Great food always starts with great foodstuffs.
My readers in Europe, and many other parts of the world may not know why I’m on about sourcing your eggs. In most parts of the world, where there isn’t factory egg farming, as it’s practiced in the United States, eggs are expected to be big, healthy, nutritional, tasty things.
If you pop open a conventional US egg, next to a top-of-the-line pasture-raised egg, it’s like night and day: One is pale and putrid looking. The other is golden to yellow-orange and full of nutrition.
You are what you eat, so let’s understand what we’re eating!
The Four Kinds of Eggs (US)
Healthy eggs start with best practices at the farm.
There are four basic kinds of farming methods for egg-laying hens:
Birds crammed into small cages, in windowless barns, eating a science diet that produces anemic-looking eggs. They are cheap, but they are not very healthy.
Conventional eggs are laid by hens given hormones. and antibiotics, that end up in their eggs, and you.
Their eggs 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.
Chickens are still in kept in dense packs in bigger enclosures. Not much better, and, not surprisingly, studies don’t find much improvement in the quality of the eggs over the conventional.
Humane Farm Animal Care’s Certified Humane® sets the “Free Range” standards, as there is no Federal standard.
That’s a poulty-puny .19sq.m/2 sq.ft. per bird. These chickens still don’t move around too much.
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.
You’ll get romantic copy about ‘sunlit porches’ and other marketing mendacities (lies).
It is a bit more humane, but not much. There is no data suggesting that the quality of the actual egg is better, yet you pay more for them.
Only one egg category has been materially shown to be better for both the birds, and YOU.
It should be a no-brainer.
We’ve known, for more than ten years, that pasture farming is better for both us, and the birds who lay the eggs.
The eggs, side-by-side with a conventional egg, look different. They’re richer, more orange in color, with the extra beta-carotene in the hens’ diet.
It’s taken at least that long for widespread, commercially viable pasture farming of chickens to make a big dent in the markets.
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 where they graze must be rotated, which allows the earth to rest. Chicken scat is washed into the soil, which is consumed by the plants, worms, and bugs in the ecosystem.
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.
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:
- 33% less cholesterol;
- 25% less saturated fat;
- 66% more vitamin A;
- 200% more omega-3 fatty acids;
- 300% more vitamin E;
- 700% more beta carotene
How to Buy Great Eggs
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! Buy pasture-raised eggs.
The pasture category is not only getting more crowded, but it’s diversifying.
When I first wrote this article, there was only one producer, nationally, of pasture raised: Vital Farms, a Texas producer which was kick-started with some Whole Foods’ venture capital money.
It now has more than 90 family farms all over the United States that pasture-raise their eggs, selling under the Vital Farms red dot.
Their eggs run $5-7/box, depending on your area, and how competitive the pasture-raised category is getting. They’re an eggscellent choice (sorry), nationally, but no longer the only one.
New Breed on the Block – Heritage Eggs
One of the new wrinkles, in 2020, are premium eggs from “Heritage Breed” hens. They’re chicken sub-species from the pre-industrial farm days. Eggs that you’d more commonly see from small, local producers at a farmer’s market. One company, nationally, features them, although you can find many local producers that hit farmers’ markets with them.
The Happy Egg Co.
The Happy Egg Co. offers both price-competitive eggs to Vital Farms, and a premium “Heritage Breed” egg, which is very pricey, about $8.19/dozen here in Florida, as of this writing, but the results of what they do to transform recipes… Look at my Swedish pancakes, made with Heritage Breed eggs:
See how much the added beta carotene in the egg brings out the color of the pancake?
The taste, which depends on the egg, also amps up quite a bit, even from other pasture-grade eggs like Vital Farms, or The Happy Egg company’s regular pasture-raised.
Does the Shell Color Matter?
No, and yes.
No. All chicken eggs’ taste is a function of their diet, exercise, and, for some breeds, their emotional state. There’s a reason that some breeds were not heavily used for mass egg production. They just aren’t wired for it. Close proximity makes them insane. An insane bird doesn’t produce.
So, yes. White eggs are almost always from factory-farm, mass-production hens. They’re from Leghorns, the most common chicken sub-species. Farmers, and scientists, have used breeding to encourage higher egg production of an easier-to-use egg, with a thinner shell. The conditions in which the hens are kept also contributes to the more fragile eggshell.
Non-white eggs are better.
They come in many varieties. The most common? Brown; and blue. A few heritage breeds produce eggs that are: Speckled brown; green; and even chocolate-colored.
White ain’t right because the hens live in crowded dens, but, if they’re pasture raised, brown gets the crown; blue’s got a cool hue; and no one gets heckled for using a rare speckled.
Egg Labels Worth Knowing
(Not Pasture-Raised) – Davidson’s Safest Choice® are conventional eggs, but they’ve been pasteurized in the shell.
They’re useful for making cold dishes, from high protein smoothies, to caesar salads, to ice creams in the Ben & Jerry’s recipe style, where you want the safety of a “clean” egg that is certified free of harmful bacteria.
For my germaphobes, don’t spend the money on these, if you only eat cooked eggs. When you cook eggs, where the heat rises above 59°c / 138°F it kills any potential bacteria.
Pasteurized eggs are conventional eggs. They lack nutritional value.
Since we generally don’t worry about the nutritional value of ice cream, though, and smoothies are generally packed with other nutrients, pasteurized eggs are really only best for cold applications of raw egg.
Davidson labels such eggs with a blue “P” to let you know that the egg has been pasteurized.
Egg Labeling That’s Total Hype
Label “lures” – Egg purveyors put all kinds of nonsense out there on the boxes to lure you to spend more money on buzzwords that they know you’ll fall for.
- GMO-Free. The PC pitch. Pasture-raised birds’ feed has to comport to that standard already to be pasture-raised. Pure marketing hype, right up there with the “gluten free” label that I saw on one brand of chicken. Silly.
- Organic – The other big pitch. We’re conditioned to think “organic” anything is better. Here, it just means that the feed that the birds receive, if they’re grain fed, is organic grain. That’s good, though, right? Not really. Organic grain can be the low-grade leftovers of organic grain products for humans. The remnants, lacking nutrition, are used in conventional egg operations, often with cheaper nutrient boosters. As long as the grain was raised organically, it passes the label test.
- Omega-3 boosts – Farms touting this on their boxes usually add flax to the diets of their mass-production hens. It may make a caged hen’s mediocre egg a bit better, but they’re still eggs lower in nutrition, when compared to a pasture-raised egg. Pasture-raised are naturally higher in Omega 3, and outstrip the “diet-augmented” caged egg.
Most Omega-3 is wasted by you, though. If you read my article on cooking the perfect egg, you’ll realize that 99% of pros, and home chefs alike, cook most of the Omega 3 out of the eggs anyway, using too much heat.
- 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. Most of them aren’t too PC about downing a worm, or ten.
- Hormones/Antibiotics Free – More marketing mendacities. Laying hens aren’t given hormones ever. Hens requiring antibiotics are taken out of production of eggs for human consumption.
How To Pick Out Great Eggs
Now that you know what the right kind of eggs are to buy, how do you sift out all of the brands?
- What’s a good box of eggs?
- Is it better to buy at the market, or wait for a farm at a farmer’s market?
- What should I watch out for?
What to Watch For:
- Egg brands – Eggs never landed much of a premium, or even much distinction from farm-to farm, until “Egg Beaters” started selling as a low cholesterol diet alternative through good branding. The farms jumped in. 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.
- Carpetbagger Egg Companies – Dairy farms with big names have jumped into eggs to see if you’ll take your brand-loyalty with you.
- Cool box – Pretty packaging isn’t a guarantee of great eggs, but it’s also not a total scam.
- Feel Matters – 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.
- Open the box, and look at the eggs. Pick one up.
- Shells should be solid, not thin. Put a thin commercial egg and a pasture egg in each hand. Don’t worry if anyone is staring at you in the egg aisle. You can feel the difference.
- 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 there is a decided bacterial smell, or a strong whiff of sulfur which salmonella bacteria put out, avoid.
- Condition of the Box Matters – If the box 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 Matters – Look 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 THAT THEY’VE CRACKED UP TO BE
There are a growing number of people who raise their own chickens in their back yards, or on small farms, trying to cash in on the farm-to-table movement by selling them at roadside stands, farmer’s markets, etc.
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.
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 if the eggs are their production. If no, where do they source their eggs?
- 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 little to no oversight.
- See how the eggs are stored at the point of sale.
A cooler that’s minimally below 4°c/40°F is a must! The lower the temp the better, to keep salmonella, which can find its way INSIDE the egg, randomly, from growing.
Thus this “homey” egg display, that you’ll see at many spring, and summer farmers’ markets, is a bacteria farm. Warm eggs provide a breeding ground for salmonella.
If there is any indication that they’ve been out at room temperature, the heat, in the sun, avoid them!
- Some roadside eggs will be in coolers. If the cooler isn’t below 4°c/40°F, take a pass.
- Some roadside eggs will be in coolers. If the cooler isn’t below 4°c/40°F, take a pass.
- Avoid reused 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. If there is any sign of staining, or crusted dry egg on any of the boxes, don’t buy from that vendor!
Local Egg Culture
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.
Transporting Eggs from Farmer’s Markets
Unless the egg hawker is using an actual refrigerator, which is rare, the eggs aren’t kept as cold as your supermarket shelf. If you are hell-bent on buying from outdoor stalls:
- 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
& Store Covered.
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.
Recall that eggs, not in sealed containers, are:
- Handled by people at the egg farm as they’re loaded into boxes.
- Handled by people at the supermarket who should have called in sick, who put them out.
- Handled by the three people who got there before you, opened them and thought… “Nah… I’ll buy the cheaper ones.” who may also have the sniffles.
- Let’s not forget the stuff that might have been spilled on the box, broken egg crates above, etc.
Likewise, popping the box into your fridge can contaminate it, as the boxes themselves can pick up bacteria at the producer, in a storage area, or even on the shelf with other eggs when a crate breaks, and Sparky, the lazy stocker, does a lousy job of cleaning up the mess.
Once in a while, you’ll catch the occasional bit of grass stuck to the shell, or the odd partial feather that falls into any commercial 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.
The eggs are washed at the crating point? Maybe. That doesn’t mean, though, especially for the pasture raised eggs, that they’re entirely clean.
Even Safest Choice® pasteurized eggs’ shells can, because of handling by people down the line, have outer shells with some contamination. An egg or two break, and Sparky, who has been handling other eggs, without washing their hands, switches an egg or two from the broken carton to fill out the dozen.
Safe Handling Practices:
I’m no germaphobe, but egg crates are a whole level of nasty. So, when I get my eggs, I:
- Ask the market to bag the egg crate separately, then put it in my recycle/re-use bag;
- 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 too lukewarm) , one at a time, dipping them in the bath and gently rubbing 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 in cold, clean water to remove any soap residues;.
- Carefully dry them with a clean cheap kitchen towel.
- 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, or use a washable restaurant day tag 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.
- If you need eggs for a recipe, pull them out, then put the unused eggs back into the refrigerator immediately. Many of y’all leave ingredients out on the counter. The warming/cooling repeatedly? Not a good idea, in general, but especially bad for eggs!
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 THAT 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:
- The Happy Egg Company Heritage Breed – Best heritage breed eggs on the market in North America. Hens roam on 8 acres, same as pasture-raised, but Happy doesn’t engage in all of the practices, so they can’t call them “pasture.” Still, an amazing egg. Richest of the commercially produced ones that we’ve tried, with the best cooking characteristics. Expensive, but worth every penny, until more heritage breed eggs compete and drive down prices;
- Vital Farms Pasture-Raised Alfresco Eggs; Vital really walks the walk of pasture-farming. They pioneered the commercial form of pasture-raising hens. They still make the best eggs, overall, in the industry, at the large-scale production level.
- Vital Farms Lucky Ladies Pasture-Raised – Whole Foods. Great if you can find them.
- Handsome Brook Farms – Pasture Raised. The group was sued in the ‘teens for false advertising of pasture-raised. They seem to have their act together today.
- 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.
- Whole Organic Pasture Raised Eggs – The organic is a gimmick, not worth the price. Go Heritage Breed instead;
- The Happy Egg Co. Organic – Pandering to those who put label over common sense. Buy their Heritage Breed eggs instead.
- 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.
It’s a lot of information about eggs, BUT, now that you know, you can buy the right egg for the right task, get better nutrition for your family, and keep your eggs safer until you use them!