Recently, I have been thinking about eggs. Once I get on a subject, questions typically pop into my mind. This case was no exception. What size eggs should you buy? What is the difference between white and brown eggs? What do the different labels (cage free, free range, organic etc.) mean? What is the best way to store eggs? What is the deal with those red spots that are sometimes in the white of an egg when I break it open? Is there a secret to peeling a hard-boiled egg so the shell comes off easily?
I decided to tackle the questions first (in this post and one tomorrow) and then to follow up with ideas and recipes for eggs various ways – soft boiled, hard boiled, poached, scrambled, and in omelets and frittatas. (Can that really be the plural of “frittata?” Somehow I have the urge to write frittati and to end it with an !) I do love eggs and there is no end to the ways you can use them, as main course or as a major ingredient in breakfast or brunch recipes. Plus, eggs are essential in custards, most baked goods, and lots of sauces. We’ll start with egg-centered dishes and move on from there.
Today we’ll talk about buying eggs.
Grade – Eggs are “graded” by quality and size. The quality levels are AA, A and B. Quality grading relates to appearance; Grade AA eggs have the thickest whites and highest-standing and firmest yolks. Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon system applies, so almost all eggs are above average – the eggs sold in groceries are almost always Grade A or AA. There is no difference in nutrition among the grade qualities, so do not look endlessly for Grade AA eggs – they might look a little nicer, but they are not healthier.
Size – Most groceries sell jumbo, extra large, large and medium eggs. I have read about small and even “peewee” size eggs, but I haven’t seen them. I buy large eggs because that is the size most often called for in baking and other dessert recipes.
Here are two handy charts (at the end of the pdf) that can help you work around issues of egg size. The first chart gives size equivalents, so that if you have jumbo eggs and your recipe calls for large ones, you can figure out how many jumbo eggs to use. If a recipe does not specify size, it probably intends for you to use large eggs. The second chart tells you how many eggs of various sizes (or how many white or yolks from that size egg) equal a cup.
Shell color – There is no quality, flavor, or nutritional difference between eggs with different color shells. The color difference is solely related to the breed of the chicken that laid the egg. Nationwide white eggs are more popular, but brown are preferred in some areas, particularly in New England. Brown eggs are typically more expensive; the eggs that lay them are bigger and consume more food, but again, those eggs are not better for you.
Labels – Egg labels are confusing and not very helpful because they do not mean much in the last analysis. Here are some labels that you may see, along with a few resources that you may find helpful if you are concerned about how the eggs you eat are produced.
Organic – The US Dept of Argriculture (USDA) regulates what can be called “organic”, but the definition is broad, allowing producers to call their eggs organic simply if they follow relatively standard US commercial egg production practices.
Cage-free – Again, the definition of cage-free is not what you might think. It simply requires that the hens live in facilities that do not have cages; they may not have access to the outdoors.
Free-range – The USDA definition only requires that the hens have access to the outdoors; it does not specify what that access must be nor do the hens have to be allowed to range freely.
All natural – I could not find any government definition for this term, which suggests that it does not mean much.
Vegetarian – A hen that eats a vegetarian diet produces vegetarian eggs. So?
Omega-3 – Eggs fortified with omega-3 fatty acids use this label. But the label does not ensure that the fortified content is the same from one omega-3 fortified brand to another.
Although I’m not an avid reader of this blog, I found the description of various egg types helpful – and amusing. For a less drole read but an eye-opening one, if you are wonkish, try the Cornucopia report and scorecard.
One of my “go-to” gurus for sensible food advice is Harold McGee. Here’s what he says in “Keys to Good Cooking”,
There are large differences among egg producers, in the scale of their operations, their approaches to animal welfare and sustainability, and the price of their eggs. Commodity eggs are among the cheapest of our major foods. Take an occasional look at the information on some pricier cartons, and consider whether it might be worth paying a premium to support other approaches to egg production.
I would only add that you shouldn’t let price alone be your guide. If the goal is to pay a bit more to get humanely and sustainably-raised eggs, then you do not want to pay the difference to a middle-man or to an egg producer that simply charges more for nicer packaging and labels that make us feel good. I recognize that it is not easy to figure out what brands to buy, but at least it is worth factoring all these concerns into the equation when you go to the store or the farmer’s market.
Tomorrow – Storing and using eggs.