Ah, the glorious egg! Who cares if the egg or the chicken came first? This delicious food is loaded with yellow, yummy goodness and all kinds of nutrients. Eggs are a complete protein, so they contain all amino acids. They also contain every B vitamin—talk about a little yolky bundle of happiness! While they do have higher cholesterol content and folks watching their cholesterol or who have diabetes should watch their egg intake, the verdict is still out about whether or not the cholesterol in eggs is necessarily bad. Even so, they can definitely be part of a healthy diet. Eggs have other nutrients like choline and lutein and minerals like iodine and selenium, which are hard to come by in other foods. Plus, a large egg only has around 70 calories.
My husband has chickens at his winery, where we frequently get our eggs—although, lately they’ve gotten a bit old for laying. Chickens usually reach maturity and begin laying eggs around 20 weeks—then they’re prime egg-layers for an average of two years, depending on the breed. This year, they got a few new chicks.
As Jonathan Safran Foer will tell you in Eating Animals, modern chickens have been bred to lay more eggs. A wild hen wouldn’t normally lay more than 10 – 15 eggs per year. Laying hens now produce upwards of 200. Every time a chicken lays an egg, it’s slightly depleted of calcium to create the eggshell, which needs to be replenished properly with food, supplements, or a nutrient-rich soil for outdoor hens. Eggshells and egg size depends on the breed—eggs can naturally be various shapes and colors—even including green or speckled! (My favorite are the pale, minty green ones.) Egg yolk color depends on feed, and usually ranges from pale yellow to bright orange.
When shopping for eggs at the store, consumers should be wary. The farming industry can be pretty gruesome. Foer is not the only one to point out that terms, such as “free range” and “cage free” are relatively meaningless. Food52 recently published a post on the topic. Cruel cages aren’t the only problems with factory farms, though I’ll spare you the details—let’s just say that it’s bad for the animals and the environment. I educate myself about the food I consume because it creates a deeper connection to the ingredients I use.
A few egg terms: “Free range” means only that they have access to the outdoors—which may just be a small opening, and in the cramped, over-crowded factory farms, that may mean that some chickens never see that ray of sunshine. “Cage free” only means they aren’t tightly packed in cages—not that they’re not tightly packed—and they’re not required to provide any outdoor access. “Certified Organic” eggs are federally regulated and these chickens also get outdoor access, plus organic feed. Inadequacies aside, these categories may be slightly better than the alternative, “regular” grocery-store egg. Perhaps with more light shining on Big Agriculture in recent years, things will slowly nudge and shift in a better direction. Of course, for consumers, that comes at a cost, too—if conditions are better, then fewer chickens will be kept, fewer eggs will be laid, and eggs will inflate in cost. The best thing to do is make educated choices that make sense for your budget.
I am very fortunate to live in a city full of farmers and foodies near a lot of rural land, where many people care about where their food comes from and consciously source from local farms. That means local, fresh food is easier to come by—Frederick, MD even has local cheese, booze, sauerkraut, bread, butter… the list goes on. Near us, there’s a farmer who keeps a fridge full of eggs on his front stoop with a marked sign and a money box, where neighbors who learn about the place by word of mouth stop by and pay for a dozen on the honor system. I can get eggs there if the winery’s chickens aren’t laying much and am very fortunate to have an easy supply of farm-fresh eggs at arm’s reach.
When storing eggs, know that if you’re picking them fresh from a chicken coop, they don’t need to be refrigerated—once refrigerated, though, they should be kept cool. The best way to keep eggs fresh, though, is in the refrigerator—they’re best to cook with within a week, though you can keep store-bought eggs refrigerated up to a month after the packing date, and farm-fresh eggs will even keep a bit longer.
However you get or store your eggs, there’s no denying their many uses in the kitchen. Eggs are used to bind ingredients, to emulsify dressings, to leaven cakes, and to thicken custards. They’re used as a glaze, a garnish, and to add color. For me, eggs have become a kitchen staple. I’m all about them!
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