Eggs. Eaten at this time of year, they symbolize rebirth, the Resurrection, spring, fertility, and one of the most basic human foods. We use terms like, “Last one in is a rotten egg” and “He/she is a ‘Good Egg'” to describe people. Eggs, in many forms, are a fundamental part our life and vocabulary. When I looked at my Recipes, I have more posts about Brunch than I do about almost any other single food category aside from Desserts and Vegetable Dishes, and most of those are egg dishes like the ones that will be on my table this Sunday afternoon.
Last fall, I wrote an entire article on a separate website about the Salmonella in Eggs Scare. When I looked behind the curtain, I was really surprised to find out just how many of these orbs we consume every year, whether in whole or powdered form. It was also equally enlightening to discover the wide variation in freshness, expiration dates and pricing for the cartons I found at the Greenmarket versus what was in several of my neighborhood grocery stores.
It brought to mind a trick that my mother taught me when I was younger about how to tell if an egg is fresh or not. This is one of those basic food + science concepts that I wish I’d been taught in school. The photo above is of an egg that I bought from a local farmer at the market, which would have been a few days old. Placed in a glass of fresh water, it settles to the bottom due to the weight of the egg as well as to the fact that the air pocket inside the shell is very small, which is an indication of its freshness.
The freshest eggs are best for poaching and frying, as the youth of the white will hold the yolk in place while it is cooking. As eggs get older the white becomes runnier and the yolk becomes flatter. These eggs are better used in cakes and where they will be cooked thoroughly. The color of an egg on the outside has to do with the variety of hen from which it came. The color of the yolk, however, is due to the diet of the hen. When I lived in Italy, having used conventional grocery-store eggs my life prior to that, I was completely unused to the deep, almost-orange yolks from the hens there, which was a shock when I tried to translate my American baking projects to Italian ingredients and measurements.
As the egg gets older, as in this photo, the air pocket becomes bigger, as well. Repeating this test with an egg from the same batch several months later, the air pocket has grown, and the egg floats on the top of the glass of fresh water. The sample in this photo was one that I kept at the back of the fridge for a few months until I could get this test to work to show these dramatic results. I didn’t eat this egg.
The other aspect of old eggs is that they are really, ehem, ripe. Breaking them open would release a sulfurous odor, indicating that they had actually reach the stage of rotten. I really didn’t want to subject my nasal passages or digestive system to that abuse. Please don’t eat your eggs if they float to the top, especially if they rise above the water, as this one did.
With all of the the colored, dyed, dipped, baked, poached, scrambled, and folded eggs that will be consumed this weekend between Passover and Easter, this easy test will be a good way to see if you have a Good Egg vs. a Bad Egg.
Basic Egg Safety Tips:
These are official guidelines. Obviously, most of us grew up eating raw cake and cookie batter and lived to tell the tale. When I’m baking, I still sometimes take a lick of the spoon. Now, with all the caution against doing that, it feels subversive and kind of daring. Also, I eat my share of runny yolks in poached and fried eggs. The key thing is to be sure that the source of the eggs you are using is a reliable one.
Don’t eat raw eggs; refrain from licking the beaters when making a cake or eating raw cookie dough
Refrigerate eggs to < or = 45 degrees F / < or = 7 degrees C and don’t leave them sitting out for hours once they’ve been refrigerated
Cook them until the white and yolk are firm (in baked products and casseroles, the internal temperature should get to 160 degrees F / 72 degrees C); avoid eating runny or undercooked eggs
Wash thoroughly in hot, soapy water anything that has or may have come into contact with raw eggs (hands, countertops, dishes, utensils, etc.)
Egg Buying Terminology Cheatsheet:
Cage-free – hens are not kept in a system of cages, like battery hens; they may, however, be confined to barns or sheds as this does not necessarily mean they are free-range
Cruelty-free – a more complicated definition requiring the consumer to really know how the hens were raised and their source; see the Humane Society for more information (http://www.humanesociety.org)
Free-range – hens are given access to the outdoors; it does not specify the amount of time that they should be given so the application of this definition varies widely as studies of various farms have shown
Hormone-free / Antibiotic-free – hens are not given feed containing hormones or antibiotics, which can then be passed along to humans through the eating process
Omega-3 (DHA / EPA as subset) – naturally-present nutrients in eggs necessary for brain and heart health; flaxseed may be fed to hens to increase presence of Omega 3, which is found in the egg yolks; DHA / EPA comes from fish oils, so hens’ diets are also modified to increase this amount in eggs
Organic – hens are given feed that is free of fertilizers, pesticides, antibiotics, hormones, and animal by-products; in organic-certified farms, the birds are also allowed to roam freely
Pasture-raised – hens are given total access to eating and foraging outdoors and are provided mobile units for sleeping; some evidence shows that these have better nutrient levels due to the variety of plants and bugs the birds eat. The best thing to do is to check specifically with the farmer to see if the hens have been raised in this environment
Pasteurized – a process of applying concentrated heat to shell eggs or egg products to destroy harmful organisms; some say that this also changes the taste and quality of the eggs, but these are recommended for use in dishes such as sauces that use under-cooked eggs (e.g., mayonnaise, béarnaise, hollandaise, Caesar salad dressing) for those who wish to be extra careful
Vegetarian / Vegan feed – hens not given feed with animal by-products (does not also necessarily mean it is organic)
This information is adapted from the article I mentioned above and based upon my personal research.
Buon appetito e Buona Festa!