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The Ultimate Guide to Eggs: Nature’s Frugal, Flexible Protein
I am an egg superfan. They’re cheap, easy to cook, and full of protein. I used to find eggs on sale and then buy 96 at a time. I would joke with the cashiers that I was making the world’s biggest omelet, but then one day I had to stop after learning that someone once actually made an omelet that weighed over 12,000 pounds.
Even if you love eggs like me, you still might have some outstanding questions: What do the different egg grades and types really mean? If I buy eggs in bulk, how long will they last? How healthy are they? And what are some simple egg-based recipes I can use when I get bored of making them over-easy?
I decided to do a deep dive into all things egg in order to find out.
The Different Egg Grades and Colors
While many of us just grab whatever carton is on sale, it’s still good to understand the grading system and how it works.
You’ve probably noticed that you have a few different options when it comes to the grade. Officially, chicken eggs are rated as either AA, A, or B by the USDA. These ratings refer to overall freshness, shell quality, yolk quality, and the firmness of the whites.
Grade AA eggs are top of the line. Their shells are smoother and harder than the rest, and when cracked their yolks and whites are firm. Grade A is a step below. They have slightly weaker shells, and their whites are a bit more runny. Grade B eggs are those frustrating ones where you crack them into the pan and they instantly go everywhere.They also have thinner shells.
This handy infographic from AllRecipes.com shows what different eggs look like when cracked:
Keep in mind that these ratings have nothing to do with taste, nutrition, or safety. The different grades do not correspond to different chances at contracting salmonella, and much like how a misshapen apple tastes as good as a regular apple, grade B eggs might not be pretty but they are perfectly fine to eat.
Finally, let’s dispel a persistent myth about the color of the egg shells: brown and white eggs are not different in any significant way except for color. Brown eggs are not any healthier than their white counterparts, as I once thought. Different breeds of chicken lay different colored eggs, and that’s all there is to it.
The Egg Continuum, from Conventional to Pasture-Raised
Egg companies are diversifying their offerings in much the same way we’ve seen with produce. This has come about because many of today’s consumers care about how egg-laying chickens are raised and what they eat. Here’s a general overview of some of the more popular terms:
- Conventional eggs that you’ll find at the supermarket (meaning those that simply list their grade and nothing else) almost always come from birds that spend their entire lives in cages, indoors. They have little room to turn around and can’t spread their wings.
- Cage-free means the birds still spend their lives indoors, but they have room to move around.
- Free-range means the birds are cage-free while indoors and they have access to outdoor spaces as well.
- Organic means the birds are free-range and also are only fed an organic vegetarian diet.
- Pasture-raised is the same as free-range, except the birds get to forage on natural vegetation.
There are always going to be nuances in each situation, but that’s the general lay of the land. You can take a deep dive into all those terms, if you’re interested.
You might be wondering if any of the above matters when it comes to flavor. According to a detailed experiment performed by Serious Eats, the answer is no. The results were emphatic: “Where flavor is concerned, it doesn’t matter if the eggs are organic, cage free, or from a cage.” A test by Business Insider was less comprehensive but found the same thing: “It turns out organic eggs aren’t automatically better than their non-organic competitors simply because they’re organic.”
Also, don’t get tricked into thinking that eggs labeled as “hormone-free” are worth a premium. It’s been illegal to use hormones on chickens for a long time, so that label is just there as a marketing ploy.
Finally, please do not be fooled by terms like “farm fresh” and “all natural.” According to Paul Shapiro, egg expert and vice president of the Humane Society of the U.S., these terms “literally mean nothing.” They can be tacked on to almost any egg product and are only used to make people imagine their eggs came from a more pure source.
Health Benefits of Eggs
Eggs have had a tumultuous history in the eyes of the medical establishment. In the 1970s, doctors came down hard on eggs after it was revealed that high levels of cholesterol in the blood are linked to heart disease. One large egg contains around 200 mg of cholesterol, which is quite a bit. Most doctors recommended that their patients who were at risk of heart disease stop eating eggs.
Further research into cholesterol has shown that the story is not as simple as was once thought. It turns out that dietary intake of cholesterol doesn’t influence blood serum levels very much at all. Other factors, like genetics and saturated fat intake, play a much larger role.
Thus, saturated fat became the new boogeyman for doctors. A large egg contains just 1.5 grams of saturated fat, so all of a sudden they were looking okay again in the eyes of the medical establishment. Eggs are also rich in selenium, choline, B-12, and multiple antioxidants, which makes them look like a pretty solid breakfast choice.
Nutritionists and health professionals are now mostly in the camp which says eggs are a healthy part of a balanced diet. The two diets that tied for first in a survey of nutrition experts by U.S. News and World Report — the DASH diet and the Mediterranean diet — both allow for liberal amounts of egg consumption. The most updated dietary guidelines for Americans from the U.S. government also gives egg eaters the A-OK, stating that we should eat “a variety of protein foods, including seafood, lean meats and poultry, eggs, legumes (beans and peas), and nuts, seeds, and soy products.”
I don’t claim to have the final word on whether eggs are good for everyone. There are a lot of factors to consider when deciding what to eat, and we all have very different makeups. All I can say is that at the current moment, the evidence is pointing toward eggs being a relatively healthy food.
Proper Egg Storage
When I would go on my aforementioned egg buying binges, I used to store about half the eggs outside of the refrigerator due to space issues. Sometimes they would sit out for up to two months. I still happily ate them without issues.
Apparently I was living dangerously, as I’ve learned that once an egg has been refrigerated, it should not be stored at room temperature. Doing so can cause the egg to sweat, which can lead to a buildup of nasty bacteria that might make its way through the shell and wreak havoc on your system. According to the folks over at EggSafety.org, eggs stored in the fridge are safe to eat for four to five weeks after the date they were packed (which can be found on the carton).
If you want to take a DIY approach to storing eggs long-term, you can try coating them in soybean oil. It sounds weird, but research has shown that this can extend the shelf life of eggs by up to three weeks.
Finally, if you’re unsure whether a particular egg is okay to eat or not, you can perform a “float test.” This involves putting an egg in a bowl of water. If it floats, gases have built up inside the shell: stay away. If it sinks, you’re all good.
I’m very boring when it comes to how I eat my eggs. I generally just crack a couple into a pan, wait a few minutes, and then I’m done. But here are some easy ways to prepare eggs better than I do:
Scrambled eggs: Late celebrity chef, author, and ‘Parts Unknown’ host Anthony Bourdain vouched for this super-simple scrambled egg recipe: “Eggs, salt, pepper, cooked in butter. Not over-beaten. A little wet. And just in a pan. Don’t over-scramble, don’t over-beat. Pull them off the heat just before they’re done. Finish as they sigh onto the plate and serve.”
Egg tacos and breakfast burritos: As a huge taco fan, I’m salivating over this simple egg taco recipe. Scramble up some eggs, place them on a corn tortilla, add some grated cheese and salsa, and boom, breakfast is served. And of course, we at The Simple Dollar are big fans of making and freezing bulk breakfast burritos: Eggs and cheese wrapped in tortillas are a good starting point, but you can add black beans, potatoes, sausage, bacon, ham, salsa, scallions, or just about anything else you desire.
Egg and cheese sandwich: Is there an easier go-to meal than cracking an egg in a frying pan with a few drops of oil, breaking the yolk (unless you like it runny), then flipping the egg after a couple of minutes and tossing a slice of cheese on top? Serve it on toast, a bagel, an English muffin — you can’t miss.
Pepper power: To add a pop of color, vitamin C, and much-needed boundaries to your fried eggs, cut a bell pepper into half-inch rings, and saute them in olive oil for two minutes. Flip the peppers over and crack an egg inside each ring. Let them cook, covered, for a few minutes or until cooked through, and voila — you have a tasty, healthy, and eye-catching breakfast.
Eggs, beans, and spinach: For a low-carb, protein-packed breakfast, scramble up two eggs with salt and pepper, and then add black beans and spinach to the pan for the last minute or two. Serve with salsa and cilantro.
Hard-boiled eggs and egg salad: All you Instant Pot fans can make perfect hard boiled eggs by just adding water and pressure cooking them on high for three to seven minutes. I love my Instant Pot and I had no idea you could make eggs like this. Now I must try it. (For ordinary humans, boiling them for 10 to 12 minutes on the stovetop will do the trick.) For egg salad sandwiches, chop up half a dozen hard boiled eggs and mix them with two or three spoonfuls of mayonnaise, plus salt and pepper.
Deviled eggs: I love deviled eggs, and I never knew they could be so easy to make. Starting with hard-boiled eggs, halve them lengthwise and scoop out the yolks. Mash the yolks with a tablespoon of sweet pickle relish, 3 tablespoons of mayonnaise, a teaspoon of mustard, and a pinch each of cayenne, salt, and pepper, and then dollop the mixture back into the egg whites.
Fried rice: Eggs are an easy, vegetarian-friendly way to add more protein into meals where they don’t play a starring role, too. Most fried rice and noodle stir-fry recipes involve scrambling an egg or two in the pan, for example. For basic fried rice, saute a diced onion and a tablespoon of oil in a wok or skillet for a few minutes, then crack two eggs into the pan and lightly scramble them. Once they’re cooked, add leftover white rice, some frozen peas and any other leftover vegetables you have on hand, and a sweet soy-based sauce (try 1/4 cup low sodium soy sauce plus 1/4 cup brown sugar dissolved in 1/4 cup warm water) and stir fry over high heat for a few more minutes.
Bread pudding: Eggs can help you turn stale bread into a tasty dessert, too. For a basic bread pudding, dice half a loaf or so of stale (but not moldy) bread into one-inch cubes, and put them in a greased baking dish. Whisk together three large eggs, two cups of milk, 1/2 cup of sugar, and a teaspoon each of vanilla extract and cinnamon, then pour the mixture over the bread. Let the bread soak up the eggy goodness while you preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit; then bake for about 35-45 minutes, until the custard is set and no longer runny, and you’ve got a classic comfort-food dessert or brunch treat.
Raw eggs? If you’re pressed for time, eggs consumed raw offer slightly higher levels of certain vitamins and minerals. Unfortunately, we’re only able to digest about half as much of the protein from raw eggs as cooked eggs, and what’s more, even fresh, well-rinsed eggs offer a better-than-zero chance of contracting Salmonella, a pretty nasty (and sometimes even deadly) type of food poisoning. So keep all that in mind if you decide to go full Rocky Balboa.
There are so many ways to make eggs, it seems like the only limit is your imagination.
There’s a reason eggs are in kitchens all over the world, from the most frugal utilitarian to the fanciest French chef. The affordability, availability, and nutrient density of eggs make them an especially great food for people on a budget.
And with so many ways to prepare and eat them, you shouldn’t be getting sick of eggs anytime soon. That is, unless you’re the folks who made that six-ton omelet.
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