Miracles in a Shell

by Elizabeth Skipper | January 16th, 2013 | Techniques, Tools, and Tips

That’s the title of the chapter on eggs in my teacher’s magnum opus, The Making of a Cook. Indeed they are miracles, and today I’d like to share a little with you about eggs.

There they sit on the grocery shelf, brown ones, whites ones, sometimes even colored ones, in large, extra large, and jumbo sizes. They come from battery hens, cage-free hens, and even heritage hens. They range in price, too, from about a dollar a dozen to five or six dollars a dozen. What accounts for these differences, and does it matter which ones you buy?

Primarily, the difference in price comes down to how the hens were treated. Factory farms, where hens are treated more or less like machines, concern themselves more with efficient and cost-effective means of production rather than the welfare of the animals. Because their costs are lower, they can pass along the savings to the consumer.

Farmers and poultry raisers who treat their birds more humanely – giving them more space and the ability to engage in natural behavior – have higher costs and therefore the prices for their eggs are higher. This is a price I happily choose to pay, both for my conscience and because I believe it results in a superior quality food. In a grocery store, I look for eggs from cage-free, humanely treated chickens, local if at all possible. And this is only when my usual sources for eggs, my CSA and/or farmers in my area, are running low. Egg production is seasonal, and in fall and winter the hens don’t lay as much.

Eggs are graded according to quality and size. Quality primarily refers to freshness. The highest quality eggs, graded AA, have thick whites and firm, plump yolks. Grade A eggs have slightly thinner whites, and grade B eggs are rarely seen in retail stores. These grades are applied at the time of packing, and the eggs you buy may differ in quality, depending on how long they’ve been on the shelf. Eggs have a sell-by date, and you want to buy the ones with the furthest-out sell-by dates.

Let’s say you have some eggs that aren’t labeled. How can you tell how fresh they are? Pour some water into a measuring cup and place a whole egg in it. If the large end begins to rise, you know it’s not the freshest egg, because a fresh egg will lie along the bottom of the cup. If that large end really bobs out of the water, the egg is ancient. Break it open to confirm.

A fresh egg will have an air pocket in the large end the size of a dime or smaller. Egg shells are porous, and the older the egg, the more air it absorbs. When the air pocket is the size of a quarter, the egg is several weeks old, and while probably not harmful, it certainly won’t perform as well as a fresh one in your cooking. If you try to fry it, the white will run all over the pan and the yolk will break easily. It’s not pretty. If you want to whip the whites, they won’t hold air well. Use older eggs in French toast and custards, where these things don’t matter as much. It should be obvious that only extremely fresh eggs can successfully poached.

How can you tell what size they are? Size is determined by weight. Most recipes call for large eggs, which weigh two ounces, or 55 to 60 grams. The volume of a large egg’s white is a little less than 3 tablespoons, and the yolk is a scant tablespoon; the total volume is just under ¼ cup. If you find yourself with a variety of egg sizes, this is helpful to know when following a recipe.

Did your refrigerator come with a bin for eggs? Find another use for it. Keep eggs in their cartons and not on the shelf in the door. Because they’re porous, they’ll absorb odors from your refrigerator. An exception to this is if you’re fortunate enough to find yourself with some truffles or particularly pungent mushrooms – nestle eggs among them to take on the flavors… mmm, truffled scrambled eggs… I can dream, can’t I?

Eggs are packed with the blunt end up, which is said to keep the yolks centered, a nicety if you’re hard cooking them. On the other hand, I’ve also been told that it’s better to keep them stored blunt end down because the pressure of the contents on the air pocket keeps them fresher! I can only say try it, and let me know the results.

Eggs perform so many tasks in the kitchen – in addition to being a delicious, nutritious food in and of themselves, they bind, thicken, emulsify, aerate, color, and enrich. Treat them with the respect they deserve, and appreciate their miraculous contributions to your kitchen.

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