Farm Fresh
What It Is, What It Ain't
When you say "egg" to most people, they think of them as a carton of twelve, stacked twenty deep at the grocery store. To them, an egg is pale and runny on the inside, and ghostly white on the outside. The supermarket Gourmet willing to pay extra for the brown shelled ones will most likely find that they are also pale and anemic looking. Well folks, if that's the sad, sorry picture your mind conjures up when you think of eggs, its not your fault. The problem is that you've never seen a Real Egg.

Once upon a time, back when almost everybody ate an egg for breakfast, folks knew what a Real Egg was. The chances were pretty good that they kept their own hens, and gathered the eggs every day. Back in 1945, a person in this country ate an average of 402 eggs a year. But after WWII, as more families moved off the farm to the city, and as more women entered the workforce, that number had fallen to 234 eggs a year by 1995. That's a shame, because an egg is a wonderful source of low cost, high quality protein. They're a good source of vitamin B12 and Riboflavin, as well as 22% of a an adult's daily requirement of cholin, a nutrient that studies have shown is important for the development of brain and memory. So eggs are a smart choice afterall. Still, most people don't know the difference between AA and A, or even how to tell if that egg is fresh. So here we will bring enlightnment to the masses concerning all that truly qualifies as "Farm Fresh", and what it takes to be a Real Egg in the following paragraphs.

What exactly is "Fresh"?
A "fresh" egg is one that has maintained its "just laid" qualities. It holds itself together well when cracked out in a pan, it has a richer "egg" flavor, & the whites will beat up higher for merinques. "Organic" refers only to eggs produced by chickens who are given pesticide, fungicide, antibiotic & herbicide free feed. There are very strict regulations in place to get that "Orgainc" certification, but they are not concerned with the conditions the bird is kept in, only with *what* she consumes. The eggs are every bit as nutritious as regular eggs, no more, no less. OTOH, it turns out that eggs from chickens raised in real Free Range conditions actually ARE more nutritious, see the growing evidence here. And don't be fooled; claiming "cage free" or "allowed access to outdoors" is not the same as "Free Range". Keeping the birds prisoner indoors 24/7 in a large, artifically lit shed qualifies as "cage free". Likewise, leaving the shed door open so the chicken can stand outside in an enclosed pen on the bare dirt or concrete is considered "access to outdoors". Neither is in the same league as allowing the bird unrestricted access to the outdoors where they can, and do, balance their own diet with greens and bugs and all manner of wonderful goodies.

When you crack open an egg, notice how far the white spreads, and whether the yolk sits in the center like a soft ball, or if it flattens out off to the side. A fresh egg holds its shape. Even the white looks thick and fat. Look at that funny little stringy thing {called a chalza, it holds the yolk in the center of the white.} - the more noticeable it is, the fresher the egg. Having a little trouble visualizing a "fat" egg? Just refer to the handy technical illustration below.

Handy Technical Illustration #1
Comparison between two eggs; on the left, a fresh, happy egg, and on the right, a sad, old pathetic excuse for an egg.

Grade "AA", "A", & "B"

The USDA has established guidelines to determine the quality of what is termed "shell eggs". When you see the official shield on a carton of eggs, you know that they have been graded under Federal supervision following USDA standards. However, like the expiration date on the carton, it is not mandatory. Eggs not carrying the official USDA shield have been graded according to State regulations, which by the way, must meet or exceed the Federal standards. One should keep in mind that despite appearance, all three grades of eggs have the same nutritional content.

Eggs are graded according to their weight for quality. Comparing the different grades to a beauty contest, we have:

About that "Farm"...
Now that we've pretty much covered the "fresh", lets take a moment to clarify the term "farm". For one thing, all the eggs you see at the store came from a farm. The common definition of what constitutes a farm varies a bit, depending on who you ask. Most commercial egg farms also known as "factory farms", keep their chickens in cages. There are commercial egg producers who feature "floor raised" birds, turning their hens loose inside a big building, either with or without access to the Great Outdoors. "Free Range" simply refers to chickens that are allowed outside. "Outside" can mean either confined within a fenced enclosure, or running completely free all over the property. Commercial operations rarely, if ever choose the later method because when you have several thousand birds, its not practical to let them run wild. Here at UhOh Farm, however, where there are considerably fewer birds and we don't mind a good game of hide and seek looking for the new and unusual places the hens choose to lay their eggs, the "Girls" have the run of the place.

The Color of the Shell
In case you hadn't noticed, or you weren't paying attention earlier, eggs come in more colors than just white. Here at the Farm for instance, we have eggs in white, brown and several shades of blue and green. The color of the egg, or more accurately, the shell, is determined by the breed of chicken doing the laying. Leghorns, Minorcas, Hollands, Polish, and Anconas lay white eggs. Dominiques, Rhode Island Reds, Orphingtons, Australorps, and all of the Rocks and Wyandottes lay brown eggs. Araucanas and Ameraucanas lay blue eggs, and those green eggs come from Ameraucana crosses affectionately referred to as "Easter Egg Chickens" or "McMutts" after a well known commercial hatchery. To help familarize you with the concept of an egg as being anything other than white, we have prepared the handy technical illustration below:

Handy Technical Illustration #2
Comparison between four eggs; showing the wide array of eggshell colors.

It is not true that colored eggs have a lower cholesteral content than other eggs. The nutritional content is the same, regardless of the color of the shell. It's not what's outside of the egg, but what you feed the hen that determines the nutritional value of an egg. For an explaination on that, see thelink below Real eggs ARE better. The Color of the Yolk
The yolk color can range from pale straw yellow, to a rich almost "pumpkin" color by comparison. You can't tell if an egg is fresh by looking at the yolk, but you can tell what the hen has been eating. The darker yolk is produced by yellow and orange pigments called xanthophylls that can be found in such varied sources as marigolds, carrots and, the common source for poultry, corn. In layman's terms, the more corn she has in her diet, the darker the yolk will be. The trouble with feeding corn is that it is a high energy feed, more or less "chicken candy" and unless a chicken has access to some exercise she will get fat on a ration with a high percentage of corn. Unfortunately, fat chickens don't go to alot of trouble to lay eggs, prefering to lounge around all day watching the soaps and napping in the sunshine. Since most chickens that lay eggs for those cartons are battery layers, spending their lives in cages where aerobics are out of the question, the percentage of corn is reduced in the ration, and the color of the yolk is often charitably described as "lemon".

"Green" yolks
Not to be confused with "green whites" - a technical term for eggs that have been infected with a bacteria that makes them go bad and sometimes smell sour.
At sometime or other, you may have peeled a boiled egg and noticed a definate grey to greenish cast to the yolk. It's caused by a number of things, including overcooking, a high percentage of iron in the boiling water, and even the sulfur and iron components of the egg itself. Even if they do look "yucky", greenish yolks don't affect the nutrition of the egg, or indicate its freshness. If it really bothers you, just don't over cook your eggs, and remember to immediately stop boiling eggs from cooking by putting them into cold water when they're done.

Update 4/9/10 from the Teach and Old Dog a New Trick Department: When I wrote all that, I was positive that the only way to boil and egg and have it peel cleanly was to use an "aged" egg because the membranes in a fresh egg were too firmly attached to the shell to allow it to detach easily. In fact, I had written "If you're going to be hard boiling eggs however, use an egg that's about a week old - it will peel easier than one "straight 'outta the hen". Well folks, I was wrong. Thanks to Karen in Haskell, Oklahoma who took the time to properly educate me in the ways of boilng eggs, I can now boil fresh eggs everyday and present them on the table naked and undamaged and delicious, the way an egg should be. Reproduced here, with permission, is her email:

"On your web site, I noticed that you subscribe to the theory that fresh eggs are hard to peel. I believed that for years - and would try to keep some older eggs in case I wanted deviled eggs or egg salad. However today I can take an egg out from under the hen, rush it to the kitchen and 15 minutes later have a beautifully peeled hard boiled egg. The secret is not to use old eggs, but is all in how you cook them.

Now, as an aside, I'd been on a multi-year mission to find how to cook fresh eggs and get them to peel cleanly and easily. I'd been told to add vinegar to the cooking water. I'd been told to add baking soda to the cooling water. I'd done both vinegar *and* baking soda.... and about a dozen other random tricks. I'd even been told to blow the eggs out of the shell via a YouTube video. Blowing the eggs out of the shell is really cool to watch... but I got a nasty headache and never did get the egg out of the shell!

I don't know how we ever started putting eggs in cold water, bringing them up to a boil, then boiling for X minutes, and while that works for those pale yellow commercial eggs, you and I both know that it fails miserably with a really fresh from the hen egg! Well, lo and behold, about a year ago, a friend (Jen from Bristow, Oklahoma) found an old cook book from around the Civil War when EVERYone who had eggs had fresh eggs. Back in those days people knew how to cook with them! Jen found the secret in that old cookbook. She shared it with me and a group of our friends and ever since then, we've been spreading the joyful news to our farmer friends (and our egg customers, of course!) that even eggs laid today can be hard boiled for supper tonight - and be as beautiful and easy to peel as any old egg would be!

The trick is to bring your water to a boil BEFORE adding your eggs. (Seriously. That is the whole trick!) Then, using a slotted spoon, slip the eggs into the boiling water. Boil them as per your normal liking. I cook mine 10 minutes. Once your cooking time is up, cool them quickly under running water, then let the eggs sit in cold water for at least 60 seconds. Now your eggs are ready to peel. You'll be STUNNED by how easy those farm fresh eggs peel.

Jen told me this one night at 10:15pm. I could not WAIT to try it. I was eating a hard boiled egg, laid that very morning, about 15 minutes later. I'm wondering how long until you give it a try..... LOL"

LOL indeed. I had checked my email around 10:30, and was eating a perfectly peeled, fresh boiled egg by 11:00. How long did it take YOU to try it?

Second Update 3/4/11 from the Teach an Old Dog a New Trick Department:
I have been boiling my eggs per the Civil War cookbook method ever since, and it *does* work, though it's a tad time consuming lowering the eggs in one at a time. I tried to rush it along by lowering them into the water with a wire basket, but too many eggs all at once seems to cool the water too much, and if you're trying to hurry to do other stuff you could still get burned from an errant splash, but the method did turn out nice looking eggs, so I went back to handling them one at a time with my big spoon.

However, I recently worked a temp position in a commercial kitchen where there is certainly no time to fiddle with dipping eggs into already boiling water; believe me, if you've got stuff to do and less than 15 minutes to peel 4 dozen eggs, you want the fastest, cleanest method possible. I discovered their "Big Secret" is to put all the eggs into a huge pan with hot tap water, (we're talking doing 48 eggs at a time, afterall), bring to a boil while you do other stuff, cook until done, and then IMMEDITELY, pour off the hot water and dump the eggs into a big bowl in the sink that is filled with cold water and ICE. Let them set at least five minutes while you do other stuff and then start peeling. The shells practically fall off on their own. It's the sudden, drastic change in temperature that does it. The old cookbook method mentions using cool water, but the real secret is ice, understandably a seasonal ingredient back in the 1860s. So, if you don't happen to have ice handy, just break out the slotted spoon, either method will work just fine.

For now, that's all I know about eggs, but of course, I'm always up for learning something new.
If you have suggestions or comments on my ongoing education, send 'em here.
The link I mentioned about the nutritional content of eggs is here. And finally, if you'd like to find out more about our eggs and the birds that produce them, click here.