world. If you have any egg wisdom to share, speak up. As I said, I have to look up this stuff every time. I’m not an egg-spert (yes, I just had to). Where is my 9 year old when I need him. He’d be laughing his tail off.
Articles for further perusal, or that I found helpful putting this together include:
CHOW: Fertile Eggs (interesting message board string, potentially TMI for the squeamish)