Fresh Ideas and the People Who Bring Them to Life
Fresh Idea #6: Fresh Eggs, Part One: What Makes A Good Egg Good?
It’s just been a few years since we put the fat-is-terrible myth behind us and put butter, coconut oil and eggs—a most nutritious whole food—back on our plates, and now the avian flu comes along. In 2015, millions of chickens—nearly 44 million according the U.S. Department of Agriculture—have either been killed to prevent the spread of avian flu or died from it. So you can bet the price of eggs is going up. Now might be a good time to be sure you’re getting your money’s worth.
Pastured eggs, the kind I buy from Kitty’s Chicken City, every Sunday at the Marin County Farmers’ Market, have always been pricey, but I’m convinced they’re better for the planet, much better for me—and more humane, though vegan friends may disagree, because the eggs are fertile. After months of enjoying eggs raised on pastureland less than twenty miles from me, I became curious about what makes Kitty’s such good eggs.
In a nutshell—I mean eggshell—the USDA sets the standards, sorting conventional eggs into three grades: AA, A and B, with AA eggs simply being fresher than As and Grade B eggs having stained shells or other minor defects. The whites of AA eggs are firmer and thicker and the yolk sits up high and round. Most of what’s available in supermarkets is Grade A.
An eggshell, which makes up 12% of an egg’s weight, should be sound, clean and smooth. The USDA ranks what’s inside according to the viscosity of the albumen, its freedom from foreign matter, as well as the shape and firmness of the yoke. An eggshell should be 94 to 97% calcium. A thicker shell is better and the thickness depends on the age and strain of the bird, how long the egg remains in the uterus and the time of day the egg is laid. Eggs laid earlier in the day will have thicker shells. Eggs laid in summer generally have thinner shells. It’s important but not easy to keep chickens—especially those raised in many-storied hen houses on factory farms.
All farmers wash off the cuticle or bloom, the protective coating that covers a newly laid egg, seals in freshness and keeps bad bacteria from entering through the shell, and all know not to scare birds, because they want the eggs to be in the shell gland long enough to form a good bloom and thick shell. To avoid thermal cracks, the industry suggests washing eggs in water 20 degrees warmer than the eggs themselves, and when I mentioned this to Kitty at the farmers’ market, she thought that sounded about right. Conventional egg companies use sanitizing agents, which make the shells shiny.
If you’re like me, you’ve known for a while that conventional eggs are not really good eggs. The pullets (young hens) that produce for U.S. supermarkets are housed by the thousands, even tens of thousands in huge, artificially lit structures where they’re fed a utilitarian diet containing calcium, Vitamin D, manganese, phosphorous and antibiotics. To say the least, there’s no pleasure in a conventional hen’s life, which is part of why I encourage you to make the switch to organic, free-range eggs—but caveat emptor.
Labels on egg cartons, such as “organic,” free-range,” “pastured,” and “cage-free” can mean many things and not what you suppose. “Free-range” eggs aren’t regulated, so there’s no set amount of time that the chickens must be out of their cages or outdoors. Most free-range hens don’t often get to eat grass and bugs or bask in the sunlight that foraging pastured birds do. Even eggs certified to be organic—meaning they are guaranteed to be antibiotic free—can still be raised in factory-farm conditions, with all the unnatural amenities. It’s unlikely the organic eggs you find at your local supermarket are good, healthy eggs.
The best way to tell about an egg is to crack one open. A healthy egg will have:
- a large deeply-colored yoke
- a large percentage of thick egg white
- very little runny egg white
True free-range, organic eggs, are laid only by hens that—whether or not their diet is supplemented with organic grains—live on a pasture where they can forage for what they love—seeds, green plants and insects. I call them happy hens, and just as with home-cooked food made with love, you can taste that “happiness” in the eggs they lay.
Every carton of eggs I’ve gotten from Kitty’s Chicken City has been a jewel box of rich, tasty eggs. “In Fresh Eggs, Part Two,” I’ll tell you why.
Note: The Cornucopia Institute provides a scorecard on organic eggs at: http://www.cornucopia.org/organic-egg-scorecard/. In fact, you might find a lot that surprises you about the organic agriculture at www.cornucopia.org.