Eggs are not to be taken for granted. A good one is to be treasured, a chest of gold… And a very good one is much harder to find than it should be. We are sadly so accustomed to bland or even stale eggs that a fresh one gathered from the hen house that morning, should we be so lucky, is a revelation.
What dictates best flavour in an egg? Freshness is the key factor, and the freshest eggs also perform better in cooking. Cracking a newly laid egg demonstrates this: the yolk and white are still so intact the egg can be almost reluctant to leave its shell. These are the eggs to poach for the perfect rounded profile (have you ever had a poached egg that literally fell flat? That is probably because the egg was on the older end of its 28-day-shelf-life and had lost its elasticity, its bounce). Newly laid eggs are, however, harder to peel when hard-boiled for a salad, so better to use eggs at least four or five days old for that purpose. Skip to recipes
How old is old? Eggs up to five or six days old should taste discernibly better and be capable of performing better in recipes than the same egg one or more weeks later. (The best professional kitchens will get eggs a day or two old to use within the week.) A middle-aged egg is less viscous and somewhat easier to separate since the white is beginning to break down; and a stale one nearly pours out of its shell closer to liquid form, which makes it harder rather than easier to separate (more prone to yolk-breakage), less voluminous in a meringue, and to my tastebuds, stale in taste as well.
How do we guarantee ourselves the freshest eggs? Not everyone can, or wants to, nurture hens; and frankly, we shouldn’t have to, should we? With the price of eggs being what they are – up to 47 pence each for organic – isn’t freshness something we should be able to count on? Well, no, unless you count fresh as four weeks old – and if you do that’s fine from a health perspective since a month-old egg won’t make you sick. But will it taste as good and make for soufflés, omelettes, crepes, custards, fresh pastas, Yorkshires and cakes as good? I say not.
EU legislation requires that the maximum best-before date on eggs must be 28 days from lay; so to calculate when they were laid, subtract 28 from the best-before date. Eggs have to be collected from farms twice a week, and the British Egg Industry Council (whose “British Lion” you see stamped on UK-farmed eggs) claims that most UK producers’ eggs are delivered to supermarkets within 48 hours. Legally eggs can be 10 days old when they reach the shelves (“Extra Fresh” are nine days or younger). Some retailers promise to get them on the shelves within seven days, which implies this is considered quick. So most likely the best you can do at the supermarket is buy eggs that are one week old – not bad, when it works.
But for me, that’s on the border as the taste and definitely the texture decline noticeably, if not at all disastrously, when eggs are over one week old. This matters in some uses more than others, but I try to buy them just before I use them, and use them quickly. I do treat them like a pantry ingredient to have on hand (as my mother-in-law Joy says, ‘if you have an egg, you have a meal’), but when I want to have the freshest and optimally tastiest eggs, I shop for eggs like I do for cream or other perishables, on the day. This is the best I can do short of investing in hens and their upkeep.
There are those who claim no difference in taste between barn-raised, free-range and fresh-from-the-henhouse. This may be a relief considering the price and availability of free range, much less organic, options. However, the methods used in those taste tests can be suspect, as controls aren’t always as scrupulous as they should be – e.g., eggs of the same age aren’t always rated together. A very fresh barn egg will probably taste better than an old organically produced egg, although there may be other reasons than taste to choose the free range or organic option. Palates of course may also differ, and there are comparison studies that suggest tasters can be just as adamant that they do detect a difference; I am in their camp, although I confess I don’t always taste a difference between organic and free-range eggs bought commercially – it depends on the age, and the feed, I suspect.
There is a general consensus that feed affects flavour. Most commercially raised hens, including those organically raised, are fed a consistent cereals diet – mostly wheat, corn (maize), and soya, supplemented by insects they forage. The percentage of corn is what will make the yolks more or less yellow. Home-raised hens will typically also be fed vegetable scraps and similar, and therefore the taste of their eggs can be more variable.
Poultry in the UK are no longer routinely fed antibiotics as a growth promoter and prophylactic; the EU banned this practice in 2006. In the US, some of the largest commercial flocks are still feeding their chickens antibiotics, and this practice will not be systematically reviewed until 2016; there you have to look for labelling. This is one reason to choose organic, as the hen’s feed is highly regulated, and they have outdoor access – although it should be better known that chickens, however free-ranging they are, tend not to range far.
And what about breed? I agree with those who say this is also a considerable factor in taste. Bantam eggs, for example, are richer than other eggs as their yolks are bigger in proportion to white. Along with quail eggs (also proportionately “yolkier”), these charmingly dainty eggs are my favourite for serving intact boiled or soft-boiled.
I also love the blue-shelled Cotswold Legbar (or the rarer pure-breed Araucana) and it’s not just because they are beautiful. I definitely detect a superior flavour, I don’t care what anyone says. They have the most flavourful yolk of any hen egg I know. The ones I get from a local supermarket, if about one week old, taste (dare I say it) as good as the blue-shelled eggs I get from an allotment buddy unless I eat his within the first few days.
My allotment friend claims his white-, brown- and blue-shelled eggs all taste the same. I’ve never done a taste test of all his egg varieties side by side, so maybe they do if his hens are fed the same diet and he is judging them all when freshness is the dominant factor? Or maybe I’m tasting something he isn’t? Palates differ, and psychology does play a part in taste.
What I do know is that the very fresh eggs of just a day or two old that I get from my poultry keeping friends, who chickens roam freely and eat well, taste far better, and perform far better in recipes, than anything I can buy, with two exceptions where the results are nearly as good: the free range eggs I buy from my local greengrocer are from an excellent farm one mile away, and are nearly as fresh as the ones I’m given by friends; and the shop-bought blue-shelled Cotswold Legbar can compete with the hen house harvest as long as they are a week old or younger.
My conclusion? Freshness is far and away the number one criterion for taste and texture, but feed and breed are also important – and when you get the optimum combination of freshness with superior breed, fed naturally, you do even better.
Appearances can be deceiving. You may get fresher eggs at your supermarket than you can at the local farm shop, if the former takes the trouble to source eggs very fresh from a good farm and can move them quickly. I know of one otherwise excellent farm shop whose eggs are sometimes sold on the verge of the 28-day- shelf-life because his turnover is slow (he charges more than average). Vigilance and an open mind are warranted: always check the date.
It does make a difference how our food is grown and raised, even if we can’t taste the difference. I don’t want to support an industry based on mass production and its compromises, so I suck up the cost and buy organic eggs for recipes where eggs are a principal ingredient, always providing the dates are good. I want to encourage the organic trade even if I don’t always detect a difference in taste between an organic and a free range egg of comparable freshness (read more on eggs in the food industry, below). For a custard, sponge, or almond biscotti, for example, where the flavour of the eggs is paramount, I pay the extra. For a carrot cake or chocolate cake, where the eggs are more in the background, I would use the freshest free-range eggs I can get unless everything else I’m using is organic, in which case I’ll use the more expensive eggs as well. I would prefer to use organic for everything on the grounds of ethics, but I compromise to this extent because of price where it matters less in terms of taste.
I have trialled using cheaper barn eggs and for me the texture is generally poorer and they impart a blandness that makes the final product disappointing – not in any way bad – but definitely not as good as it could be with free range or organic eggs. In some recipes the difference is my experience is stark.
Whether this high standard is economically viable is another story. As a small artisanal producer I have to weigh up whether I can sell my products for a price that will allow me to continue producing, because I have no intention of cutting corners. I haven’t gone back into food to become just another producer of bog-standard fare. I’m focussed on quality and working to reach those who understand why my products don’t cost what they’d pay for something mass produced, but the day may come when my standards are no longer affordable for me or my customers and I have to give up. As well as the high price of good fresh eggs, the costs of flour and sugar have also shot up. The massive increases across all the ingredients used in baking has taken its toll in the industry and in the quality of what we can buy. What a sad choice we are faced with as both consumers and producers. But what good news that more of us are baking from scratch. It would be no bad thing if we ate less and better cake.
Should we be complaining about the price of eggs? In the UK we’ve seen prices rise by over 40% since 2012, although they have stabilised since their peak in 2013. The cost of eggs rose in the US by over 40% in 2014, as new welfare regulations came into effect, and as feed prices also rose (due to drought-induced poor harvests and a demand for non-GMO feeds that are more expensive to produce).
Haven’t we been blinded by a food system that has prioritised cheap inferior food, and shouldn’t we be willing to pay the higher price for a more sustainable, more honest, food system? Something seems amiss, though, when everything that goes into a simple cake (for example) – eggs, flour, sugar – has skyrocketed in cost to the point that we are eating cakes of inferior quality. What is at the root of this? For answers we need to look at the food industry, where most of our eggs are consumed.
Most of the eggs we eat collectively are processed within the food industry, as background ingredients for ready meals as well as for the obvious products such as cakes, puddings, scotch eggs and sandwich fillings.
In January 2012, the European Union poultry industry was forced by law to convert from battery cages to “enriched cages” on animal welfare grounds. This change cost UK farmers £400 million. Free range eggs, the production of which had increased significantly by 2002 as a response to the salmonella controversy sparked by Health Minister Edwina Currie in 1988, weren’t governed by this legislation, but their prices also rose because of the change in how the majority of eggs were produced, to 75% higher than the cost of battery farmed eggs at the time.
The food industry relies on processed eggs: primarily pasteurised “liquid egg”, but also frozen and to a lesser extent, powdered. All of these rose drastically in price with the change in law. Many farmers, especially those outside the UK where most processed egg came from, weren’t ready for the changeover and those who couldn’t afford to alter their production methods went bust. The drop off in production created a shortage and thus a price rise. Costs of liquid egg rose as much as 85% in 2012, when the change was implemented, a consequence unforeseen by policy makers who had underestimated the number of chickens that would fall out of production.
As a result of these huge price rises, food manufacturers are reformulating their processes, and if you think you have noticed a difference in some products, you’re probably not imagining it. Ice creams for example are increasingly egg-free due to cost, and egg replacements such as albumen substitutes made from milk are in wider use throughout the food industry. Even some artisan bakers are using cheaper processed eggs instead of fresh. Liquid eggs have taken over the cake industry.
This affects flavour and texture. When processed, the egg loses its body. This matters in cakes, custards, ice cream, sauces. Yolks add flavour and make the texture of these things smoother and richer. But producers who use millions of eggs a year (facing in 2012, for example, a 12% rise in costs per litre) either pass on the cost increase to us, or cut down on eggs or the quality of other ingredients, with the consequent rise of mediocrity and clever marketing.
Processed eggs are freely traded across Europe. Eggs not conforming to import standards are meant to stay within country, but the UK is vulnerable to “non-compliant” processed eggs because there is still a shortage of supply for the industry. UK food safety monitors have found that noncompliant eggs are generally not being imported as fresh eggs, which is comforting, but these eggs can be legally liquefied and pasteurised, and then sold here. There is also a growing concern that more eggs will come into the industry from outside the EU. Some of this product may come from countries where there is little concern for poultry welfare.
It is a sad irony that the introduction of best-intentioned animal welfare legislation means that consumers are eating more processed eggs and are more vulnerable to unsafe eggs being brought in (checking fresh eggs is fairly straighforward, but not so for a liquefied product imported in a tanker).
Eggs represent the miracle and catastrophe that is our modern food system. Industrialisation of egg production through battery farms satisfied the post-war hunger for cheap food and helped to create a food industry exploding with possibilities. Now as we become more aware of the costs to our health and that of the entire natural systems upon which we depend, we find the law of unintended consequences raising its ugly head once more. There is something grotesquely alarming at this transformation of the simplest, most natural of convenience foods.
It is not easy to reconcile our ethics with the reality principles we face in our busy, demanding lives as individuals, much less as collective citizens in a complex social system. Perhaps one small step we can take is to buy decent eggs and to cook more from scratch when we can, so we’re not as dependent on an industry that does its best to make food cheap. And maybe we should kick up more of a fuss when standards of taste fall, for I am absolutely convinced that taste and a more sustainable and ethical food system are connected.
Egg shells are porous, so the egg will shrink over time as it slowly dehydrates. To test for freshness, put eggs in cold water. If they point upwards or float in water rather than lying flat, this indicates age, as the air sac will have increased in size.
By law eggs have to be kept under 20 Celcius (68F), which is why they don’t have to be refrigerated in the UK. In the US, they are refrigerated as eggs there are power-washed, which removes not only harmful bacteria, but the natural protective coating that makes them less porous. In my English kitchen I wash them before use, and keep them in a cool place out of sunlight. The main thing is to use them as fresh as possible.
For more on these issues:
Listen to Sheila Dillon’s The Scramble for Eggs” broadcast on the BBC Food Programme, 30 April 2012;
Read Brian Grow and P.J. Huffstutter’s Reuter’s article , “Major Poultry Farms Routinely Feed Antibiotics to Chickens”, the first in a series called “Farmaceuticals”, as picked up by the Huffington Post.