All About Eggs: Grades, Safety, Nutrition & More
If you're a typical American, you'll put away 250 eggs this year. Together, we eat 76.5 billion of 'em every year in this country.
And why not? Eggs may be the perfect food. Budget-friendly, super nutritious, and low-calorie. And what's more, versatile! You can fry eggs, poach, boil, and scramble eggs, even bake eggs. Some thrill-seekers have been known to fry boiled eggs!
We bake cakes with eggs, use them to bind meatloaves and fish cakes. We bread-and-fry chicken with eggs. We put a shiny gloss on foods with egg whites. Wine makers even clarify red wines with egg whites -- which, dropped into the wine barrels, hoover-up impurities, suspended particles, and harsh tannins. Egg whites also make a tasty, tasty cocktail!
Let's discover a little more about this incredible, edible, and essential ellipsoid.
All About Eggs
We're talking mostly about chicken eggs here because they are by far (by very far) the most-eaten eggs in the United States. There is, however, a quick break-down of other eggs below.
White or Brown Eggs? You'll mostly find white eggs in the grocery stores, although brown eggs show up frequently at farmers' markets. The difference in color simply boils down to the breed of hen that laid the egg. A white hen lays white eggs. Brown or reddish-feathered chickens lay brown eggs. An egg's color has nothing to do with quality or nutrition content.
Yolk Color: Again, color is not necessarily an indication of nutritional value. But it does give you insight into what the chicken ate, which could give you an indication of the hen's health. Most eggs you see in the store will have a medium-yellow yolk, which probably means the chicken was eating corn and alfalfa. A darker, vibrant yolk means the bird was eating it's veggies, probably grasses and green vegetables along with grains.
Whiter Whites: Cloudier, milkier whites indicate a fresher egg. Clearer whites could mean the egg's been in the fridge a bit longer; it will still make for a tasty egg, of course.
Egg Sizes: Eggs come in several sizes: From peewee to small, medium to large, extra-large, to jumbo. It's based on weight per dozen eggs. Most baking recipes call for large eggs.
A and AA Grades: This refers to the quality of the egg as well as the appearance. The grades are given by the USDA. Mostly, you'll find Grade A eggs in grocery stores. Grade AA eggs are typically more flawless in appearance and the whites tend to be firmer than Grade A eggs. A Grade B egg will perhaps have a shell with some discoloration but is OK to eat. You could go your entire life without seeing a Grade B egg; they're not sold in markets much.
For more info on how the USDA grades eggs, including a fascinating answer to the question "How do you inspect egg whites without breaking eggs?" check out What's The Deal With Grades Of Eggs?
Now for Some Definitions
You'll see these words and phrases on cartons of eggs. Some are more meaningful than others.
Natural: OK, sure, let's start with a nonsense term. Eggs, like the hens that lay them, are things that occur in nature. Hence, they are natural. Beyond that, the term natural, as it appears on a label, is pretty much meaningless.
Cage-Free: This is sticking point. The name implies space to move about if not necessarily a completely wide-roaming chicken existence. However, cage-free hens can still be confined into very tight spaces, often in warehouses or large barns. A cage-free hen doesn't necessarily hang outside, scratching in the grass. Which is not to say that "cage-free" is a meaningless term; it's just loosely defined.
Free-Range: Unlike cage-free, free-range means that at some point the hens have access to the outdoors. However, we're still in a little bit of a grey area here. How much access? For how long? Under what conditions? It varies according to the producer.
Pasture-Raised: If you're concerned with the chickens' access to the outdoors and freedom of movement, this is a meaningful term. A pasture-raised chicken most likely had room to roam, pecked at the earth, lived a recognizably chicken life.
Certified Organic: These hens had access to the outdoors and ate organic vegetarian feed with no antibiotics or pesticides, herbicides, or commercial fertilizers -- no animal products in the feed.
Pasteurized: Pasteurized eggs are not pre-cooked. These eggs are quickly heated just enough to kill salmonella bacteria. Nutrients are unaffected. Cooking regular, unpasteurized eggs will also kill salmonella.
Sell By: The date stamped on your egg carton is a "sell by" date, not an expiration date. Keep your eggs in the fridge, and they should last about a month after that date. You can always tell when an egg has gone bad -- it leaves the light on in the fridge and parties late into the night with the Gruyère. More reliably, though, it will smell undeniably off when you crack it open. Unless you have no sense of smell, you won't mistake it for a good egg.
Eggs and Nutrition
What's in an egg? Loads of good stuff, like high-quality protein (eggs are a "perfect" protein), vitamin A and B-vitamins, unsaturated fat, along with minerals and antioxidants. The yolk contains vitamin D. Lutein, a carotenoid, protects the eyes against cataracts and age-related macular degeneration. And let's not forget choline, a nutrient associated with brain health. All this good stuff, and yet only about 70 calories per large egg. Low cost, low calorie, loads of quality nutrition. That's the egg for you.
A note on cholesterol. Not long ago, eggs were considered something akin to cholesterol bombs. Well, times and nutritional advice change. New research indicates that eating eggs won't increase the risk of heart disease. Essentially, this new advice acknowledges that eating cholesterol in foods (and eggs do include cholesterol) doesn't necessarily translate to higher cholesterol in blood. There's a caveat here for people with diabetes or who are in danger of getting diabetes, but for most people the danger that cholesterol eaten in food will result in higher cholesterol in the body is weak. For more on this, read a Q&A with Walter Willet, whose early research into the effects of dietary cholesterol was essential.
The Freshness Test
Not sure how long your eggs have been chillin' in the fridge? There's a simple test. Add water to a bowl, enough to submerge an egg completely. Gently place an egg into the water. A fresh egg sinks. An older egg will float. As time goes by, eggs develop tiny pockets of air beneath the shell, and so, after some time, an egg will float!
BONUS TIP: Your less-fresh eggs are a great choice for hard-boiled eggs; they peel easier.
The Hard-Boiled Versus Raw Test
Sometimes you lose track. Is that the hard-boiled egg? Or is it the raw one? Give it a quick spin, and you'll know for sure. For results that don't end in splat!, spin on a flat surface. If the egg is hard-boiled, it will spin gracefully and smoothly. A raw egg will wobble because the whites and yolk aren't firmed up, so the center of gravity is shifting as it spins, causing the wobble. Science is cool.
The Eggs of Other Birds
Duck Eggs: Fairly common these days, duck eggs are bigger than chicken eggs with richer yolks and harder shells.
Quail Eggs: These dark-speckled eggs are considerably smaller than chicken eggs -- about the size of a large grape tomato. The yolks are rich and comparatively larger in relation to their whites than chicken eggs.
Pheasant Eggs: The size of a small chicken egg, pheasant eggs are a beautiful pale blue with brightly colored yolks.
Goose Eggs: These are big eggs, larger than duck eggs, with proportionally larger yolks. If a recipe calls for 2 large chicken eggs, substitute 1 goose egg, and you're in good shape.
Turkey Eggs: Specks on the shells, they have big yolks.
Egg Safety: Odds and Eggs
According to the American Egg Board, your chances of cracking open an infected egg is about 0.005% (five one-thousandths of a percent). Scientists conservatively estimate only one out of every 20,000 eggs produced might contain the salmonella bacteria.
Even if an egg does contain the bacteria, the amount in a freshly laid egg probably will be small, and if the egg is properly refrigerated and handled, will not multiply enough to cause illness in a healthy person. However, children, pregnant women, the elderly, and anyone with a compromised immune system should take special care to avoid the risk of salmonella food poisoning
While the risk of becoming ill is rare, here are a few quick tips for handling eggs to ensure your family stays healthy:
Choose Grade-A or AA eggs with clean, uncracked shells. Buy only eggs that have been kept refrigerated -- any bacteria present in eggs can grow rapidly outside refrigeration. If the egg carton has a date printed on it, make sure it hasn't passed.
Keep eggs refrigerated. Store eggs in a 40-degree F refrigerator after purchasing. Leave eggs unwashed in their original carton in a cold section of the fridge, not in the door. Eggs in the door may pick up funky odors and flavors. Don't wash eggs before storing because that will remove the protective coating applied at the packaging plant.
Handle with Care
As with any food preparation, make sure to wash hands, utensils, equipment, and work surfaces with hot soapy water before and after they come in contact with raw eggs. Minimize preparation and serving time -- don't allow eggs to remain out of the refrigerator for more than two hours (not counting cooking time).
Serve cooked egg dishes immediately after cooking, or refrigerate at once for serving later. Use within three to four days, or freeze for longer storage.
You can also freeze egg whites. Place them in a tightly sealed container. Yolks, however, don't freeze well; they lose their textural integrity.
OK, now we're getting to the good stuff. Here are tips and tricks for making the best eggs, no matter your type of preparation. Or skip right to the recipes. Check out our complete collection of Breakfast Egg Recipes.
This seems like an obvious technique that's beyond easy. But actually, there's a right way to boil an egg, so you get firm whites that aren't rubbery and gorgeous, creamy yolks.
The trick to making wonderfully moist, fantastically fluffy scrambled eggs...revealed.
Trickier than just boiling an egg, a perfect poached egg is a true treat. Here are tips to ensure success.
These perfect little packages are almost as easy to make as they are to gobble up.
What To Do When You Realize You've Run Out Of Eggs
Now then, have you ever been knee-deep in a cooking or baking operation that calls for eggs, and opened the fridge door only to find you have no eggs! We can help. Here's advise on how to DIY Your Own Egg Substitute.