Egging You On: Sourcing the Best Eggs

Great food always starts with great foodstuffs. My readers in Europe have always been able to get top eggs, because farmers have protected quality there, and America’s unhealthy and gross mega-egg biz isn’t allowed.

For my friends in America: Commercial eggs are crap. Pop open one next to a pasture-raised egg, like this beauty from Vital Farms, a pasture-raised (pastured) egg, and it’s like night and day.

One is pale and putrid looking. The other is golden to yellow-orange and full of nutrition.

Healthy eggs start with best practices at the farm.  A little visual 101 so you can understand the difference:

  • Conventional – Birds crammed into small cages in windowless barns eating a science diet that produces anemic-looking eggs  that are cheap but are not very healthy.  Conventional eggs are laid by hens given hormones and antibiotics that end up in their eggs, and you. They are higher in cholesterol and saturated fat, probably because of the hens’ lack of exercise. They are lower in Omega-3, vitamin E, and beta-carotene.
  • Cage-Free Porch-Raised, Barn-Raised. Chickens are still in kept in dense packs in bigger enclosures. Not much better, and, not surprisingly, studies don’t find much improvement in them from the conventional.
  • Free-Range, Free-Roaming,  – Humane Farm Animal Care’s Certified Humane®  sets its “Free Range” standards, as there is no Federal standard, as .19sq.m/2 sq.ft. per bird. It is more humane than the dense barns full of chickens in cages, which is a plus.  Big Egg, the industrial egg farmers, try to conflate this category with Pasture-Raised to keep people stuck on the lie that all eggs are created essentially equal.
  • Pasteurized – (Not Pasture-Raised) – Davidson’s Safest Choice® are conventional eggs, but they’ve been pasteurized in the shell. They’re useful for making ice creams in the Ben & Jerry’s stripe where you want the safety of a “clean” egg that is certified free of internal bacteria.
  • Organic – We’re conditioned to like “organic” anything, but, in the egg game, that’s not a good thing by itself. It just means that the feed that the birds receive, if they’re grain fed, is organic grain.They can still be raised inhumanely, and the grain can be the low-grade leftovers that are used in conventional egg operations, as long as it was raised organically. They charge a lot, but they’re confusing you. The gold standard in eggs is Pasture Raised or “Pastured.”
  • Pasture Raised – We’ve known for more than ten years that pasture farming is better for both us, and the birds who lay the eggs, but it’s taken at least that long for widespread, commercially viable pasture farming of chickens to make a big dent in the markets.A 2007 study found that pasture raised eggs are nutritionally superior to conventional commercial eggs. Compared to official U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) nutrient data for commercial eggs, pasture raised may contain:• 1/3 of the cholesterol
    • 1/4 less saturated fat
    • 2/3 more vitamin A
    • Twice the omega-3 fatty acids
    • Three times the vitamin E
    • Seven times the amount of beta carotene

Which makes sense if you consider the well-being of the birds. HFAC’s Certified Humane® “Pasture Raised” requirement is a limit of 1,000 birds per 2.5 acres, or 10sq.m./108 sq. ft. to a bird. Hens scratch for bugs and worms, in addition to their food,  and get a lot of exercise. The fields must be rotated, which allows them to rest. Hens are outdoors year-round, with some housing where the birds can go at night to protect themselves from predators. They can be brought into barns for up to two weeks a year if there is very inclement weather.

As Vital Farms continues to develop its reach through member family farms, you can find my five-diamond Choicestuff™ pick for eggs at Whole Foods, and at better supermarkets.

Pasture-raised are the best and, sadly, most expensive eggs. Vital farms runs $5.99, which is actually pretty reasonable when some of their pasture competitors are $1-3 more, and a couple of cage-free companies with really big brass huevos charge that price for a 1/2 dozen CAGE FREE eggs. Oh my.

We pay a bit more for better ground beef or bison. We really spend on good coffees and teas. Eggs have always been that place where people feel like they can skimp.

Don’t skimp. Get the good stuff!

Vital Farms, a Texas producer kick-started with some Whole Foods’ venture capital money, now has more than 90 family farms all over the United States that pasture-raise their eggs and sell in their markets under the Vital Farms red dot. They produce probably the most widely available pasture eggs, now found at major supermarkets beyond Whole Foods.  They earn my five-diamond Choicestuff™ award as they are about the best I’ve found, including from local producers.  Look for their Pasture-Raised Eggs Alfresco, and you will not be sorry.

PICKING THE RIGHT EGGS & THE RIGHT SOURCES

Okay. So now you know more about what the labels and buzzwords of the egg biz mean. There are a couple of other considerations:

  • White or Brown – Once you’ve had brown they’ll take your cooking to town! White eggs tend to be from birds bred for the commercial egg biz. Breeding to get that thin white shell comes with some tradeoffs, along with the bad nutrition. Most pasture eggs are brown. It’s okay. The color is a sign of better, not worse, taste.
  • Label “lures” (Hype) – Egg purveyors put all kinds of nonsense out there to lure you to their boxes.
    • GMO-Free. The PC pitch. Pasture-raised birds’ feed has to comport to that standard already to be pasture-raised. Right up there with the “gluten free” chicken for silly.
    • Omega-3 boosts – Hens that forage for bugs, worms, and grubs and are fed a great supplementary diet have higher Omega-3.  Adding flax to the diets of hens too tightly penned may make a mediocre egg a bit better, but the pennies saved don’t make up for their dietary shortcomings, and, unless you read my article on the perfect egg, 99% of pros and home chefs cook most of the O3 out of the eggs anyway.
    • Vegetarian Fed –  Birds that can forage produce better eggs. If you are vegetarian and eat eggs, it is good to understand that the birds are better off eating what they like. Your diet isn’t theirs.
    • Hormones/Antibiotics – Laying hens aren’t given hormones ever. Hens requiring antibiotics are taken out of production of eggs for human consumption.
    • Organic – One of the biggest scams. If the farm feeds hens a diet of ANYTHING that was certified organic, that qualifies. So the leftovers of seeds expressed for oil, which have very little nutrition to them left, could be a dominant part of “organic” feed in an egg farm, and contribute zero to the quality of the product. It’s not a win or lose slogan as it’s too vaguely defined.
  • Egg purveyors – Eggs never landed much of a premium, or even much distinction from farm-to farm, until the fake egg business came along. “Egg Beaters” started selling as a low cholesterol diet alternative by good branding. So now the game is on.
    • Cool box – Pretty packaging isn’t a guarantee of great eggs, but it’s also not a total scam. Everyone has a story to tell. Judge the eggs inside by their shell weight, cleanliness, size variation, etc.
    • Carpetbagger Egg Companies – Many companies that have reputations in other areas, like dairy, have jumped into eggs to see if you’ll take your brand-loyalty with you. I don’t go to my allergist to get help with my feet.  Horizon and Organic Valley and others may have aligned with, or bought, great egg producers. Again, eyeball the eggs, not the brand, to figure out if they’re good.
  • Feel Matters – Open the box, and look at the eggs. Pick one up. Shells should be solid, not thin. Use a thin commercial egg and a pasture egg in each hand, and don’t worry if anyone is staring at you in the egg aisle. Shell strength says something about the production. Legit pasture eggs are laid by hens that produce eggs built to withstand mother nature. Standards in the industry are voluntary, and egg scams are on the rise.
  • Size Matters – Some pasture producers put out eggs as they come. So you’ll get a jumble of sizes. Some size like every other egg company. If you can use different sized eggs for different applications, then the jumble may be okay. If not, then get the consistent sized with good strong shells. 
  • Smell Matters – If you open the box and there is a decided bacterial smell, or a strong whiff of sulfur which salmonella bacteria put out, and it is in several boxes, that is a brand to avoid.
  • Condition of the Box Matters – If the box is ragboard that is wet, or egg-stained or other than firm, clean-smelling and right, grab another box, or another brand. Some companies use cheap boxes that damage eggs easily. If they aren’t willing to spend money to package them right to get them to market, what does that say about their “thrift” in production?
  • Date MattersLook at the dates on the boxes. My big green Southern supermarket loves to buy stuff on the bare edge of its “Best by” or “use by” date, possibly because so many of its customers are probably right near their own “best by” dates.

LOCAL FARM-TO-TABLE EGGS AREN’T ALL THEY’VE CRACKED UP TO BE

There are a growing number of folks who raise their own chickens in their back yards, or on small farms, trying to cash in on the farm-to-table movement.

On Vancouver Island, last summer, I even found one “honor” egg stand on the side of the road in front of a house with some acreage, where they had the eggs in a cooler, and you took what you needed, and dropped the cash in the slot of the metal box on the stand!  Oh, Canada!

Locally sourced is good, but several things that you should know if you buy local:

  • Buying eggs at one of the many local farmer’s markets that have sprung up sounds like a good way for smaller consumers to connect with their egg supplier. Questions to find a good one:
    • Ask if it is their production. If no, where do they buy their eggs? What kind are they?
    • How are the hens housed?  Ask how they produce. In stores, labels have to be right, or producers can face stiff penalties. Little operators at farmers’ markets have no oversight.
  • Health-conscious shoppers tend to equate farmer’s markets or small roadside stands with “good” and “healthy” and “socially responsible.” Don’t assume, just because they’re local, that they’re any of those things. Take reasonable precautions:
    • Ask how the eggs are moved and stored before sale. Eggs that move into stores are handled well, because foodborne illness is a sure way to get any company fined, shut-down, or see someone thrown in jail for some health or safety violation that was particularly egregious.
    • See how the eggs are stored at the point of sale. A cooler that’s minimally below 4°c/40°F is a must, lower the temp the better. If there is any indication that they’ve been out in the open air, the heat, in the sun, avoid them;
    • Look at the boxes. A growing number of aspiring egg farmers grab used egg crates or egg palettes from restaurants and bakeries, sometimes even from dumpsters. That soft cardboard is a breeding ground for bacteria. Dump them when you get home, but if there is any sign of staining or crusted dry egg on any of the boxes, don’t buy from that vendor!
    • If you’re new to the area, and want to buy from folks hawking eggs on their property or at stands by the roadside, ask locals about the stands. Which ones are for real, safe, and which ones are not? Usually, people who live in the area know the great, good, and bad.
    • Bring a cooler with a couple of cold packs in it to keep your eggs until you get home.
    • Wash all eggs, but especially those that come off small farms or neigbors’ hen houses (see below) to avoid bringing salmonella or other bacteria from fecal matter into your refrigerator.
    • Regularly wash out all containers that you transport or store eggs in. Don’t reuse the cardboard containers.

Handling & Storage

If you keep your eggs in the egg crates that they ship in, you obviously aren’t thinking through what you just put into your refrigerator.

First, the eggs, particularly, are washed at the crating point, but that doesn’t mean, especially for the pasture eggs, that their entirely clean. Once in a while you’ll catch the occasional bit of grass stuck to the shell, or the odd partial feather that falls into the commercial eggs.

Even when the egg farms try to make them look super sanitized, unless they’re Safest Choice® pasteurized eggs,  great for things like ice cream, or cookie dough, there are all kinds of things, including harmful bacteria, on the eggs.

There is always the chance of salmonella bacteria on the outside of eggs. The bacteria can be on the inside, although it’s rarer. Mostly salmonella comes from handling dirty shells that have trace amounts of fecal matter that carry the bacteria. Most of that cooks off easily, but if you touch the eggs, then pick up a utensil, you can carry the bacteria.

Recall also that your eggs are:

  • Handled by people at the egg farm as they’re loaded into boxes.
  • Handled by the guy at the supermarket who should have called in sick who puts them out.
  • Handled by the three people who got there before you, opened them and thought… “Nah… I’ll buy the cheaper ones” (See above for why THAT was a bad call).
  • Let’s not forget the stuff that might have been spilled on the box, broken egg crates above, etc.

I’m no germaphobe, but egg crates are a whole level of nasty. So, when I get my eggs, I:

  • Inspect them for debris. Remove anything visible.
  • Make an ice bath in a bowl with 20 or so ice cubes and cold water and a couple of drops of dish soap (Florida’s tap water is always lukewarm) , one at a time, dipping them in the bath and gently rubbing off the shell.  The ice cold water prevents the eggs from sweating, which draws their liquids to the micropores of the shell.  Quickly rinse them off again to remove any soap residues.
  • Carefully dry them with a clean cheap kitchen towel that subs for paper.
  • Put them into a plastic egg container with a lid.  A lid may not seem very important, but it is.
  • Write on a paper tape the use by date of the eggs and put it on the lid;
  • Get them in the refrigerator pronto and always keep them closed up, and refrigerated at 4°C/40°F

Refrigerators can wickedly dehydrate eggs, which do sweat a bit of their moisture through the shell over time. Don’t leave eggs uncovered, or in most “egg” drawers built into refrigerators. Most of them let too much dry air in.

OTHER GOOD DO’S AND DON’Ts

There are a few other ways that you can get the best use of your eggs, and make better egg dishes:

  • DON’T buy too many eggs. Unless you bake egg-based stuff a bunch, that Costco flat of eggs may seem really appealing, but storing all of them means that they age, and eggs don’t age well;
  • DO either use or toss your eggs within a week or so of the Best by date on the carton. The older they get, the worse they make your food turn out;
  • DON’T leave the full container of eggs out on the counter. Take the eggs out that you will need for your dish, but don’t leave the container on the counter. Eggs should remain refrigerated at all times. Warming and chilling the eggs rapidly, likewise, is Salmonella’s best bud. Sweating is not good for eggs, or you.
  • DO wash your hands frequently when handling eggs. Even if you’ve cleaned them, you may reintroduce bad bacteria from other surfaces in your kitchen, or on tools that you’ve been using;
  • DON’T taste batters or anything made with raw eggs unless you are using Davidson’s Safest Choice® or other pasteurized (not pasture) eggs;
  • DO wash any spatula, whisk, etc. occasionally during cooking to reduce the risk of reintroducing bacteria to foods already past the temp point where they cook off;
  • DON’T use utensils with wooden spoons or forks to prepare or serve eggs. They can harbor bacteria that is conveyed to the cooked food.

BRANDS I CAN RECOMMEND:

There are very few American egg producers that can hold a candle to the European ones. These are my top picks that are widely available nationally:

  • Vital Farms Pasture-Raised Alfresco Eggs;
  • Vital Farms Lucky Ladies Pasture-Raised
  • Handsome Brook Farms – Pasture Raised – Another growing pasture producer, their hype is a 10. Their eggs are usually about an 8 to 9. I get more size variation on these than other brands.
  • Whole Organic Pasture Raised Eggs – Other than being a bit too expensive, they are a quality egg, a step or two below Vital.
  • Dare to Dream Pastured Eggs. Usually 30% more costly than Vital, but not 30% better.

BRANDS THAT ARE, IN MY OPINION, A WASTE OF MONEY:

Anything “organic” refers to the feed. The conditions in which the chickens live, which has a lot to do with the kind of eggs that they lay, make most of these little better than the rank-and-file commercial factory egg:

  • Organic Valley “Organic” eggs, in all non-pasture varieties. Nice boxes. They need to up their game in eggs.
  • Eggland’s Best Cage Free – The Big Egg producer is testing the waters of big ticket eggdom. Not far enough, and they could do a LOT to move the scale of pasture production. PASS.
  • Nest Fresh “Free Range” “Non-GMO” eggs. All hype. Free-Range is not Pasture. GMO? Really? They’re eggs, not pea plants.
  • Horizon Organic Free-Range Eggs – Another dairy trying to extend its brand into the egg arena. Go cold turkey, Horizon, and put out the pasture eggs that are worthy of the milk that you produce.
  • The Country Hen, Organic Cage-Free Omega-3 Large Eggs – Uses every hyped ‘biz’ buzzword on the box. Half-dozen. Outrageously overpriced. Egregious hype.

 

 

 

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