I thought I’d share some of what I know about free range eggs and the criteria I use to make my purchase decision.
I love eggs.Yes, even after judging the free range eggs category for the Royal Agricultural Society of Victoria’s Fine Food Awards I had a snack of a poached egg. It’s quick and nutritious.
Don’t be afraid of poaching an egg. If you have a fresh home laid, farm gate purchased or accredited farmers market egg, you can make it in the time it takes to toast a piece of sourdough bread. Always use a room temperature egg. Drop it into gently simmering water 5cm deep, seasoned with a little salt. By the time you’ve buttered your toast the egg white will have solidified - done!
When the egg is fresh you don’t need a coagulant like vinegar, or to make a whirlpool in the water because the albumen in the whites - egg protein - is still strong.
In supermarkets the eggs are rarely this fresh as they have been part of a system of logistics and storage which make it take longer for them to reach the customer. You may need to use pods to get these to hold together in the pan as they will likely spread very quickly once the membrane that usually holds them has broken down in transit.
How do you check for freshness? Hold a torch against an eggshell to gauge what’s going on inside. The air pocket at the broad end will get bigger over time as moisture evaporates through the shell. You’ll also see the yolk and any fine cracks that it may have, these may have been caused by the hens themselves poking around their nest.
Another fun test is to drop an egg into a glass of water. At the extreme, if the air pocket is large it will make the egg buoyant enough to float. If it is fresh it will sink to the bottom.
If you crack a very fresh egg onto a plate you will see an inner, firm round of egg white sitting up and an outer runny round. The yolk will sit high and domed above the inner white. The perkier it looks, the better.
If after a while the inner white spreads into the outer, it means the albumen is weak. This can indicate it length of time since laying or can be due to the style of production, it may not actually be true pasture roaming free range.
When poaching these eggs they will quickly absorb water and take on the vinegar flavour or salt, making them less enjoyable to eat. But this weakened membrane could be ideal if you want to quickly truffle infuse eggs to be scrambled.
Eggs where the albumen is weak are suited to recipes like lemon curd and custards, some cake recipes work better too with this thinner membrane.
The colour of the shell is an indication of either the age of the hen or the stage in the laying season.
Later in the season, there is less pigment so shells become paler, likewise with the older the hen. In cage and barn raised eggs, bright heat lamps are commonly used to simulate summer all year, so you may find these can be paler, forcing the hen into an unnatural cycle. Another indication of the age of the hen are double yolks. These are laid by pullets - young hens.
An orange yolk is not necessarily a benchmark for better. A natural egg yolk is lemon yellow.
Orange yolks occur when there are colour enhancers in commercial grain poultry food. The additives are natural carotenoids or capsanthin which can also occur in kitchen scraps and flowers eaten by backyard chooks. Egg farmers use colouring because marketing has convinced us that orange is an indication of true free range or quality.
So if you’re evaluating a yolk, look at how high it domes when cracked and how it tastes, rather than colour. Look at the thickness of the runny poached yolk is it velvety and rich textured?
To me the measure of a good tasting egg is that the white has flavour on its own. Many don’t, so to evaluate I try the white of a poached egg first and then the yolk and then the two together. Does it have a true egg flavour or has it picked up the salt, or vinegar, from the water? Is it truely tasty without any additional seasoning?
Another criteria is how does it feel in the mouth? I like an egg white that is slippery but has enough resistance to chew without being rubbery. If an egg white dissolves quickly in my mouth or creates a chalky residue, I will not buy that brand again.
Egg flavour can come from the hen’s diet and can be like wine in that it depends on the terroir. That flavour can come from the soil, the bugs, weeds, grasses and flowers that a free roaming pasture hen enjoys. In a barn raised hen it can be influenced by the manure it is pecking in within the confined space.
If fish meal has been used in the commercial poultry feed there will be a vague fishiness to the flavour and can be hazardous to people who have an allergic reaction to seafood.
There are culinary uses for eggs that have little flavour in recipes that are highly seasoned and use egg merely to bind other ingredients. A pavlova may be an ideal way to use them. For a mayonnaise however, an egg that lacks the integral eggy flavour will create an emulsion that just tastes of oil and seasonings.
Egg shells are porous and fragile. They will lose moisture and absorb odours. As the membrane inside degrades over time they will be more vulnerable to both.
Eggs are best used when they are at room temperature, and if you are regular eaters storing them out of the fridge will not be an issue.
Store them in a cool, dry place away from appliances that vibrate or emit heat or humidity. Traditionally they have been kept in baskets or placed in a ceramic crock to protect them from breaking or absorbing odors.
If you want to store eggs for months then keep them in the fridge in their cartons to help prevent them from absorbing the various odors that other food can emit.
Remember though, while they may not rot in the fridge, they will gradually become weaker and drier. So my advice is to buy only as much as you will use over the short term and keep up the rotation.
I prefer to buy farmer direct eggs from producers who keep true free roaming hens, not those who have “cut some holes in a barn”. The reasons are numerous but ethical choices are at the heart of all my decisions. So I don’t mind paying more and using less, I think they are worth every cent.
My circumstances prevent me from having a few backyard chooks but if I could, I would. They say one in four building permits here are for a backyard chicken coop, which I think is fantastic. Take the burden off the egg industry and raise some of your own.