By Adam Centamore.
The incredible, edible egg
It’s one of the world’s most perfect foods, a self-contained powerhouse of nutrition. Full of protein and vitamins, it helps boost bone health, liver function, and our immune system. Used in cooking and baking, it’s the darling of diets, the star of breakfast, and even an important part of winemaking. In the world of food, there’s nothing else like it. As first advertised in 1976, it’s the incredible, edible egg.
Humans have been humans consuming eggs for as long as we’ve been walking the earth. Relatively easy to come by, a great source of protein, and versatile in cooking, eggs have played an important role in human diets since the very beginning of history.
While the most commonly consumed eggs in the world today are chicken, our ancestors were far less picky. Birds and reptiles laid eggs and humans ate them, including those from pelicans, turtles, and crocodiles. In the modern world, these variations still exist but are now shaped and influenced by geography, economic conditions, and cultural traditions.
A little background
So how did eggs wind up being such an important part of our diet? The answer may come from the domestication of fowl, especially chicken, which is thought to have started in China around 6000 BC. Having these birds around meant increased availability of eggs to consume, a particularly valuable benefit because it also meant having an excellent protein source without harming the animal.
As human nutritional reliance on eggs grew over time, so did the number of ways they were utilized in everyday life. Ancient Egyptian bakers used eggs to make breads, early African cultures mixed egg whites into recipes as a thickening agent, and the Romans were fond of turning eggs into tasty cakes and desserts. (A favorite year in egg history for me is 25 BC, when the Roman gourmand Apicius gently cooked honey, milk, and eggs into sweet custard.)
Today, eggs are a global favorite, especially here. The average American eats 286 eggs per year. Overall, the United States produces 75 billion eggs annually. Want to guess which state contributes the most? It’s Iowa! They produce approximately 16.5 billion of the delicious little ovoids.
Egg Label Meanings
When buying eggs, the phrases used on the cartons may not mean all that much. For example, many labels state “all-natural,” which only means they are real eggs created by a real animal. Another popular descriptor is “farm fresh.” While that may suggest those eggs were rushed to the market every morning before dawn by the farmer himself, it actually means… nothing. There is no industry definition for farm-fresh. It’s used to evoke a warm and fuzzy consumer response.
As for “hormone-free” or “no hormones,” that’s another misleading statement. It’s illegal to give hormones to poultry anyway, so there’s no distinction between producers—they are all hormone-free. While “no antibiotics” isn’t a given, the industry rarely uses antibiotics at all, and so it’s not as much of a noteworthy feature as they would like you to think.
There are some indicators that really do mean something. “Organic” refers to a very specific set of required conditions. Organic eggs must come from chickens fed organic feed and raised in a free-range environment with no cages and access to outdoor space. These eggs are regulated by the USDA.
Another important adjective is “pasture-raised.” These chickens spend most of their time outdoors, in an ideal environment. The best farms will even rotate their flocks between different pastures to give the animals the most diversity in their diet and environment possible.
Fresh Eggs: To Refrigerate or Not
Once purchased, the big question is whether to refrigerate or not. Anyone who has been to a market in Europe has seen eggs sitting right out there in the open at room temperature. Visit an American supermarket, however, and all those cartons are in refrigerated cases. So which is it?
It’s all about Salmonella, a bacterium that lives in the intestines of many warm-blooded animals, where it’s no danger. Once it gets into food, it becomes a serious threat. Salmonella can be transmitted one of two ways in eggs— either internally if the hen had it and passed it on to the egg before the shell formed, or externally if the bacteria penetrate the shell.
In the 1970s and 1980s, chicken eggs were responsible for 77% of all the Salmonella cases found in the US. To combat that, the industry started sterilizing eggs before they were packaged and sold. While this treatment can’t do anything about any bacteria already inside the shell, it significantly reduces the number of cases caused by external contamination.
Egg Safety: Consider the Source
This sterilization process is why most commercial eggs are refrigerated. During the process, a thin layer of protection around the shell commonly called the bloom or cuticle is washed away. The bloom is what keeps bacteria from penetrating the shell. Without it, the egg is more susceptible to bacterial spoilage. Refrigeration doesn’t guarantee safety, but it certainly helps. Local farmers do not typically sterilize their eggs, they simply wipe the eggshell with a cloth leaving the bloom intact. If you choose to keep your local eggs out of the fridge, they will be good for a long while but the flavor quickly diminishes within the first few weeks. One important thing to keep in mind—do not store previously refrigerated eggs at room temperature for more than a few hours. Once they come out of the fridge, condensation may form, creating the perfect environment for bacteria to thrive.
Devouring the Egg
Once it’s time to eat, an even bigger question looms. With all the ways you can fry, scramble, bake, pickle, poach, and the other thousand ways to prepare an egg, how should you enjoy them?
One of the most popular ways is the deviled egg. There are as many recipes and techniques for this classic dish as there are people making them. We asked our readers to share some tips. Kate P. shared her technique of baking her eggs instead of boiling them. Stacey W. adds a cajun/creole spice blend and different mustards to her yolks, resulting in a flavor that has people asking, “what is that?” (She even wished us a “great and devilish day.” You too, Stacey!)
Readers also shared tips for peeling hardened eggs, an arduous task for anyone. Rena W. writes, “I have finally found the easiest way to peel eggs, and believe me, I’ve tried everything!” Her secret? Dunking the cooked eggs in an ice bath immediately after cooking. Kate J. offers up another science-backed tip for peeling as well. “Don’t do hardboiled; do hard-cooked.” Cover a layer of eggs in a pan with cold water and bring it to a boil over medium-high heat. Once the water starts to boil, remove it from the heat, cover it, and let it sit for 15 minutes. Immediately after the time is up, run the pan and eggs under cold water. Why? Science. “The cold water keeps the hydrogen in the egg white from combining with sulfur in the yolk, reducing the chance of a green layer outside the yolk.”
When I’m thinking eggs, I look to the French for inspiration. Burgundy’s oeufs cocotte (eggs poached in red wine) is a rich, boldly-flavored breakfast treat. In the northwest, Normandy restaurants serve omelettes vallee d’Auge, an omelette irresistibly sweetened with cream, butter, apples, and the region’s apple brandy, Calvados. I also indulge in the classic egg pie from Lorraine, quiche.
Who can resist eggs baked with bacon and alpine cheese?
One of my favorite ways to enjoy eggs is oeufs au plat Bressanne, baked toast with cream and eggs. Bread slathered with butter is gently sauteed until golden brown, then covered in warm cream, garlic, and herbs. Topped with an egg, each serving is then baked to perfection. Sprinkle some chopped bacon and maybe a dash of shredded cheese over the top if you like. Served with a green salad and some chilled rose wine, it’s just about as good as it gets.
About our author: Adam Centamore is a food & wine educator and writer living on the South Shore. When he’s not haphazardly accosting poultry in the hopes of finding eggs, he’s usually eating chocolate or planning his next culinary adventure abroad. He can be found online at www.eatdrinklearn.com.