What would our food be like if the humble egg didn't exist? Not only would we lose all the basic egg preparations, like scrambled, poached, and fried eggs, we'd also miss out on some of our most important emulsified sauces, like mayonnaise and hollandaise. Our baked goods, pastries, and breakfast confections would take a major hit—cookies, cakes, custards, waffles, pancakes, and meringues would be far more difficult, and in some cases flat-out impossible, to make. We'd have to say sayonara to tamagoyaki, ciao to frittatas, hasta luego to Spanish tortillas, and au revoir to omelettes. At breakfast, lunch, dinner, or dessert, the absence of eggs would leave our food an unrecognizable shadow of itself. And let's not forget that without eggs, we most certainly wouldn't have chickens—because the egg inarguably came first. Since we're so dependent on eggs, it helps to know a bit about them. Here are the basics, from buying to cooking and beyond.
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Know Your Labels
This term simply indicates that the product is eggs. The label does not guarantee anything about the provenance or quality of the eggs, though they may be minimally processed and contain no added ingredients.
A voluntary certification issued by the USDA, guaranteeing that the hens are fed an organic, vegetarian diet free of antibiotics and pesticides. They are also required to live uncaged in barns with outdoor access, but the amount of time hens are allowed outdoors is undefined.
The hens are not kept in battery cages, an unfortunate industry standard that keeps hens confined to tiny spaces. "Free-range" or "free-roaming" typically means that the hens have some access to the outdoors, though there's no guarantee they actually go there, while "cage-free" may or may not involve the option to go outside.
This label, issued by Humane Farm Animal Care, indicates that the birds are uncaged and have living conditions that meet a minimum standard. This includes a prohibition on molting through starvation, a technique widely practiced in commercial egg production to increase the number of eggs that hens in their second or third season can lay.
Animal Welfare Approved
The Animal Welfare Institute issues this label to eggs from cage-free hens that have continuous outdoor access. The birds are also required to have a certain amount of space, perches, and nesting boxes per flock. They must be allowed to molt naturally, and beak cutting, another industrial standard for egg production, is not allowed.
This label conveys that the hens are fed an all-vegetarian diet with no animal by-products, as with certified organic eggs.
Eggs with this label come from hens that are fed a diet—often flaxseeds and occasionally fish oil—that produces omega-3 fatty acids in their yolks.
2.5 ounces each
30 ounces per dozen
2.25 ounces each
27 ounces per dozen
2 ounces each
24 ounces per dozen
1.84 ounces each
21 ounces per dozen
1.5 ounces each
18 ounces per dozen
1.25 ounces each
15 ounces per dozen
US Grade AA
Expect exceptionally thick whites, clean shells, and shallow air cells (the pockets of air at the more blunt end of the egg).
US Grade A
With "reasonably" firm whites, these eggs are the most common supermarket variety.
US Grade B
Due to possible blemishes and thinner whites, this grade is often used for industrial purposes.
What to Look For
Headed to the supermarket and not quite sure what to look for? Here's what you need to know:
- Open the package and make sure none of the eggs are cracked or leaking in the carton.
- Shell color—most often white or brown, but sometimes blue, green, taupe, or speckled—has no bearing on the egg's flavor or quality.
- Eggs sold directly from farms and outside the US may not have their protective cuticles washed off; dirt or feathers may cling to the shells. These are not harmful and can be cleaned off before use.
- Keep in mind that well-written recipes require large eggs unless otherwise specified. Using eggs that are larger or smaller than what a recipe intends can lead to poor results, especially when you're baking.
How to Store
Once you've brought your eggs home, make sure they're packed away properly.
- The USDA recommends refrigerating eggs as soon as you bring them home, as most eggs sold in cartons in the US have been washed of their protective cuticles.
- Washed eggs shouldn't sit out for more than two hours, as contaminants and harmful bacteria may start to be absorbed through the porous shell. However, if an egg is never scrubbed of its cuticle, then refrigeration is not necessary before sale or use—that's why you'll sometimes see unrefrigerated eggs sold direct from farms or outside of the US.
- The USDA recommends storing fresh, uncooked, shell-on eggs in the refrigerator for no more than three to five weeks.
How to Boil Eggs
A perfect hard-boiled egg has a yolk that's just cooked through, but without the dreaded green discoloration that comes with overcooking. The only challenge is shelling the egg afterward, and of all the tricks for ensuring easy-peeling success, starting the eggs in hot water is by far the most important.
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How to Scramble Eggs
Tender, small, custardy curds are the hallmark of perfectly cooked soft-scrambled eggs. To get them that way, you want to stir them constantly and quickly, then pull them off the heat before full-on dryness sets in.
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How to Fry Eggs
Sunny-Side Up Fried Eggs
With golden yolks and tender whites, classic sunny-side up eggs are just begging to become the eyes atop the bacon mouth on your breakfast plate. But before they can do that, they have to be made just right, which is as simple as frying them gently over moderate heat—because uncooked whites and overcooked yolks do not a happy breakfast face make.
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How to Make an Omelette
A perfect French omelette is a serious affair, and the ability to make one is among the hallmarks of a well-trained cook. It's also one of those fundamental techniques all cooks should learn, since it teaches a variety of essential cooking skills, including how to manage heat and make split-second decisions on when things are just right—decisions no thermometer, timer, or other tool can help you with. With a little practice, you'll learn how to nail it each and every time, producing a finished omelette that's a perfect package: smooth and golden outside, cradling flowing, soft-scrambled eggs within.
How to Poach an Egg
For something so simple, poached eggs sure are easy to mess up. The problem is usually wispy whites that blow out across the pot instead of staying tight around the yolk. Fresher eggs are easier to work with in this regard, since their whites haven't yet thinned the way older egg whites do, but we can't often control that. What we can control is whether those thin, wispy whites get into the pot in the first place. That's where a fine-mesh strainer comes in...
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Sous Vide Eggs
Sous vide eggs aren't quick, but what you lose in speed, you gain in unrivaled accuracy. If you want perfect soft-cooked or poached eggs along a finely tuned doneness spectrum, this is the method for you. Plus, it's great for making eggs for a crowd, offering up the most consistent and easily repeatable results.
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First, Consider Temperature
Immersion circulators offer a tremendous amount of control over how we cook eggs, making it possible to maintain distinct water temperatures over long periods of time. In the chart at left, we see what happens to a large egg cooked for exactly 40 minutes at a range of temperatures. At the low end, the egg cooked at 130°F (54.4°C) appears raw, but if held at this temperature for a few hours, it will be pasteurized, meaning you can use it to make mayo or a classic Caesar salad dressing without fear of salmonella. As the temperature goes up, the whites begin to set more and more, until, at about 145°F (62.8°C), you finally achieve fairly solid whites and a runny yolk. At higher temperatures, the yolk and whites set more and more fully, until you end up with an egg that's completely firm throughout.
Second, Consider Time
Temperature isn't the only factor to consider when cooking eggs sous vide. The amount of time the egg is held at a specific temperature will also influence how it cooks. In this chart, we see a large egg cooked at exactly 145°F (62.8°C) for times ranging from 45 minutes up to two full hours. The longer an egg sits at a given temperature, the more time it has for gelling reactions to take place, leading to a more "cooked" appearance.