UNSCRAMBLING THE MYSTERY OF THE WORDS ON THOSE EGG CARTONS / cage free … free range … organic … And when did eggs become “the perfect food?”

Egg CartonBy Larry Levine-

You’re standing at the egg section in the dairy department of your local super market. In front of you are 18 different egg cartons. On those cartons you see an assortment of words: free range, cage free, vegetarian fed, pasture fed, pasture raised, no hormones added, organic, fertile, jumbo, large, grade A, grade AA, freedom for forage, certified humane, free roaming, free run, 100% vegetarian …

All these plus brown or white.

And the prices range from $3.69 to $9.58 a dozen.

What to do? What does all this mean? Are the high-priced eggs really worth the extra money? Don’t they sell eggs for as little at $1.39 a dozen in some places? Why are the small brown eggs at the farmers’ market priced at $6 a dozen?

For starters, I’ve learned to pay no attention to the color of the eggs. My mother believed brown eggs were special, but the truth is egg color is strictly a matter of the breed of the chicken. What’s inside the shell has nothing to do with the color on the outside.

When buying eggs, it’s worth remembering: you actually do get what you pay for. As with many things, it costs more to produce the best. So it stands to reason that it will cost more to buy the best.

For instance, consider those eggs offered at $3.69 a dozen. That’s 30 cents per egg. They’re almost certain to be the bottom end of the scale. At the other end are the $9.58 a dozen eggs – nearly 80 cents each. The difference comes down to how the rancher fed and treated the laying hens – how much it cost to produce the egg. Your choice depends on what you can afford and how demanding you are. If your family eats dozens of eggs every week, as I did once upon a time, or if you demand the best in flavor from the eggs you eat, the difference can add up. Go for the best. A few extra dimes per egg won’t matter.

The cheaper eggs will be from commercially raised chickens kept in cages, fed with commercial feed, and production-line killed and processed. These factory-farm hens are fed the cheapest possible mixture of corn, soy and/or cottonseed meals with additives that probably have been genetically modified. What a bird eats is the controlling factor in the quality of the eggs it will lay.

If you want the best tasting eggs on the market, look for the words “pasture raised” or “pasture fed” on the carton. It means the eggs are from hens that are allowed to forage and eat a natural diet, including seeds, green plants, insects and worms, along with grain and laying mash. These hens also can dust bathe, which is a natural instinct of chickens. The eggs will have a deeper yellow/orange yolk, thicker white, and be mostly free of the inflammatory fat profiles and salmonella issues of caged eggs. They also will be healthier to consume and taste like an egg should taste.

To my palate, all the flavor in an egg is in the yolk and the more it’s cooked the less of the pure flavor will survive. That makes the concept of packaged egg whites an uninteresting anomaly left over from the cholesterol-scare years and still the rage among some who haven’t caught up with the latest medical reports. My favorite way to eat an egg is poached very, very soft. That’s if I can’t have the yolk raw. Give me a real Cesar salad dressing made with a raw egg yolk, or top my steak tartar with a raw egg yolk and I’m happy.

I like poached eggs better than soft boiled because I can see how well the egg is cooked. When I poach an egg at home, or order poached eggs in a restaurant, I don’t want any vinegar in the water. I have no idea where that whole vinegar thing got started. I can poach eggs perfectly without the vinegar and then I don’t have to deal with the taste of the vinegar. I also don’t worry about fancy egg poaching pans. A two-inch deep frying pan does the job just fine. Fill it with water to about three-quarters of its depth. Bring the water to a boil, turn it down to a slow rolling boil and slide each egg in separately. You’ll probably need to boost the heat a little to bring the water back to a slow, rolling boil. The rest is a matter of judgement. When it looks ready for your taste, then it’s ready.

As for all those words on the egg cartons in the market, let’s unscramble the meaning of some of them mean:

Grade A or Grade AA – Grading of eggs is based on exterior as well as interior quality and the grade will appear on the egg carton. Grade AA means the eggs are nearly perfect. The whites are thick and firm and yolks have no defects. The shells are clean with no cracks. Grade A eggs look much the same as AA, but have a slightly lower interior quality.

Exterior grading is based on cleanliness, soundness, texture and shape. The ideal shell is clean, smooth and oval, with one end slightly bigger than the other.

Interior grading is done by a process called candling in which an image of the interior can be seen through the shell by holding a light behind the egg. The term comes from the historical method of holding a candlelight behind the egg. Modern methods are more sophisticated.

The quality assessment is based on several factors.

1) the depth of the air cell – This is the empty space between the shell and the white usually found at the bigger end of the egg. Air cell depth grows as the egg ages and the quality diminishes;

2) the white, also known as the albumen – Quality is determined by the clarity and thickness of the white. A thick albumen limits movement of yolk and indicates higher quality;

3) the yolk – Quality is determined by distinctness of the outline of the yolk. The fainter the outline, the better. Assessment of the quality of the yolk also considers the size, shape, and absence of blemishes and spots. The yolk should be surrounded by a dense layer of albumen. Candling also can show things like blood spots, meat, and other foreign matter, the presence of which would eliminate the egg from the market place.

Assessment of the yolk and air cell are done only in pasture raised, free range and organic eggs and are not done for eggs from chickens confined to cages or barns.

If size matters – The size of the eggs in a carton is determined by the weight of a dozen, not of a single egg.
A dozen jumbo eggs will weigh 30 ounces or more.
A dozen extra-large eggs will weigh between 27 and 29 ounces.
A dozen large eggs will weigh between 24 and 26 ounces.
A dozen medium eggs will weigh between 21 and 23 ounces.
A dozen small eggs will weigh between 18 and 20 ounces.
Anything smaller is not likely to be sold in markets.

The major factors in determining the size of eggs are the breed, weight and age of the hens. Older chickens tend to lay larger eggs, although the number of eggs they lay may decline as a hen ages.

Cage free, free range, or free run – This probably is the most abused and misunderstood term in the marketing of eggs as well as chickens. We’ve all become familiar with the evils of confining laying hens in cages so small that they can barely move and cannot spread their wings. In reaction to photos of those facilities, consumers demanded more humane treatment of the hens. The industry response to that demand came in the form of the terms cage-free and/or free-run. Chickens raised according to these standards are not caged. They are able to stretch their wings in a larger cage and/or move around freely in an open barn, where they are provided with nest boxes, as chickens have a strong urge to nest during the laying cycle. But they may be crammed into huge buildings with 40,000 other hens. And it doesn’t mean they ever actually see the outdoors. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, all that is necessary is an open door so the chickens can go outside if they want to. Nothing need be done to encourage that behavior. And what is out that door may be nothing more than dirt or concrete.

Certified Organic – These chickens are fed organic feed that must be gown by certified organic farmers, with crops that are free of synthetic fertilization. Animal by-products and genetically modified food products are not permitted in the feed. Hens must have access to the outdoors and cannot be raised in cages. Ranchers cannot feed the chickens antibiotics unless there is some kind of infectious outbreak. Treatment of the chickens must adhere to animal welfare standards. But, again, there is no guarantee that the chickens ever go outside or forage.

Vegetarian fed – This would seem to indicate the chicken eats no animal product. This may not actually be true. Chickens allow to forage in the outdoors may be fed only non-animal food. But when foraging they are apt to eat insects, bugs, worms and other similar matter. To all but the most demanding consumers, that shouldn’t matter. It’s the healthiest diet a chicken can eat.

So, if you want the best – the most humane conditions for the hens and the best eggs for your table – look for Grade AA, certified organic, pasture-raised. At a minimum you’ll want Grade AA certified organic if you can’t find the pasture-raised or don’t want to spend the extra few cents per egg.

Commercial egg production is a tough business with narrow profit margins. Most breeds of hens don’t lay their first eggs until they are about 20 weeks old and then they lay fewer than one egg a day over the course of a year. Some will lay an egg every other day, some just once or twice a week. Most hens are productive for only about two years before declining in production, though they may continue to lay for several years. At retail the eggs can sell from between 30 cents to 80 cents each. Yet, chickens need to be fed and tended every day.

What about cholesterol? – A doctor – a cardiologist, at that – recently told Jennifer, my wife, to eat more eggs and called gets “the perfect food” because of the protein content and presence of other valuable nutrients. That’s a long, long way from the time when we were told to cut down on egg consumption or risk high cholesterol problems.

There was a time when I ate about two dozen eggs a week. Then, nearly 30 years ago, there was a flurry or reports that claimed eggs would elevate cholesterol levels. That coincided with the time I got my first warning of high cholesterol. At my doctor’s direction, I reduced my consumption to two eggs a week.

Now, obviously research has indicated the old warnings may have been too extreme and that eggs are safer than they were once thought to be. Some egg cartons even boast that there are omega-3 fatty acids in the eggs. That’s the same thing as the fish oil supplements we take to combat high cholesterol or the fat content we crave in wild caught salmon and other oily fish.

When it comes to the nutritional value of eggs, we once again find another difference between the higher end, more expensive eggs and those lower down the scale. A Mother Earth News test in 2007 found eggs from pasture-fed, free-range chickens average 66% less cholesterol and 75% less saturated fat than conventional eggs. The test also reveal pasture-raised eggs contain:
66% more vitamin A
Double the omega-3 fatty acids
Triple the vitamin E
Seven times more beta carotene

Those sell-by and use-by dates – There are three numbers that should be found printed on any carton of eggs that displays the USDA grade shield. The “pack date” is the day the eggs were washed, graded and put into the carton. It looks like a code but it actually represents the number of days in the year. January 1 appears as 001; December 31 appears as 364, except in leap years.

The “sell-by” date is not required, but most cartons show a date after which the eggs should not be sold. Eggs packed in plants that are inspected by the USDA and sold in cartons that display the USDA shield will carry a sell-by date that cannot be more than 30 days after the pack date. The sell-by date may also be expressed as “best if used by” of “exp” (expiration) followed by the date.

Eggs can be stored in the refrigerator at 45 degrees or lower for up to five weeks after the pack date without significant loss of quality. Most times the eggs can retain their quality for an added two to three weeks. But as with most food, it’s the-fresher-the-better.

If you have some eggs that have been around for a while and want to test them to see if they are usable, try this:

Fill a deep bowl with water to a level about twice the height of the eggs. Lower the eggs into the bowl. A very fresh egg will immediately sink to the bottom and lay flat on its side. An egg that is a bit older – a week or two – will lie on the bottom at a slight angle and move up and down rather than lie still. As the eggs loses its freshness it will begin to float and stand upright – the smaller end touching the bottom with the larger end pointing upward. These eggs will still be good enough to use. At this point the egg will be about three weeks old. When the egg loses contact with the bottom of the bowl and begins to float, dump it. It’s probably bad.

Now that we have not just permission from a doctor (a cardiologist, at that) to eat more eggs, but also her encouragement to do so, I’ve reverted to the old days. It may not be two dozen a week, but Jennifer and I have agreed that an eggy dinner once a week would be nice. Here’s one I cooked up the other day as I wandered through the market after Jennifer said she didn’t feel like fish for dinner. I urge you to look upon this recipe as a source of inspiration. Take from it what you wish. Add or substitute your own flourishes to suit your own tastes. That’s one of the wonderful things about eggs – there are no rules.

SPUR-OF-THE-MOMENT STOVE-TOP PIE

6 large eggs (at room temperature)
½ tsp. salt
½ tsp. ground black pepper
3 Tblsp. Club soda (or carbonated water)
3 Baby Bella (brown) mushrooms – chopped into small pieces
1 tsp. granulated garlic
2 large scallions – sliced, including the crisp part of the green
3 Tblsp. sun dried tomatoes in olive oil cut into small pieces
3 Tblsp. Salami, diced into small pieces
White cheddar cheese
Unsalted, whipped butter

(NOTE: For the cheese I used a two-year-aged white Irish cheddar that I cut into eight slices each about 3 inches long by 1 ¼ inch wide and 1/8 inch thick.)

Crack the eggs into a mixing bowl. Whisk vigorously until a light froth appears. Set the eggs aside.

While you are beating the eggs, heat an 8-inch frying pan on the stove top. Drop in about 2 tablespoons of butter. Swirl the butter to coat the bottom of the pan. If the pan was not hot enough to brown the butter instantly, let the butter heat until it begins to turn brown. Add the mushrooms to the hot butter and swirl around to coat the mushrooms in the butter. Turn the heat down to medium low and let the mushrooms brown for about 10 minutes. Stir or swirl every couple of minutes to prevent sticking. Remove the pan from the heat. Add the granulated garlic. Stir and set aside.

While the mushrooms are cooking, heat a steep-sided 9 ½ or 10-inch frying pan over medium heat. When the mushrooms are finished, add two tablespoons of butter to the larger, heated pan. Swirl the butter around to coat the bottom and the sides to a depth of about 1 inch. Add the salt and pepper to the eggs and whisk briefly. Add the club soda and whisk till frothy, about two minutes. Pour the eggs into the heated pan. Add the mushrooms, scallions and sun-dried tomatoes. Whisk to distribute the ingredients throughout the pan. Turn the heat down to medium low and let the eggs set for about one minute. Sprinkle the salami over the eggs. Then distribute the slices of cheese on top of the eggs.

Cover the pan and continue cooking over medium-low heat. After about 2 minutes check to see how well the cheese has melted.

The dish is done when the eggs are as moist or as dry as you like them. The cheese will make them look moister than they are. So, don’t over-cook them.

Slice the pie in half while still in the pan. (Good idea to no use a non-stick pan.) Serve half the pie to each person.

You can serve this with a buttered slice of toast, some pan-fried potatoes, or some roasted potatoes.

About the Author

Larry Levine is the founder and host of atLarrys.com and Table Talk at Larrys. Read his full biography by clicking here.