A Fresh Egg Primer
Farm fresh eggs: A throwback to a simpler time
For many of us, the phrase "farm fresh eggs" evokes immediate nostalgia and sense of pleasure. Nothing beats the taste of a fresh egg or the appearance of that deeply-hued yolk, standing above the blander, paler, commercial alternative. Even the lovely shade of brown eggshell is appealing. What makes those fresh eggs so darned good?
What IS a fresh egg, first of all?
By USDA standards for egg grading, a "fresh" egg is one up to 30 days old. The eggs you buy at a typical supermarket have been produced in a commercial egg factory and have been gathered, washed, rinsed, sanitized, coated with mineral oil, boxed, shipped, stored, and displayed long before you see them. They're marked with an expiration or "use by" date that can't exceed 45 days from grading.
When you see a sign posted in a rural area advertising a resident's "fresh eggs," realize that the meaning of "fresh" is going to be different—just as the process by which the egg is produced, collected, and handled is going to be different. Egg quality will possibly differ, as well. If you have a good, reliable source for your fresh eggs, you may be getting eggs collected just hours (or maybe days) before you purchase them. They may be washed, but many backyard or hobby-farm egg producers don't sterilize, candle, or grade their eggs. In all likelihood, they'll be more fresh than what you purchase at a supermarket, but they may not meet the USDA standard for grade.
Does freshness matter?
Yes, freshness matters. When an egg is first laid by the hen, it has no air within the shell. As time passes, the egg rapidly starts to deteriorate, even if properly refrigerated. An air pocket forms in the egg, which increases in size over time. Other changes happen: the yolk begins to pale in color, and break down in firmness. The white changes similarly. When eggs are graded, a grader may break an egg to examine interior quality. They'll note that the older, staler eggs have flatter, paler yolks, and that the egg whites have less defined shape when broken onto a dish.
Those stale eggs are, if handled and stored properly, certainly still safe to eat. For some cooking endeavors, stale eggs are even necessary (here's looking at you, meringues) to respond properly to the cooking process. However, most of us who relish fresh eggs will argue passionately that they taste much better—and they're prettier on the plate.
Are brown eggs better?
I'm fond of colored eggs. They just look so much more appealing. Aesthetics are a huge part of eating and food preparation, and darn it, you can't beat a lovely speckled brown egg for aesthetics! My own flock includes Americaunas, which lay green eggs; Barred Rocks, which lay brown eggs; Wheaten Marans, Cuckoo Marans, and French Marans, all of which lay stunning deep-chocolate colored eggs; and Silver-Spangled Appenzeller Spitzhaubens, which lay bright white eggs. I love the variety and I enjoy having different breeds, but I don't think any eggs are prettier than the Maran eggs.
That said, egg shell color has nothing to do with actual quality. However, it may have something to do with detection of quality. In commercial egg facilities, eggs are candled for quality, meaning that they are looked at through a bright light to check for defects such as blood spots, meat spots, and so forth. Those particular issues don't affect safety, but they do impact egg grade. Now, when you candle an egg with a white shell, you can see more clearly through the shell and identify defects more easily. Brown eggs (especially those deep brown eggs I adore) make it more difficult to do so for obvious reasons.
If you're curious, you can candle an egg yourself. Without going into the technicalities of it (I'll save that for another article), you can simply hold a bright flashlight up to the end of the egg and look through it. Look for the size of the air pocket at the topside of the egg; the rosy glow of the yolk; and for any cracks, spots, or other abnormalities. (Chicken breeders also candle eggs to check on embryo development.) Remember that the smaller the air pocket and the brighter and more distinct the yolk, the better.
Friends whom I've shared my eggs with sometimes have amusing comments about the egg color. One asked, "What do you feed your chickens to get this color?" Egg color has nothing to do with chicken diet. It varies by breed, the hen's age and condition, and other factors. Sometimes the same hen will lay deep brown eggs at one point in her career, and pale tan eggs at another point. That's part of the fun of raising your own eggs.
Fun fact: Although not always true of every breed, in general the color of the hen's earlobes will indicate whether or not she lays white eggs. White-lobed hens generally lay white eggs; dark-lobed hens will lay colored eggs.
What's the difference between egg grades?
The USDA egg-grading manual is fifty pages long. Egg-grading is a technical business! Trained egg-grading professionals inspect and grade egg quality based on samples of a batch of eggs rather than individually inspecting and grading each egg in the batch. The highest grade, Grade AA, is awarded to the best-quality egg, with Grade A following, and Grade B coming in last.
Egg quality is dependent on many factors, from the uniformity of the egg shape to the cleanliness, shell quality, and quality of yolk and egg white. Some defects are disqualifiers: for example, eggs with cracked shells or internal blood rings are deemed inedible. Of these, the cracks are most dangerous to the consumer. Cracked shells allow bacteria to permeate the edible portion of the egg, and bacteria brings a significant risk of food-borne illness. The worst-cracked eggs are "leakers" through which the interior, wet portions of the eggs will seep. If you find a cracked egg in your carton, never eat it.
Egg graders will downgrade eggs with cage stains or debris affixed to them, as they will eggs with considerable bumps, ridges, or other shell deformities. Those eggs are edible (although you should wash any dirty eggs before eating them).
Some egg defects should never show up in your store-bought cartons at all, but you may see them when you raise your own or buy from a neighbor. Those include double-yolkers (the huge eggs with two yolks inside), oddly shaped eggs, or eggs with distinct shell deformities (such as thicker shells on one end, or calcium build-up on the pointy end). They won't hurt you, but they're generally discarded at a commercial plant. As with fresh produce, much edible food is thrown away and wasted long before it reaches market.
"B" grade eggs are less expensive and often preferred by restaurants and cafeterias. Again, they won't harm you, but they may taste inferior or be paler, blander, and more lifeless on the plate. They won't be as pretty in the shell, either.
Learn more about grading eggs from this USDA Egg Grading Manual.
- USDA Egg Grading Manual
The official USDA manual for poultry professionals (also useful for the consumer).
How does handling impact egg quality?
Proper handling is critical to egg quality and food safety. First and foremost, eggs must be handled gently to avoid cracks in the shell—and again, do not eat cracked eggs! Eggs should be gathered several times a day, cooled slowly (rapidly cooling them damages the ever-important shell and contributes to internal deterioration), and cleaned appropriately. By "appropriately," I mean that an egg shouldn't be over-washed (which removes the protective cuticle given by nature to keep an egg safe) nor cleaned with dangerous substances.
Eggs should, once cooled, be kept at a consistent temperature. Cooling and warming them significantly impacts quality and will speed aging and deterioration. They should be kept dry and separated from foodstuffs and substances that will give them a foul odor. I prefer cardboard egg cartons; not only are they environmentally better than foam or plastic, but they maintain dryness by absorbing moisture. Eggs can actually get moldy on the shell if kept improperly—and they can absorb odors that you can taste if stored with stinky things.
How does a hen's diet affect the eggs she produces?
Commercially-produced eggs are from hens fed a consistent diet of chelated (pelleted) feeds. This consistency produces eggs that taste and look pretty much the same. The "layer pellets" for laying hens include calcium to build strong eggshells. Aside from the shell thickness, foods given the eggs will not change the color of the shell.
If hens are given an excess of certain foods—think garlic and onions, for example—eggs may take on the smell and flavor of these foods. If eggs smell "sour" or "musty," though, there's a good chance bacteria (such as pseudomonas) has infected the egg. Don't eat sour eggs or eggs with an undesirable odor. If the egg white is not white—if it's green, for example—it may also be affected by bacteria. Discard it and thoroughly wash the dishes and utensils it touched.
If you're concerned about ingesting antibiotics through your eggs, buy organic eggs or those marked "antibiotic free." Because factory-produced eggs are from hens kept caged in extremely overcrowded conditions, antibiotics are sometimes fed to prevent disease from infecting the flock. Hens kept free range or cage free will not generally require as much use of antibiotics as they are allotted more space.
What are "working conditions" like for the hens on commercial egg farms?
Hens kept in standard commercial egg production units lead a physically and mentally unpleasant life. They are crammed together in wire cages with sloping wire bottoms so excrement drops to trays below and eggs roll to collection chutes on the side. They are provided clean, fresh water and food through automatic dispensers.
Factory-kept hens will, as a rule, never touch actual soil or grass in their lifetime. The things hens instinctively want to do—scratch in the dirt, roll in dust, roost at night, or simply stretch out their wings and run fast for fun—are denied them. At the end of their productive life they become by-products.
Keep in mind that commercial egg production is focused on efficiency, cost-effectiveness, and consumer safety. The trade-off for denying hens a more natural environment is the affordability of eggs. Eggs are highly nutritious and a staple in many diets. Providing a truly cage-free, yet safe and efficient, environment for hens would drive egg cost far beyond what most consumers could (or would be willing) to pay. As for consumer safety, the eggs brought to market are inspected and handled according to USDA safety standards. Although the system's not foolproof, it is a good one and generally reliable.
What's the difference between "cage-free" and "free-range" chickens?
Definitions of "cage free" or "free range" varies greatly by nation. In the United States, cage-free eggs must be produced by birds that are allowed some access to the outdoors. What that access entails varies by producer. Birds may still be overcrowded and access may be limited, or birds may actually have large runs or pastures to enjoy. If this issue is important to you, investigate the farm that produces the eggs on your own. You may find they have a website describing their operation—or maybe they offer tours.
If you are fortunate enough to have a friend or neighbor who raises chickens and will share eggs with you, you may enjoy seeing how they keep their flock. My own hens have a predator-resistant welded pen with straw bedding for them to scratch in. They have a large outdoor run, pans of water to stand in to cool off, and wooden roosts that are easy on their feet. They even have their own pet goat to keep them company. They enjoy the variety of foods (many of which are household scraps), bugs, and treats they get (including their absolute favorite—mealworms!) and they have free access to ground oyster shell for calcium.
As with many hobby farmers, I keep roosters with my hens. The roosters not only fertilize the eggs (more on that below), but they protect the hens by warning them of threats, attacking perceived threats, and telling them when they find food. Recently I was once again amazed by these simple creatures when the rooster suddenly began "growling" and the hens immediately ran into their welded, covered enclosure. The rooster saw long before I did that two hawks were approaching, and quickly warned his hens.
Why do some people prefer fertile eggs?
I'm an advocate for production and consumption of fertile eggs where possible. The USDA guides skim over fertile eggs very briefly, because fertile eggs are generally not a factor in commercial egg operations. Keeping roosters with hens isn't commercially viable; male chicks are generally destroyed as soon as they're identified as male.
Way back when, even after "ice boxes" became widely used, many people still kept their eggs in baskets on the kitchen countertop. Days later, they'd use the eggs—and they'd miraculously survive. How? Because the eggs were fertile, just as are the eggs my hens produce. When I tell people this, they often reply, "Wait . . . does this mean I'm eating baby chicks?" No, you're not eating baby chicks, and here's why.
In nature, many birds lay an entire "clutch" of eggs before sitting on them. Quail, for example, do this in the wild. They lay many eggs, abandoning the nest until the "target" number of eggs have been produced, and only then do they set on them. Setting on the eggs provides the heat and moisture necessary to properly incubate the eggs - plus the mother bird "turns" the eggs frequently to prevent the inside of the eggs from sticking to the shell and preventing proper formation of the embryo.
The reason the hen waits to sit on the entire clutch is so that in the wild, all chicks will hatch at once. This is an important factor for poultry-type birds—those who roam with their newly-hatched chicks rather than raising them in a nest. Nesting birds have different habits.
Now, if a fertile egg isn't incubated, the embryo won't begin to develop—but neither will the egg rot. This is why I personally am a believer in fertile eggs. The egg quality remains better for longer, but no, you won't find a baby chick developing in that egg.
What are some benefits of raising your own flock for eggs?
If you have room, inclination, and are zoned to do so, consider raising your own eggs. Keeping backyard chickens requires space and work, but pays great dividends. I enjoy having enough fresh eggs to share with friends and neighbors, but even more I enjoy having chickens on the property. Nothing goes to waste here: the chickens love food scraps, from squishy tomatoes to unpopped popcorn kernels. They're fun creatures to have around, and I enjoy hearing the roosters crowing in the morning and the hens cackling proudly when they've laid an egg. I like seeing them scratching in the compost and eating whatever insects they find. I compost their manure and turn it into garden soil, and I crush the broken eggshells and add them to the compost.
I also enjoy the satisfaction of a tiny little slice of sustainability. Neighbors save their egg cartons for me to reuse, and are rewarded with fresh eggs from happy hens. I know my chickens are humanely treated, and they live out their retirement years here after they've done producing. It's not cost-effective, by any means, but it's a good life for them—and for me. It's not going to change the world, but it changes my world and the world of the animals who share it.
A reliable guide to raising your own flocks
I've relied on Storey's guides to animal husbandry for many years. You can, too!
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
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© 2019 Marcy J. Miller