This is the first of a series of articles in which we’ll be focusing on specific foods, and making an effort to break down the differences between what we consider ‘good’ versions of each and their mass-produced cousins.
To kick off the series? What better place to start than the egg?
The egg, featured in Easter and Passover celebrations, is a traditional symbol of spring. But why? Today, eggs don’t have the spring seasonal culinary cachet enjoyed by ramps, morels or asparagus. Eggs are available year-round just about everywhere, but as it turns out, when left to their own devices in nature, hens don’t lay eggs in winter in northern regions like our own.
The ovulation cycle in hens naturally responds to the amount of available light. As the hours of daylight decrease in winter, the number of eggs hens produce decreases. They naturally begin laying again as the hours of daylight increase in spring – an evolutionary gift that ensures a more hospitable environment for the arrival and survival of young chicks.
In modern times in northern climes, we’ve learned to trick the seasonal rhythms of hens by offering winter accommodations that supplement the amount of natural light in winter with the electric kind, leading to a plentiful, year-round supply of eggs.
In his tome On Food and Cooking, author Harold McGee opens his chapter on the egg simply stating, “The egg is one of the kitchen’s marvels, and one of nature’s.” The egg is one of the most versatile ingredients in any kitchen. It makes a meringue light and cerebral, gives pasta its dense, smooth texture, adds sheen to the perfect crust, and, of course, can be glorious served on its own: Scrambled, fried, poached, boiled, baked and even pickled.
But not all eggs are created equal. So how do we know what we’re actually buying when we peruse the stage-lit array of egg cartons at the average supermarket? The answers aren’t as clear as one might hope. I recently surveyed the egg section at a local Whole Foods and was amazed by the selection and price differentials among the myriad of cartons. There were ‘Grade A’ eggs, and ‘Jumbo,’ ‘Extra-large,’ ‘Cage-free,’ ‘Free-range’ and ‘Organic’ eggs. Some cartons boasted, ‘Hormone-free,’ ‘Vegetarian-fed,’ and ‘Omega 3!’
What does it all mean? Not much, actually.
Let’s start with the grades. The USDA grades the quality of eggs based on their interior and exterior characteristics. Grade AA is the highest grade, defined by the USDA as eggs that have, “whites that are thick and firm; yolks that are high, round, and practically free from defects.” Grade A eggs, the variety most commonly found on supermarket shelves, “have characteristics of Grade AA eggs except that the whites are “reasonably” firm.” And those Grade B’s? They’ve got “whites that may be thinner and yolks that may be wider and flatter than eggs of higher grades.” The B’s are generally used as secondary ingredients in other processed foods.
But when it comes to ‘good’ eggs, the grade might not matter. Egg grading is not required by the USDA – it’s an optional service egg producers pay for out-of-pocket. Small local farmers focused on quality rather than volume, whose eggs you’re most likely to find at local farmers markets, generally don’t have the luxury of paying the federal government to stop by to grade their eggs.
When it comes to the size of the eggs, ‘Jumbo,’ ‘Extra-large,’ and ‘Large’ actually mean something specific. The USDA regulates the size labels according to the total weight per dozen eggs. A carton of ‘Jumbo’ eggs weighs 30 ounces per dozen. ‘Extra large’ weighs in at 27 ounces per dozen, and ‘Large’ comes in at 24 ounces per dozen.
But here’s where things start to get confusing. While the USDA regulates the use of quality grades and size labels, they do not regulate the use of terms like ‘cage-free.’ There are several third-party certification and verification programs that regulate the meaning of the terms for their participating farmers, but those meanings can vary from program to program. United Egg Producers, the dominant player in third-party certification of eggs, represents farmers producing roughly 90% of all eggs in the United States. Their program was developed to assure, “consumers, food service professionals, and retailers,” that the eggs they certify come from farms following, “responsible, science-based modern farming production.”
Hmmm…Needless to say, if you’re looking for eggs from small local farms with a focus on quality and a dedication to responsible stewardship of their animals and their land, you’re probably not going to be dealing with the United Egg Producers.
The most commonly-used labels on commercially-sold value-added eggs are ‘cage-free,’ ‘free-range’ and ‘organic.’
‘Cage-free’ typically means the hens are kept in climate-controlled houses where they can roost and socialize, with roughly 1.3 square feet of space allocated for each bird. If the label says, ‘Cage-free,’ it does not mean that the hens producing the eggs have access to the outdoors. In fact, it’s extremely unlikely that they will ever see the outdoors at any point in their lives. Disappointed? Keep in mind that in conventional, factory farming operations, each hen is confined to a cage about the size of a shoe box, for its entire egg-pumping life.
“Free-range” generally means that the hens have some access to the outdoors, although in reality that access often seems like a technicality. In many ‘Free-range’ situations, the hens live in houses similar to ‘cage-free’ hens, but have some access to restricted outdoor areas of dirt, not pasture. Neither the degree of access to the outdoors, nor the size of the restricted outdoor area to which they have access is generally defined by the certifiers.
“Certified organic” eggs must comply with the requirements of the USDA’s National Organic Program. The hens must be kept ‘cage-free,’ fed a diet of 100% organic feed, and kept free of antibiotics, pesticides and hormones. There is no requirement that the hens have access to the outdoors.
If there are no labels on the carton, the eggs inside were likely produced by ‘conventional’ means on a large-scale factory farm. In the conventional factory setting, hens are kept in shoebox-sixed wire cages, stacked floor-to-ceiling in warehouses containing as many as 100,000 hens. These hens are not free to roam, and are fed a diet loaded with antibiotics and hormones. In this environment, say Page Smith and Charles Daniel in their ‘Chicken Book,’ the hens are no longer “a lively creature but merely an element in an industrial process whose product is the egg.”
Clearly, these labels don’t mean what most of us looking for ‘good’ eggs would like to imagine they mean. It’s telling that no ‘official’ label exists for eggs produced by hens that see daylight, spend a lot of time outside, walking in grass, and pecking away at the bugs they evolved to eat, and like to eat. If you’re in search of that nameless sort of egg, your only real option is to ask questions to find local farmers who embrace that approach, and to buy from them directly at your local farmers market, through many of the borough’s fifty-plus CSAs, or to seek them out at one of the growing number of retail shops who deliberately source their eggs from those farmers.
In search of the ‘good’ egg
I recently wandered the Greenmarkets at Union Square and Grand Army Plaza. Farmers were out en masse, selling locally-grown, flowers, produce, cheese, meats and seafood. I was on the hunt for eggs. And then I stumbled across Nestor Tello, standing behind a market table piled high with grey cartons filled with a mixture of brown and blue-green eggs. I introduced myself and asked what makes his eggs different from the supermarket variety. Nestor cocked his head, smiled and said, “The secret? My chickens are happy chickens.”
Nestor and his wife Alejandra came to the U.S. from Colombia, where Nestor had studied and practiced veterinary medicine. Looking for a way to leverage his expertise and passion for working with animals, he began working with Grow NYC’s New Farmer Development Project in 2000. What began as a small operation with a hundred chickens has grown into Tello’s Green Farm, a full-fledged farm that Nestor owns and operates in Coxsakie, New York, complete with vegetable fields, beehives, and a flock of over 4,000 birds. Nestor brings his eggs to market at eight Greenmarkets throughout the city, as well as supplying three CSAs and several local restaurants.
Nestor’s flock is comprised of two different breeds: Rhode Island Reds and Araucanas. Rhode Island Reds were first bred in the 1920s in Little Compton, Rhode Island, and are popular with farmers who share Nestor’s approach because they’re friendly, resistant to illness, thrive in free-range settings, and typically lay 5-6 brown eggs per week. Araucanas were bred in the 1930s from two breeds native to northern Chile. They’re known for being graceful, friendly, and intelligent, but are perhaps best loved for their beautiful blue-green eggs. (The color of an egg’s shell is determined by the breed of the hen that lays it. Shell color doesn’t affect flavor, although the hen’s diet can.)
Nestor describes his chickens as ‘free-range,’ but they enjoy far more access to pasture than that official label requires – they peck and forage in grass throughout the year. Nestor supplements their foraged food with corn and other natural, vegetarian ingredients, but he does not use any hormones or antibiotics. The results? Colorful eggs with intensely yellow yolks, notably firm whites, and a beautifully rich flavor; eggs I felt good about eating. If you stop by one of Nestor’s Greenmarket stands to pick up a dozen of his eggs, you’ll see a man who loves what he does and that passion is reflected in the quality of his product.
Eggs in the kitchen
To wrap up our look at the incredible, edible egg, we wanted to delve into the difference between those ‘good’ eggs and the rest when it comes to actually eating them.
Where to turn? An expert of course. We found our egg guru at (where else) Egg, Williamsburg’s outrageously popular farm-to-table breakfast and lunch spot, where we spoke with managing chef Ed Quish.
So Ed, Serious Eats staged a blind taste test with eggs from free-range pastured hens and mass-produced supermarket eggs a couple of years ago and found that people generally couldn’t tell the difference.
As someone who has worked with a lot of eggs, in a restaurant called Egg no less, what do you see as the key differences between ‘good’ eggs and the rest? Can you tell the difference? Does it matter?
In my experience, eggs from pastured hens are definitely richer. The yolk is noticeably richer, with deeper color. Pastured hens’ varied diet gives them access to a lot more natural nutrients that contribute flavor and richness to the eggs.
They also have a stronger structure. At Egg we cook a lot of over-easy eggs. We flip a lot of eggs, and eggs from chickens that have a more natural diet and life stay together a little bit better. They have nice perky inner whites which look beautiful – they look like your ideal image of what an egg should look like, and that’s because they’re eating a diet that’s more naturally suited to what they evolved to eat.
The other thing that I think is really beautiful about pastured eggs is that they vary. If a chicken one week forages and gets a lot of bugs, you’re going to get particularly rich and flavorful eggs. And as the seasons change, the hardness of the shell and the color of the yolk changes, because what they’re eating changes. Seeing those changes in the eggs can make you more in tune with the season and with the actual lives of the chickens producing those eggs.
If you’re getting factory eggs you’re getting a factory product that pretty far removed from what nature intended in a lot of ways. It’s going to be the same every time, and it’s inferior.
I’ve never done a blind taste test between factory eggs and pastured eggs. I can’t even remember the last time I had a factory egg, but I will always remember the first time I had a ‘real’ egg. I was really impressed with everything about it in comparison to factory eggs, and I remember feeling like there was no going back.
So blind taste tests miss the point?
There are all these ancillary benefits to eggs from chickens that live the way they’re supposed to. It’s better for the chickens. It’s better for farming as a whole – the way we farm and the way we think about what farming means – when the animals we rely on for food are eating what they evolved to eat and what they want to eat. And it’s important to support small farmers who are trying to do things the right way, rather than factory farms who are just about efficiency and quantity and who have no concern for what’s ethical, no concern for respecting nature and the animals we rely on.
And for me, blind taste test or not, I think the difference in the quality is pretty clear.
What have you learned about eggs having worked so extensively with them? Any advice?
People tend to think that cooking an egg is one of the simplest things to cook. But in reality, it’s not that simple. To make a great egg you have to be really focused. If you’re making scrambled eggs, you have to make sure the heat is just right, and the movement is just right, you have to be patient, control the heat, and keep them moving constantly to develop those really soft delicate, and moist curds you’re going for. When you’re making eggs, you don’t want to be doing anything else. You want to be really paying attention to what you’re doing, watching the curds develop and watching the texture.
I think that’s the secret. If your heat is too low, they’ll take too long to cook and they’ll end up getting pasty. If you don’t move the eggs enough they’ll get hard, dense and dry. The key is really controlling the temperature, keeping them moving, and paying close attention. We add a little whole butter to ours at Egg to add a little richness, but that’s it.
As a chef, I really enjoy working with eggs. They’re so variable. Cooking them requires patience and focus. Each egg is different, so you have to pay attention to each one, and to how they change throughout the seasons. Each egg requires something different to cook them perfectly.
Where to find ‘good’ eggs in Brooklyn
In Brooklyn, we have the good fortune to have relatively easy access to good eggs – they can be found at just about every one of the borough’s Greenmarkets and farmers markets, through many of the borough’s fifty-plus CSAs, and at a growing number of retail shops. We’ve put together a list of shops carrying eggs produced by local farmers. Some of these farmers pasture their hens, allowing them to forage in grass. Others use the ‘free-range’ approach, in which the hens are kept in a hen house and don’t forage. None of the farmers listed here cage their hens or use antibiotics or hormones.
– Brooklyn Heights –
Iris Café – Eggs: Finger Lakes Farms, a collective of farms in the Finger Lakes region of upstate NY (Pastured)
20 Columbia Place between State and Joralemon
– Carroll Gardens –
Court Street Grocers – Eggs: Knoll Krest Farm, Clinton Corners, NY (Free-range)
485 Court Street, between Nelson and Huntington
Stinky Bklyn – Eggs: Westwind Farm, Interlaken, NY (Pastured)
215 Smith Street, between Butler and Baltic
– Clinton Hill –
Brooklyn Victory Garden – Eggs: Meadow Creek Farms, Interlaken, NY (Pastured)
920 Fulton Street, between Washington Ave and St. James Place
– Cobble Hill –
Brucie – Eggs: Lancaster Farm Fresh Cooperative, a collective of farmers in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania (Pastured)
234 Court Street, between Baltic and Kane
– DUMBO –
Foragers Market – Eggs: Foragers’ own farm and small neighboring farms in Caanan, NY; Kinderhook Farm, Valatie, NY; Bar None Ranch, Berlin, NY (Pastured)
56 Adams Street, at Front Street
– Greenpoint –
Eastern District – Eggs: Feather Ridge Farm, Elizaville, NY (Free-range)
1053 Manhattan Avenue, between Eagle and Freeman
– Fort Greene –
Greene Grape Provisions – Eggs: Arcadian Pastures, Sloansville, NY (Pastured); Feather Ridge Farm, Elizaville, NY (Free-range)
753 Fulton Street, between South Elliott and South Portland
– Park Slope –
Bklyn Larder – Eggs: Meadow Creek Farm, Interlaken, NY (Pastured)
227 Flatbush Avenue, between Bergen and St. Marks
Fleishers Grass-Fed & Organic Meats – Eggs: Brookside Farm, Gardner, NY (Pastured)
192 5th Avenue, between Union and Berkeley
Valley Shepherd Creamery – Eggs: Amber Field Farm, Lebanon, NJ (Pastured); Feather Ridge Farm, Elizaville, NY (Free-range)
211 7th Avenue, between 2nd and 3rd
– Williamsburg –
Bedford Cheese Shop – Eggs: Quaker Hill Farm, Ghent, NY (Free-range)
229 Bedford Avenue, at North 6th
The Brooklyn Kitchen – Eggs: Pasture Run Farm Fresh, a cooperative of Pennsylvania farmers (Pastured)
100 Frost Street, between Manhattan and Leonard
Depanneur – Eggs: Feather Ridge Farm, Elizaville, NY (Free-range)
242 Wythe Avenue, at North 3rd
Marlow & Daughters – Eggs: Kinderhook Farms, Valatie, NY; Lancaster Farm Fresh Cooperative, PA (both Pastured)
95 Broadway between Berry and Bedford
Who did we miss? Let us know in the comments and we’ll add them.