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what lies beneath the shell


I recently found myself at the checkout line of our local market, trapped between two very lively conversationalists.

They were proselytizing the virtues of the local brown eggs to everyone within earshot. It was with wry amusement that I noted how enthusiastically they shared well-intentioned but misinformed info.

Sigh. While I’m super-glad that they’re buying local, I’m wondering how they got it so wrong.

A quick search on the Internet revealed some likely sources for their misinformation - beautifully photographed, very popular blog posts favoring locally-produced eggs over store-bought ones.

Most featured photos of cracked eggs, anecdotal information, a litany of egg nutrition facts, a declaration of superiority (minus citations) and a chorus of commenters in gushing in agreement. So what begins as a misperception rapidly snowballs into rapidly-shared misconceptions.

Misconception 1: Brown eggs are healthier because of the chicken species.
Stillife with one brown and seven white eggs.
Local-farmed eggs, destined for devilling.
Facts: Brown vs. White (or Pink, Green, or Blue Eggs) is irrelevant. Shells are formed around the yolk and white during the final stage of the laying process, and in certain breeds, pigments are deposited on the shell at this time.

Domestic chickens are all the same subspecies. There are hundreds of different breeds, but no chicken breed produces a “healthier” egg. The egg’s final nutritional value has everything to do with the hen’s diet and overall well-being during the first stages of egg formation.

So no matter what the shell color, all eggs have the same nutritional potential. Brown or white eggs from the same producer will generally have the same nutritional value.

Misconception 2: Local eggs have orange yolks with lots of nutrients and thick shells.
Facts: Yolk color, nutritional value and eggshell thickness is affected by quality of the hen’s diet. Yolk color won't tell you anything about nutrition: it’s the major source of vitamins, minerals, almost half of the protein, and all of the fat and cholesterol in an egg, but the yolk’s actual color is derived from pigments, not nutrients.

Eggshells are mostly calcium carbonate and can be thick or thin. Thickness doesn't affect the nutrients contained within.

Misconception 3: “Free-range” are better for you because they are raised on small farms and have dark yolks.
Fresh eggs gathered last week. Firm yolk, thick whites
and prominent chalazae (those twisty white parts.)
Facts: Free-range not does guarantee small-farm pasturing. There is no FDA regulation that specifies pasture access for a hens’ natural foraged diet of seeds, greens, and insects.

Also, a recent study found that caged and “free-range” chicken eggs were not nutritionally different. Free-range eggs had darker yolks, but that was due to nutritionally negligible higher levels of carotenoids.

If small-farm pasturing is your heart's desire, the best source will always be a local farmer who allows their hens to forage freely outdoors, uses quality supplemental feed, and collects eggs regularly.

Farmer’s markets and CSAs are great options, or try the Local Hens Farm Directory.

Misconception 4: Local eggs taste better than store-bought.
Facts: There is very little difference in taste from egg to another, no matter what the source. Our perception of flavor is largely psychological: we allow our biases, personal experience and subjective conditioning to factor into our judgment.

I grew up eating local brown eggs "because they were healthier". I still favor local eggs, I still think brown are prettier, and I buy them regularly because I prefer to support local growers who treat their chickens kindly. I adore the sight of happy, well-cared for hens, but I know that the taste difference will be because of the egg’s freshness, not the hen's comfort.

Misconception 5: Local eggs are always fresher than store-bought.
Fresh egg poaching in simmering water.
Fresh eggs poach beautifully.
Simmer for 2 and a half minutes, drain and enjoy.
Facts: Probably, but not guaranteed. Eggs have a very long shelf life, and refrigeration prolongs that life.

In the United States, the FDA requires large-scale egg producers to refrigerate eggs 3 days after laying and put a use-by date of no more than 30 days from the day the eggs were packaged on the carton. But those eggs could sit in storage for anywhere from one day or one month or more, so they’ll always be older than the pack date.

Local egg producers do not have to follow these guidelines and can hold eggs for an unspecified time. In my neck of the (urban) woods, locally-produced eggs are gathered daily and tend to sell out quickly, so there’s never a question of freshness.

To test an egg for freshness, float it in water. A quart jar works well. A really fresh egg will lie sideways on the bottom. If it rises a bit upright, it’s two or more weeks old (still very fresh-tasting.) If it stands straight while still touching the bottom, it’s a couple of months old (perfect for recipes where the yolk doesn't need to be separated.) If it floats not touching the bottom, it’s stale (bury that one in the compost pile.)

Misconception 6: Local eggs don’t have to be refrigerated.
Eggs, milk, cream, sugar, vanilla and peanut butter are ingredients for peanut butter ice cream.
If needed, wash refrigerated eggs in warm water right before use,
just as I did right before photographing these ingredients.

Facts: If you buy refrigerated eggs, you should keep them refrigerated. Many local sellers refrigerate their eggs either to comply with state or local ordinances or simply to keep them fresher longer.

By design, a just-laid egg lasts without refrigeration for several weeks. Eggs have a natural coating called the "bloom" or "cuticle" that works as a natural barrier against bacteria, air and moisture. In this natural state, eggs can sit on your counter.

However, states have different laws on whether eggs should be washed or not before selling them. Washing remove all or part of the natural barrier, so to protect it from bacteria and quality loss, the egg must be refrigerated.

FYI: unwashed eggs will last longer in the refrigerator than they will at room temperature, and they'll also outlast refrigerated washed eggs.

So what to do with this egg-centric knowledge?
Poached salmon, poached egg and arugula salad.
Poached salmon tossed with cucumbers, sweet onion and scallions,
arugula salad and a gorgeous poached egg are what's for brunch.

Poach a fresh farm egg.

Nestle egg atop a bed of nutrient-rich baby arugula. Add  some Omega 3-rich poached salmon tossed with cucumber and sweet onion. Garnish with capers, lemon zest and fresh ground pepper.

Serve for brunch, and impress your sweetie enough to earn yourself your Very Own Flock of Two Happy Hens...

Yes? Please?

No?

Phooey.

Oh well, I can keep dreaming, right?