Fresh eggs make a kitchen complete, and they are all the more enchanting when gathered up in an apron. Gingham, lace or denim -- the folds of any fabric complement delicate shells produced by happy hens. Baby blue, freckled latte, coquina and khaki are shades that rarely grace supermarket shelves. They are sacred and sublime, and inside these fragile shells are some of the most pleasurable delights in the culinary world. So versatile, so good for you! Eggs are some of nature's most elegant works of art.
But not all eggs are created equal!
Factory-farmed » Commercially produced eggs come with suspicious baggage that often is not listed on the carton label. The "farms" from which they hail aren't the quaint red barn variety with lots of grass and sunshine. These eggs originate in warehouses where hens are tightly packed in cages and removed from any semblance of sunlight or grass. Sadly, the hens are often de-beaked, meaning that a part of their beaks are cut off in order to avoid pecking injuries in their cramped quarters. They're fed low-quality feed and are often given continual doses of antibiotics to stave off the numerous diseases that can crop up in overcrowded, less-than-clean conditions. And since the eggs aren't laid in neat and tidy nests, they end up less than clean, too. As a result, commercial egg producers are required to wash eggs in a chlorine bleach solution that strips away the shells' natural protective coating, and which can also allow harmful bacteria like salmonella to enter the eggs.
Free-range » It comes as no surprise to learn that eggs from unhappy hens are not as healthy as those from hens that have room to roam. Mother Earth News (www.motherearthnews.com) conducted an experiment in 2007 that revealed that eggs from pastured hens are a heck of a lot better for us than those from their caged counterparts. Eggs were sampled from free-ranging hens across the country, and the results were undeniable. Compared to the U.S. Department of Agriculture nutrient data for commercial eggs, free-range eggs had about half the cholesterol and twice as many omega-3 fatty acids, which benefit circulation, heart health and hormonal balance. Plus, they had significantly higher levels of vitamins A and E. But, again, buyer beware: free-range claims on supermarket egg cartons aren't always up to snuff. "Allowed access to the outside" is the USDA's definition of free-range, even though many chickens that roam free in giant factory sheds never actually find their way outdoors, and bare dirt pens often pass as "pasture" according to government standards.
Look for local » Truly fresh, free-range eggs come from hens that get to forage outdoors for bugs and greens, and the only way you can be sure you're getting bona fide free-range is to know exactly where your eggs come from. This may sound impossible, especially if you live in the city, but farm-fresh eggs are often closer than you think. Local farm markets are the perfect place to start. Ask egg vendors to describe their poultry philosophy. Many farmers will welcome you for a visit so you can see the origins of the eggs. You can also search for fresh eggs using the Local Harvest Web site (www.localharvest.org), one of my favorite resources for finding conscientious farmers within reach.
The fresh test » To determine an egg's freshness, submerge it in a bowl of cool water. The freshest eggs will sink and lie flat on their sides. By the time an egg is a week old, the internal air pocket near the larger end has expanded, so the larger end will tilt upward when submerged. If the egg sits straight up underwater, you'll know that it's closer to 4 weeks old. And if an egg floats, don't eat it.
Did you know? » Farm-fresh eggs should not be washed before storing; wait until you're ready to use them, then wash thoroughly. Also, wash your hands after handling eggs, and never stir or serve cooked food with a utensil that touched raw eggs.
Fresh eggs are delicious, but they can be tough to peel when hard boiled. Tiffany from Indiana shared her secret for easy peeling on my Web site forum: steam! Just bring a little water to a boil in the bottom of a pan, and set the eggs in a steam basket for about 20 minutes. Cool and peel.