When you cook a tasty omelet or go all out with eggs Benedict, how much do you really know about where those eggs came from? Egg labeling is confusing, so choosing the best eggs to buy for your family is easier armed with a little knowledge.
Eggs are an inexpensive source of high-quality protein—6 grams per egg, on par with 1 ounce of poultry, fish or meat. Egg sizes range from peewee to jumbo, with large, extra-large and jumbo being the most common.
Pro tip: Most magazines and cookbooks use large eggs as the standard size when creating a recipe. If the recipe simply calls for an egg, choose large.
You may think brown-shelled eggs look more farm fresh, wholesome and nutritious, but the truth is, the color of an egg’s shell makes no difference to the freshness, taste or nutrition. It’s simply a matter of genetics. The color of the yolk can change depending on what the chicken was fed. A diet of marigold petals will produce a deep yellow yolk; corn-based feed results in a medium-yellow yolk; wheat- and barley-based feed produces a light yellow yolk. If the egg white, or albumen, is cloudy, that’s a sign the egg is very fresh.
Much like high school, eggs are graded on a sliding scale: AA, A and B. An egg’s grade is a good freshness guide and is based on the overall quality of the white, the yolk and the cleanliness of the shell at the time of packing. Eggs go through a candling process that measures the air cell of the egg, the firmness of the whites, the presence of blood spots, and how the white sticks to the shell. Most eggs sold in retail outlets are graded A.
Pro tip: Hard-boiled eggs are easier to peel when made from an older egg because an air pocket forms at the tip of the egg over time. Also, the chalazae, or stringy white strands inside the egg that keep the yolk centered, diminish over time. Check out this article for tips on how to peel a hard-boiled egg.
This is perhaps where most of the public’s misconceptions lie regarding egg labels, so let’s break it down. Fact: Producing eggs is a business. Businesses want to produce as many eggs as possible in the least amount of space. Conventional egg producers house chickens in row upon row of wire cages, without access to fresh air, sunlight or the ability to stretch their legs. The cages are generally 70 square inches—that’s less than an 8-1/2×11-in. sheet of paper. Labels marketed to the public for uncaged chickens may sound better, but are they really?
Cage-Free. Some producers boast their eggs are “cage-free.” This label simply means that the chickens aren’t actually in cages, but they could still be packed wing-to-beak in confined quarters with no access to the outside.
Free-Range. Eggs labeled free-range mean the chickens must have access to the outdoors a minimum of six hours per day and have 2 square feet of space per bird. Outdoors, however, could mean anything from an open field to a square of dirt outside a doorway, depending on the farm. And you can lead a chicken to a doorway, but will it actually go outside?
Pastured. Eggs labeled pasture-raised have passed Humane Farm Animal Care (HFAC) certification, which guarantees that the chickens have been raised on a vegetation-covered pasture with 108 square feet per chicken for a minimum of six hours per day. The chickens are fed only grains without animal byproducts, and are free to naturally consume the seeds and insects that boost their flavor and nutrition. Pasture-raised eggs can have up to six times as much vitamin D, less cholesterol and more vitamin A, omega-3, vitamin E and beta-carotene. Of course, all those benefits come with a hefty price tag. But if you’re making recipes like Caesar salad or hollandaise sauce that contain raw eggs, pasture-raised eggs are a good choice.
Certified Organic. This is the only label regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It means the chickens have outdoor access and are fed feed that is free of GMOs, antibiotics or animal byproducts. It doesn’t necessarily mean they are safer or more nutritious.
Farm Fresh or Natural. While these labels might sound nice, they’re not regulated by any organization, there are no standard rules for labeling, and the chickens could have been given antibiotics.
Vegetarian. Don’t be fooled: Chickens are omnivores, and if they have access to the outdoors they’ll peck up every insect or worm they come across (which is a good way for them to get protein). Vegetarian means they’ve been fed chicken feed containing no animal byproducts.
Fertile. Although fertile eggs are considered a delicacy in some cultures, there is no health benefit to them compared with unfertilized eggs.
Omega-3. Omega-3-enriched eggs have been fed supplemental omega-3 in the form of flax, fish or other products to boost their level of these beneficial fatty acids.
Lutein-Enhanced. Eggs sporting this label have come from chickens that have been fed marigold extract to bump up the level of lutein content. Lutein is beneficial to human eye health and studies have shown it may help prevent age-related macular degeneration.
Care, Storage and Use
When choosing the best eggs to buy, look in the carton first to see if any shells are broken. If so, put them back because they are at higher risk for contamination. Check the expiration date on the carton. Eggs stored properly can be kept four to six weeks after the expiration date. They should be kept in the coldest part of the fridge at 40 degrees Fahrenheit or less in their original carton (don’t wash them—you’ll remove their waxy protective coating). Cooked egg dishes can be kept in the fridge for three to five days, and hard-boiled eggs can be kept for up to one week. Avoid keeping cooked egg dishes at room temperature for longer than two hours, and as tempting as it is, don’t let kids eat raw cookie dough. Of course, always wash your hands thoroughly after handling eggs.
Eggs are one of the most versatile ingredients in your kitchen. Sweet or savory, scrambled, poached or fried, there are dozens of egg recipes that take you from breakfast to dinner to dessert. And if you run out of eggs? Try these handy egg substitutes.