Related Article: Natural Dyes for Easter
Eggs are an integral part of diets around the world, and in springtime, they also adopt religious significance during Easter and Passover. Coloring and hunting for Easter eggs is an age-old tradition that signifies the advent of spring for many. The egg also plays a part at Passover with its presence on the traditional seder plate, though theories vary as to why—with the most common feeling that the round shape symbolizes the cycle of life and death. The egg is a versatile ingredient that plays an important role in homemade pastas, baked goods, custards, and casseroles. Eggs are also the star on the breakfast and brunch scene, taking on such roles as scrambled eggs, eggs over easy, poached eggs, hard-boiled eggs, frittatas, soufflés, and quiches.
The choices in the marketplace are growing as consumers develop greater interest and concern for what the hens are fed and the conditions under which eggs are produced, which are often quite inhumane. For example, as many laying hens as possible are packed into each cage to maximize the overall production of a building—although this practice will soon be changing slightly due to new requirements. One way hens react to the stress of these conditions is to peck each other constantly. To limit the damage from excessive pecking, the industry removes a part of the hen's beak, a practice termed "debeaking" or "beak trimming,” which may not heal properly—causing discomfort and behavior abnormalities. Overcrowding can also lead to heat stress.
Luckily there is an increasing incidence of specialty, organic, and free-range eggs in the marketplace as well as eggs from free-range or cage-free hens. A variety of specialty eggs have entered the market with DHA and Omega-3 fatty acids from hens who have been fed marine algae, kelp, or flax seeds as well as vegetarian eggs, which are produced from hens fed only natural grains and supplements—no animal by-products. Finally, hens raised without hormones or antibiotics that are fed only organically certified feed grown without pesticides, insecticides, or herbicides produce eggs that are considered organic.
Though somewhat controversial in terms of definition, free-range eggs are those produced by hens raised outdoors or that have daily access to the outdoors. In other words, a hen that is caged but has a door with access to the outdoors is sometimes misleadingly labeled as free range. True free-range eggs are those produced by hens who have access to nesting boxes, open floor space, perches, and access to outdoor runs. Free-run or free-roaming eggs are produced by hens allowed to roam freely in an enclosed facility (barn). Due to seasonal conditions, however, few hens are actually raised outdoors though they may be raised under more-humane, less-crowded conditions.
Despite the egg’s versatility, many have viewed them somewhat guardedly from a nutritional and health perspective because of their high cholesterol content. One large, whole egg contains about 213 mg of cholesterol. This is about 71 percent of the daily-recommended limit for healthy people (less than 300 mg). Studies have now shown that many people on a low-fat diet can eat one or two eggs a day without measurable changes in their blood cholesterol levels and that eggs do not increase “bad” cholesterol. For those who need to be extremely careful, many can still enjoy eggs on a limited basis or use two egg whites or one egg white plus two teaspoons of unsaturated oil in place of one whole egg in cooking. Eggs are rich in protein, B vitamins, iron, and other minerals—all essential for good health.
It is important to ensure that eggs are kept properly refrigerated, so only buy eggs from refrigerated cases. Eggshell color varies but has little do do the quality, flavor, nutritive value, cooking characteristics, or shell thickness of the egg. The breed of hen determines the color of the shell. The color comes from pigments in the outer layer of the shell and may range in various breeds from white to deep brown. White egg layers have white feathers on their neck and white earlobes. Brown-egg layers are slightly larger birds and require more food, thus brown eggs are usually more expensive than white. Yolk color varies based on the diet of the hen. If she gets plenty of yellow-orange plant pigments known as xanthophylls, they will be deposited in the yolk. Italy’s most-famed culinary region, Emilia–Romagna, is characterized in part by tagliatelle pasta with its brilliant-yellow color due to the distinctive color of the yolks from local chickens.
The yolks of fresh eggs will stand up when you crack them. Another way to tell how fresh your eggs are is to float them in water. The older the egg, the more it will float in water while fresh eggs will sink due to the air pocket that develops against the shell and the membrane in the egg as it ages. Slightly older eggs have some advantages, such as being easier to peel after cooking and cooling hard-cooked eggs. As an egg ages, the white becomes thinner and the yolk becomes flatter. These changes do not have any great effect on the nutritional quality of the egg or its functional cooking properties in recipes.
Egg classification determined by interior and exterior quality and designated by letters — AA, A, and B (in descending order). In many packing plants, the USDA provides the grading service. Egg sizes, e.g., jumbo, large, or medium, indicate the minimum required net weight per dozen eggs. The size does not refer to the dimensions of an egg or how big it looks, as many consumers think. Grading bears no reflection on the nutritional value of the eggs, and eggs of any weight (size) class may differ in quality. Note that most published recipes are based on large-size eggs.
Eggs should be stored under refrigeration and are best stored in their own container and not placed individually in the door of a refrigerator, where they would be subject to temperature fluctuation. If you are using eggs for a recipe that calls for only the yolks, you may freeze the whites to use later in an angel food cake or soufflé. If you’ve stored eggs in the refrigerator or are in the process of prepping a large batch of eggs for dying and can’t recall which ones were hard boiled—here’s an easy test: spin it! If the egg spins easily, it is hard-cooked, but if it wobbles, it is raw. Most eggs are sold with a pack date and can be kept refrigerated in their cartons for at least four to five weeks beyond the pack date, though some packages also bear a “use by” date.
Proper preparation techniques can help minimize the common darkening that happens around the yolk in hard-boiled eggs or through the entire surface of scrambled eggs. This darkening is due to a chemical change brought on by heat that occurs when eggs are cooked at too high a temperature, held for too long before cooking, or both. Cooking in small batches over low temperatures will help, but if you need to keep eggs warm for a short time before serving, place a pan of hot water between the pan of eggs and the heat source. Another common preparation issue is trying to remove the ropey strand of egg white from the yolk, called the chalaza. The chalazae are neither imperfections nor beginning embryos, as many people mistakenly believe, and they do not need to be removed. In fact, the more prominent the chalaza, the fresher the egg. You may choose to remove it however, when making a dish that requires a smooth texture like custard for example.
Eggs can also be used as an alternative thickening or binding agent in a number of recipes, and the verb brodettare in gastronomic jargon means to thicken a dish with egg yolk and lemon juice. Adapt your egg usage to your dietary requirements and food preferences. Use them separately and whip the whites (albumen) to add air to dishes as it foams and increases in volume six to eight times when beaten vigorously—making essential for making soufflés, meringues, puffy omelets, and angel food and sponge cakes. Alternatively, you may use just the yolks to add a creamy richness or mix them together to hold or bind ingredients together, as in a meatloaf. Adding a bit of salt to eggs when cooking helps the flavor but can toughen the eggs, so use judiciously!