Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Dig In - Buying Eggs

“S/he is a good egg.” You don’t hear this expression used much anymore, but the meaning is clear. The person in question is trustworthy. Honest. Reliable.

But is it as clear what we mean by “good egg” when we are referring to chicken eggs? I don’t think so.

This is worth pondering. Even if you are limiting your cholesterol intake, chances are you are going to eat or cook a lot of eggs in your life. Eggs are either the stars or supporting players in hundreds of eggcellent dishes. They provide great nutrition and eating pleasure in return for a relatively small investment of time and money. But in our modern, luxury obsessed society, good eggs are almost as scarce as hen’s teeth.

Many people will scale the highest mountain to get what they believe to be the best quality cars, jewelry, clothing, home furnishings, electronics, wine or coffee. But when it comes to purchasing a basic food item like an egg, the pursuit of quality is rare. And for the discriminating shoppers who are thinking about where their eggs come from – God bless them - straightforward information is hard to find.

So what is a “good” egg? If an egg is cheap, can it be good? If eggs cost more than $3.00 a dozen, are they good? If an egg was produced “cage free” or “free range” is it good? If it was “raised on a family farm” is it good? If it is labeled “organic” is it good? Can a conscientious cook find good eggs without a degree in poultry science?

There is much current debate and confusion around these questions. One reason is that we are in the midst of the largest recall of eggs in U.S. history due to concerns about salmonella poisoning. At least 20 different brand names have been affected so far - all these brands obtained their eggs from the same two Iowa egg producers which are the suspected source of the problem.

The scope of the recall is staggering:
The recent Wright County Egg in Iowa and Hillandale Farms of Iowa, Inc. voluntary recalls of shell eggs are considered nationwide recalls. Shell eggs from Wright County Egg were sold to distributors and wholesalers in 22 states and Mexico, who then distributed the shell eggs further throughout the country. According to Wright County Egg of Iowa, 380 million of their shell eggs are being recalled under many different brand names. According to Hillandale Farms of Iowa, Inc. additional shell eggs now under recall went to grocery stores, distributors, and wholesalers in 14 states; these entities then distributed the shell eggs further throughout the country. According to these two companies, more than 500 million eggs are now involved in the nationwide recall.
Source: FDA, 8/27/10 http://www.fda.gov/Safety/Recalls/MajorProductRecalls/ucm223522.htm#news

So what is a concerned consumer to do?  The FDA tells us we should not buy cracked eggs and should refrigerate eggs.  And cook them until the yolks are hard.  (I don't know about you but I am not ready to give up fried eggs over easy.) More on egg safety from the FDA here http://www.foodsafety.gov/keep/types/eggs/index.html

And what if you are concerned about more than your own (and loved ones') health and safety?  What if you are concerned about the welfare of the chickens? 

One perspective, where animal welfare is concerned,  is the Humane Society of the U.S.  This is the group that has been successfully passing referenda in various states regarding living conditions of  various forms of livestock (including laying hens).   Whatever your views on animal welfare, I think the Humane Society's explanation of egg carton labeling is enlightening:  http://www.humanesociety.org/issues/confinement_farm/facts/guide_egg_labels.html

Another perspective - on both animal welfare and public health and safety - comes from the egg producers themselves.  For more information about egg purchasing, storage and safety, see

And another perspective - from columnist Nicholas Kristof:  http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/02/opinion/02kristof.html?hp

In search of more answers, I consulted my husband Frank Wright. He is an enthusiastic egg eater, an experienced laying hen owner and even – in his days as a practicing veterinarian – has taught classes in poultry science.  We discussed eggs from both the eater's and the hen's perspective.

Our simple answer to the good egg question is that a good egg comes from a healthy hen who has a good life. A good egg will be very fresh and will come from a chicken that is well fed, not routinely medicated, allowed to go through normal molting and resting periods, and allowed access to the outdoors.

Finding producers of such hens is a worthy quest. Once you have found them -– never let them go. Tell your friends.  Create more demand. Be willing to pay what these eggs cost. Learn more and don’t be afraid to ask questions about:

Natural Laying Cycles
Egg laying is affected by day length. In the fall, egg production drops off and hens molt and replenish their body reserves. They resume egg-laying in late winter. A healthy chicken can go for a number of years this way, though their productivity will gradually decline. Even pastured egg producers use some supplemental light in their henhouses during the winter months to stretch the season. Egg factories, however, typically maintain 17 hours of light per day for 15 months of total confinement and non-stop egg-laying. The resulting "spent hens" are probably recycled into animal feed and replaced with fresh recruits. So look for producers who allow chickens to have access to natural light cycles and to pasture. The production costs are higher but the chickens will be healthier.

Chickens also need good food. Does your producer grow the bulk of their own feed or is it purchased on the open market? What controls or specifications do they employ over the type and source of ingredients? Do the hens get a significant part of their diet from pasture plants and the bugs and worms found in pastures?  I frankly do not know what my personal egg producer feeds her chickens.  I do know that she is an animal lover and a good farmer.  And I know that the eggs from her chickens have the most lovely rich yellow orange yolks and great flavor.

If laying hens are being raised with adequate space and feed and natural light cycles, routine medications – antibiotics as well as others - should be unnecessary. The need for routine medications is a red flag for stressful living conditions. (Note - The public is learning more about overcrowded poultry facilities and apparently producers are responding to consumer concerns. “Cage-free” may or may not mean that a chicken is not overcrowded or confined indoors.)

The fresher the egg, the firmer the white and the perkier the yolk. Less than a week old – great for poaching. More than ten weeks old – great for hard boiling and peeling.

A fresh egg from a healthy chicken provides a superlative eating experience.   Conventional mass produced eggs, while they may be perfectly wholesome and safe (most of the time) simply do not taste as good in my humble opinion.  The more you eat good eggs the more you will notice the difference. You can decide whether it matters to you to become a discerning egg consumer and hunter of good eggs.  You might even decide to join the growing ranks of people who raise a few laying hens in their backyard! 

Here is a nice classic recipe that makes good use of eggs.  I hope you enjoy trying it.
Basic baked custard (serves 5)
We are reminded that cooking is chemistry when preparing the perfect baked custard. Temperatures and technique matter. Once you have mastered custard, you will no longer be a novice cook.

3 large eggs
2 cups milk (richer milk = richer custard; 2% milk is a good compromise)
1/3 cup sugar (or substitute 1/2 cup maple syrup)
dash of salt
1 t. vanilla
Dash of nutmeg for each custard cup

Gently heat milk. Beat together remaining ingredients. Gradually add milk to egg mixture, stirring all the while. Strain into custard cups. Fold kitchen towel and lay in the bottom of a 9 x 13 pan. Place custard cups in the pan and add very hot tap water about half way up the sides of the cups. Place in 325 degree oven and bake about 40-45 minutes. Test by inserting sharp knife about halfway between center and edge. If it comes out clean, custard is done. The centers will still “jiggle” and will solidify as custard cools.

1 comment:

  1. thanks for this post. i love fresh good eggs. i hope to someday (when we have more space) raise laying hens for pets and delicious eggs!