The 1977 "incredible, edible egg” ad slogan was both catchy and alliterative. But its brilliance -- and longevity more than 30 years later -- stems from the truth. Eggs are truly incredible, even if you think they’re inedible.
Both naturally beautiful and symmetrical, eggs have inspired and fascinated artists, scientists, farmers and cooks for millennia. Whether or not we enjoy eating eggs, we humans may like the idea of an egg even more — because it is a universal symbol of life and renewal. What has been the egg’s role in cookery through the ages? Below, a selective primer of the ovum and its mother, the hen. (For the purposes of this discussion, we’re covering chicken eggs only.)
The chicken (Gallus domesticus) is believed to have come from various species of jungle fowl native to southeast Asia. According to the Oxford Companion to Food, remains from Chinese sites indicate that the birds could have been domesticated as early as 2,000 BCE. The late food scholar Waverly Root reminds us in FOOD that neither chicken nor eggs are mentioned in the Old Testament. He points to India as the likely first place where humans enjoyed hen eggs as food. Chickens showed up in central Europe around 1500 BCE, according to Root, suggesting that ancient Greeks and Romans preferred the eggs over the birds.
In his cookbook, De Re Coquinaria, first century Roman gastronome Apicius includes several recipes featuring and including eggs, both savory and sweet (including early versions of an omelet and baked custard). Here’s one for soft-boiled eggs in a pine nut sauce. Cato the Elder had a recipe for a sweet cheesecake (known as libum) that included eggs, probably for leavening.
By 1400, the French and English were writing recipes for baked eggs, omelets and custards, but the 17th century is when the egg became an essential element of French cookery. Pierre Francois de la Varenne, who is best known for Le Cuisinier francois, the founding text of modern French cookery, was an egg enthusiast. In his massive volume, published in 1651, La Varenne uses egg whites to clarify aspic and creates asparagus with hollandaise:
“Choose the largest, scrape the bottoms and wash, then cook in water, salt well, and don't let them cook too much. When cooked, put them to drain, make a sauce with good fresh butter, a little vinegar, salt, and nutmeg, and an egg yolk to bind the sauce; take care that it doesn't curdle; and serve the asparagus garnished as you like.”
In his subsequent volume, Le Patissier francois, La Varenne includes “the way to prepare every sort of Egg Dish for lean and other days in more than sixty ways” that include omelets, poached eggs and “various sorts of egg mermelade.”
In her 1837 cookbook, Directions for Cookery, in its Various Branches, American author and domestic diva Eliza Leslie (known as Miss Leslie) details the steps for boiling and poaching eggs, as well as a “plain omelet” and “omelet souffle.” She doesn’t inspire much confidence in the home cook: “If you live in a large town” Leslie writes, the safest way of avoiding a failure in an omelet souffle is to hire a French cook to come to your kitchen with his own utensils and ingredients, and make and bake it himself, while the first part of the dinner is progressing in the dining-room.” Her tips for preserving eggs in the pre-refrigeration era: parboiling, then “burying them in powdered charcoal.”
An 1898 book, Eggs, and How to Use Them, is described as “a guide for the preparation of eggs in more than 500 different styles with some reference to their importance in the past and present times.” In his author’s note, American chef Adolphe Meyer writes: “Like woman, when an egg is good, there is nothing better; when it is bad, there is nothing worse.”
At the turn of the 20th century, northern California would be ground zero for commercial egg production, beginning with the first commercial hatchery. In 1918, the town of Petaluma would open the country’s first egg ranch, and by 1929 had the country’s largest hatchery. Both the invention of the incubator and the introduction of artificial lighting in chicken coops set the stage for commercial egg production and the beginning of an era of chicken coops, machine-washed, rather than hand-washed, eggs -- and ultimately CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations) -- factory-farming billions of eggs on a monthly basis.
- The egg cream, the iconic soda fountain drink of New York and Philadelphia, is made from neither eggs nor cream. The treat is a mixture of milk, chocolate syrup and seltzer water whose frothy top resembles beaten egg whites.
- The egg has figured into many expressions with myriad connotations. Are you a “good” or a “bad” egg? A “good egg” is someone you can trust. A “bad egg”? Not so much.
- A “nest egg” refers to retirement savings. But “don’t put all your eggs in one basket” is a cautionary tale – don’t risk everything all at once. If you have “egg on your face”, you’re embarrassed, and if someone calls you an “egghead”, you’re probably a bookworm. Ever feel like you’re “walking on eggshells?”
- The egg also is rich in symbolism across cultures and religions. Historically, Catholics are forbidden from eating eggs during Lent, so they would save them to eat on Easter. A roasted egg (known as baytsah) is part of the Passover seder plate as a symbol of resilience and sacrifice of enslaved Israelites. In preparation for Easter, Greek Orthodox observers bake tsoureki, a sweet bread that is decorated with hard-boiled eggs dyed red (representing the blood of Christ).
- Thomas Jefferson had a thing for “snow eggs” (oeufs a la neige) a dessert also known as floating island, a poached meringue that sits on top of a custard. His enslaved chef James Hemings created the recipe.
- Since 1878, the White House has hosted an Easter Egg Roll the Monday after Easter. President Rutherford B. Hayes was the first to open the gates of the south lawn and invite children, who in previous years had rolled eggs on the grounds of the Capitol, much to the disdain of local police.
- Why are eggs sold by the dozen? Was it a practical decision on the part of the industry? Or was it a symbol of Jesus’ disciples, as one source suggests?
- Powdered eggs were used during World War II, both here and in the UK, not only to feed the troops but as a substitute during egg rations.
The top five egg-producing states are Iowa, Ohio, Indiana, Pennsylvania and California, representing half of all laying hens. Per capita consumption in 2011 was 247 eggs. That means as a country, we put away more than 77 billion eggs. In August 2013, our nation’s laying hens produced nearly 7 billion eggs. The US also exports eggs to Mexico, Canada, Japan and Hong Kong.
A hen does not need a rooster to lay eggs. (He’s only necessary to fertilize eggs and make more chicks.) She’s born with a reservoir of ova that are released one at a time sometime after she’s five or six months. Typically, a hen can lay an egg in about 24 hours, and has the potential to produce regularly for a few years, if not longer. This short video walks you through this remarkable process.
Egg-laying hens are extremely light sensitive and are most productive from the vernal equinox to late summer, when there is at least 12 hours of daylight. Farmers’ market shoppers (and backyard chicken farmers) know first hand that as the days get shorter, egg production slows down, and there are fewer eggs for sale. Eggs are a year-round commodity because hens live indoors under artificial light. But even under these conditions, they still need 10 hours of light a day.
In 2010, factory farmed eggs were at the center of a multi-state salmonella outbreak that resulted in a nationwide recall of more than half a billion eggs, which the FDA characterized as one of the largest recalls in recent history. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), approximately 1,939 people became sick from salmonella associated with the egg outbreak over a seven-month period in 2010. The responsible party was DeCoster Egg Farms, a multi-state operation headquartered in Iowa and the third largest producer in the country at that time. Operating under several brands, DeCoster was among a small group of mega-farms with more than five million “layers.” The outbreak prompted a Congressional hearing as well as criminal and civil lawsuits. In 2011, DeCoster got out of the egg business.
The DeCoster episode is a dramatic illustration of the pitfalls of industrialized agriculture. According to the American Egg Board, 95 percent of all laying hens are under the control of just 247 companies. 59 of those companies oversee flocks of 1 million-plus hens. When we think of CAFOs, we tend to think of cattle or pigs, but these numbers show us that eggs are no different.
Perhaps it takes a massive foodborne illness of this scale for the public to challenge the industrial status quo and push for smaller-scale and local means of production and distribution, from urban backyard chicken farming to farmers’ markets and CSAs. It is difficult to track growth of pastured eggs produced on small farms because there is no legal or regulated definition of “pastured” in the eyes of the USDA, so no data is collected. And the term “free range” is used to classify and label (and regulate) poultry meat only – not eggs – which means an egg company can get away with “free range” labeling without any legal repercussions.
In 2010, California passed AB37, a bill that would mandate animal welfare standards for egg-laying hens. As of January 2015, all whole “shell eggs” for sale must come from hens living with enough room to spread their wings. The future of AB 1437 hung in the balance last fall when a congressman from Iowa (the leading egg state) introduced an amendment to the Farm Bill that would have nullified state and local laws concerning the manufacture and production of agricultural products. Authored by Rep. Steve King (R-IA), the Protect the Interstate Commerce Act (aka the King amendment) met bipartisan resistance and ultimately was left out of the Farm Bill passed this February.
Our advice: Whenever possible, buy eggs from an individual who can speak directly to the diet and living conditions of the hens, whether they have access to the outdoors, the size of the flock and how the hens are cared for. At the store, look for eggs that have been independently certified; we’re fans of the Animal Welfare Approved label.
If you’d like to take egg matters into your own hands, you may want to consider backyard chicken farming, a practice that is experiencing a revival in cities and suburbs around the country. Start by researching the local chicken-farming ordinances where you live. Online communities such as Backyard Chickens include everything you need to know, from building a coop to raising chicks.
In addition to the yolk and white (aka albumen), the other interior of a chicken egg contains the chalazae, a network of squiggly white strands that help anchor the yolk inside the white. A prominent bunch of chalazae is a sign of freshness. It is perfectly safe to eat. This basic pictorial gives a quick overview of chicken egg anatomy.
Most commercially available chicken eggs weigh from 1.5 to 2.5 ounces, and their sizes are determined by the USDA:
Small: 1.5 ounces
Medium: 1.75 ounces
Large: 2 ounces
Extra Large: 2.25 ounces
Jumbo: 2.5 ounces
The USDA also grades eggs at the request of an egg producer. The three grades are AA, A and B, based on “the appearance and condition of the egg shell” as well as the quality of the yolk and white. The color of the yolk depends on what the hen eats. If it’s free to roam and eat plants and flowers on pasture, its yolk will be a more intense yellow or even orange. If the hen feeds on corn and soybean meal in confined conditions, the yolk will be lighter in color.
Occasionally, blood spots appear on the yolk. They are the result of a ruptured blood vessel and are harmless. You can remove it with the tip of a knife.
Eggshell color is not an indicator of flavor, nutritive value or quality, but of chicken breed. A hen with white earlobes will lay white eggs, and a hen with red earlobes will lay brown, blue or green eggs. Farmers’ market shoppers may encounter gorgeous blue/green eggs from the Araucana and Ameraucana breeds.
What to look for
You want clean, uncracked shells and eggs that are not stuck to the carton. If you’re unsure of the freshness of your eggs, place one in a bowl of water. If it sinks, it’s fresh.
But that’s the easy part. Navigating the sea of labels on egg cartons is both daunting and confusing. My Ecocentric colleagues compiled this shopping guide with the scoop on egg carton labels, from free-range to organic.
Nutritional vice or virtue? That’s the question Americans have been asking about the egg over the past four decades. On the one hand, the egg is high in protein – more than 6 grams in a large egg – at just 72 calories. On the other hand, the egg is undisputedly high in cholesterol – about 215 milligrams – about three-fourths of the daily maximum recommended by the American Heart Association (AHA). Concerned about dietary cholesterol’s link to higher risk of heart disease, the medical community went on the egg offensive in the 1970s and 1980s. The American Heart Association issued guidelines in 1972 recommending a maximum of three eggs per week. (Ironically, it was the same year that the high-fat/low-carb Dr. Atkins’ Diet Revolution was first published). But two major studies published in 1999 were instrumental in changing public perception about eggs.
Harvard researchers found that moderate egg consumption – up to 1 egg per day – did not increase the risk of heart disease among healthy people and because of its vast reserve of many other nutrients, could be part of a healthy diet. In 2000, the AHA, citing the Harvard studies, relaxed its recommendations for dietary cholesterol and cautiously permitted “periodic consumption of eggs and shellfish.”
As for its other nutritional benefits, the egg, particularly the yolk, is rich in Vitamins A and D. It is also an excellent source of choline, a little-known B vitamin that supports the nervous system, the brain and liver detoxification, to name a few. In fact, the egg serves up all the B vitamins – B1, B2, B3, B5, B6, B12, biotin and folic acid. It’s well endowed with several minerals, including manganese, selenium and iodine. The one thing it’s lacking? Fiber.
But are all eggs equally nutritious? That’s what Mother Earth News magazine wanted to find out. In 2007, the magazine tested the nutritive value of pastured eggs from 14 different small flocks around the country and compared it against USDA nutrient data for “conventional eggs” from factory farms. The study concluded that the pastured eggs contained: one-third less cholesterol, one-fourth less saturated fat, twice as much omega-3 fatty acids and seven times more beta carotene to name a few.
Despite its wellspring of nutrients, the egg is a common food allergen. After cow’s milk, the egg is one of the most common food allergies among children. Because certain vaccines contain egg protein, we recommend consulting your medical provider before any immunizations.
In 1992, the state of New Jersey made headlines for the country’s first-ever ban of serving raw or undercooked eggs in restaurants. Citing an increased risk for salmonella poisoning, the state put a kibosh on preparations such as fried eggs “over easy,” soft-boiled eggs or a traditional Caesar salad (which traditionally includes a raw-egg dressing). The ban has since relaxed; in 2009, the Food and Drug Administration’s Food Code, allows restaurants to use raw and undercooked eggs provided that a food warning is visibly posted on signage or on a menu.
What to Do with It
Let’s get cracking: Tap the side of the egg on a hard surface – but not your main mixing bowl or skillet. When adding eggs to a batter, always crack into a smaller bowl, not directly into the mixture, in case of shell breakage or egg defects.
There are enough ways to prepare eggs to arguably keep you entertained for a month. Here’s a sampler of the myriad ways you can have fun with eggs:
- Coddled: Eggs are cooked individually in cups and gently steamed in a water bath (aka bain marie)
- Shirred: Aka oeufs en cocotte, eggs are baked with cream and cheese
- Poached: Eggs are poured into a shallow pan and cook gently in a simmering liquid
- Hard-cooked: Otherwise known as hard-boiled, whole eggs are placed in a water that’s just come to a boil, then cook passively for at least 10 minutes, or until both the yolk and white solidify. Eggs are placed in ice water for 5 minutes to ease peeling.
- Deviled/stuffed: Taking hard-cooked eggs to another level. Cooked eggs are peeled and sliced in half. Yolks are scooped out and are traditionally seasoned with mustard, mayonnaise and a variety of spices. The yolk filling is stuffed back into the white halves.
- Scrambled: Eggs are beaten, then cooked in fat over low-medium heat, then stirred to create gently “scrambled” curds. For the most voluptuous of curds, try them this way, with a whisk, and a few pats of butter.
- Omelet: In which beaten eggs are poured into a hot skillet and cooked vigorously with a fork, then folded. (Fillings optional.)
- Fried eggs: Sunny side up means fried on just one side, with a still-runny yolk and the whites barely set. I like to think of it as the rare steak of the egg world. “Over easy” means that the egg will get folded in half, and the egg is still slightly runny. Keep cooking for another minute or so, and you’ll have an egg “over medium.”
And that barely scratches the surface. There are a slew of egg-based emulsified sauces – from mayonnaise to hollandaise. Then there are egg pies (fritattas) and tarts (quiches), and egg-battered goodies, like French toast, egg whites beaten and baked into meringues, egg custards frozen into ice cream. You get the idea.
Eggs are extremely porous and readily absorb odors, so keep in cartons rather than those trays built into the door of your refrigerator. Leftover egg whites freeze well (particularly in ice cube trays), but egg yolks don’t do as well in the freezer. Store yolks in a small airtight container and use up within a few days.
Egg whites at room temperature whip more readily than those just out of the refrigerator. But whether whole eggs at room temperature make lighter, fluffier cakes is a matter of debate among bakers. According to America’s Test Kitchen, which conducted an experiment last year, the difference is slight for basic cake batters.
General rule of thumb: The volume of a standard large egg is about 1⁄4 cup, the yolk comprising about 1 tablespoon. The smaller the egg, the higher ratio of yolk, and an “eggier” result, both in texture and flavor.
Use the freshest eggs for poaching; the whites are thicker and will coagulate neatly around the yolk. Use week-old eggs for hard-cooked preparation; the shell is easier to peel.
When cooking scrambled eggs for a crowd, cook in small batches and over low heat to minimize the risk of your eggs turning an unsightly shade of green. And if you’re making them in advance, avoid direct heat to keep them warm.
Check out 5 Common Scrambled Eggs Mistakes from Bon Appetit.
4 to 6 large eggs
1⁄2 to 1 teaspoon salt
Ground black pepper
3 tablespoons olive oil (neutral oil is also fine, and so is butter)
1⁄2 medium-size yellow storage onion or 1 shallot bulb, peeled and sliced thinly
- Beat the eggs and season with salt and pepper.
- In a 10 or 12-inch ovenproof skillet, heat the oil over medium heat. Add the onion and cook until slightly softened, about five minutes.
Add-on options while onion is cooking:
Up to 1⁄2 cup sweet peppers, diced
1 medium (or 2 small) potatoes, cut into half and then into thin half moons, parboiled in salted water for about 4 minutes, drained and patted dry.
Add-on options after the onions have softened:
About 4 cups greens (chard, spinach, baby kale or mustard greens), stemmed and coarsely chopped or cut into chiffonade: Turn with tongs to coat with the onions and oil, season with salt, pepper and/or chili flakes, squeeze of lemon, and allow to wilt, about 4 minutes. (Add a drop or two of water if the pan gets dry.)
1 to 2 cups zucchini or summer squash, sliced into thin rounds (an additional tablespoon of oil may be needed): Saute – in batches if necessary – until tender and just slightly softened and maybe a little brown, 5 to 8 minutes, then season with salt and pepper.
- Reduce heat to medium-low and distribute the cooked vegetables evenly in the skillet.
- Pour the beaten eggs on top, tilting the skillet to ensure even distribution.
Add-on options after the eggs are added:
1⁄4 cup chopped fresh parsley, mint, cilantro, basil, dill, or 1⁄2 teaspoon dried oregano or thyme: Sprinkle evenly on top of the eggs.
- Cover and cook until the eggs are just set, about 15 minutes.
- Preheat the oven to the broiler setting.
Cheesy add-on options to be sprinkled on before the broiler:
About 1⁄4 cup feta, ricotta, goat cheese or grated hard cheese (Parmigiano-Reggiano, pecorino)
- Transfer the skillet to the oven and broil, 3 to 4 minutes. You’ll see that the frittata will puff and brown.
- Remove the skillet from the oven and allow to cool for a few minutes. Slice into wedges and eat warm or at room temperature.
Makes 4 to 6 servings.