Eggs 101: History, Science, Expert Technique + 3 Recipes You Won't Believe
A complete protein with a wealth of nutrients.
An ancient food enjoyed around the world.
The food whose mastery makes a master chef.
Large or small. Brown, white, or even green.
That’s right! What other food, but the incredible edible egg?
Eggs Throughout History
For as long as there have been people, there have been people eating eggs. While our oldest ancestors simply foraged for whichever type they could get, it wasn’t long before they got wise, became choosier, and started keeping the best egg sources nearby. From there, it was history!
What’s In An Egg?
2. Outer membrane
3. Inner membrane
5. Exterior albumen
6. Middle albumen
7. Vitelline membrane
8. Nucleus of pander
9. Germinal disc (nucleus)
10. Yellow yolk
11. White yolk
12. Internal albumen
14. Air cell
One Large Hard Boiled Egg:
77 Calories, 5g Fat, 212mg Cholesterol, 62mg Sodium
Satisfied Recommend Daily Allowances:
22% Selenium, 22% Choline, 15% B2, 13% Protein, 9% Vitamin B12, 9% Phosphorus, 8% Fat, 8% Saturated Fat, 17% B5, 6% Vitamin A, 5% Folate, 4% Calories,4% Zinc, 3% Iron, 2% Calcium
With a prolific supply and mild taste, chickens are by far the most popular egg source (and the type I’ll be focusing on). However, there are of course, other varieties of bird eggs that are sometimes eaten as gourmet or novelty ingredients. While I have yet to try a goose, quail, ostrich, gull, or guineafowl egg, I have personally tried the second most popular egg variety, duck, when I was young and my grandparents kept both hens and ducks in a coop on their property.
Admittedly, it’s been quite awhile since I had one, but as I remember, the egg’s taste difference, as many people confirm, is related to the taste of the bird it comes from – while chicken eggs have a subtle chicken meat taste, duck eggs have a subtle duck meat flavor. Duck eggs are also, like duck meat, a bit richer and fattier than chicken eggs are. I don’t know for sure, but assume the same could be said of goose, quail, or ostrich eggs and meat. Their eggs taste a little like their meat.
While a chicken’s egg shell color (which is caused by the particular chicken breed’s oviduct pigment) has no known affect on the egg’s flavor or nutritional makeup, it is interesting to note the distinct cultural preferences for one color over another.
Because of a historical belief that they were somehow cleaner and more pure than brown eggs, chickens that produce white eggs became the most popular choice for big egg producers. However, trends are now changing back. Because white eggs are now associated with those big egg producers in many countries, and brown eggs, with small farms, brown is the favored egg color now. Interestingly, New Scientist Magazine notes, while studies have actually shown a distinct advantage to the variety - the strongest chicken egg shells available- there has yet to be a large demand for green and blue chicken’s eggs laid by Araucana hens.
According to the experts, an optimal egg has “whites that are thick and firm; yolks that are high, round, and practically free from defects; and clean, unbroken shells.” Eggs that meet this standard are awarded with an AA grade, eggs that just miss this standard are just given an A grade, and eggs with thinner or stained shells, or with wider and flatter yolks are given a B grade. B grade eggs, while perfectly fine to eat, are typically used in processed egg products and are very rarely available by the carton in grocery stores.
As people are becoming more knowledgeable of commercial farming practices, many are choosing to pay more for eggs from their local farm, farmer’s market, or for free range/organic eggs at their grocery store. Unfortunately, with few regulations concerning the “free range” label, chickens producing the eggs with the "free range" label may be almost as bad off as those kept in cages. Americans concerned with the living conditions of chickens are encouraged to look for eggs that are “Certified Humane” – the strictest label and one that requires hens have access to the outdoors and a vegetarian diet - OR, even better, to support small local farms that follow ethical practices.
Hopefully soon, we'll catch up with Europe who has recently taken things a step further and has banned “battery cage farming” – a common practice of keeping egg laying hens confined to small wire cages – altogether.
Selection and Storage
Believe it or not, proper storage of your eggs may actually depends on where you purchased them! In the US, eggs are washed to remove to debris, but because this causes some shell erosion, our eggs must then be refrigerated to avoid salmonella poisoning. In Europe, and in some small US farms, eggs are not washed and so they are actually safe to store unrefrigerated for several weeks before eating them!
Wondering if your eggs are still good to eat? To determine an egg’s freshness, place it in a bowl of water. An egg’s air cell continues to grow as it ages. If your egg stays on the bottom of your bowl or floats up just a little so it’s “standing” in the water, your egg is safe to eat. If it floats to the top however, you’ve got a spoiled egg.
According to tradition, there are 100 folds on a chef’s toque (hat) representing each of the 100 ways a master chef knows how to cook an egg. Why eggs? They're famously fussy, and even experts can be tripped up by them. As Art Smith joked with judges on Top Chef, “I've had issues with eggs, okay? I've had so many issues, I could lay an egg!”
The thing is though, cooking a good egg is less art than science. It’s almost entirely a matter of timing and temperature and once you have those memorized, you should be cooking them like an expert every time!
Serious Eats Guide to Boiling Eggs: The 1st egg on the left in the top row was in boiling water for just one minute, the 2nd egg for three minutes, and each one after, add two minutes. The final egg, bottom row on the far right, was cooked for 15 minutes.
Boiling is actually a preparation in which using slightly older eggs is preferable. Because there is more air inside older eggs, the shell will peel more easily from them.
Whether you want a soft or hard-boiled egg, begin by gently placing your eggs in a stock pan, adding just enough cold water to cover them and bring the water to a boil. Once it’s boiling immediately turn off the heat and cover your pot. For hard boiled eggs, wait 15 minutes before removing eggs, for soft boiled (the type you dip your toast in), wait just 5. Once removed, rinse with cold water to stop the cooking process.
AND, you’re to the dreaded peeling part. Personally, I’ve found that so long as I,1.) Use eggs purchased at least a week previous 2.) Don’t overcook my eggs and cool them down quickly after they’ve cooked, and 3.) Crack the shell even around the egg (starting with the wider base where the air pocket is) my eggs turn out just fine.
To aid in the peeling, I sometimes let cool water run over the eggs as I go. This also removes any little egg shell bits (gross!). There are other ideas floating around on the subject though. Some people say adding baking soda to their water while cooking does the trick. Others say this makes that sulfur egg smell even stronger and isn’t worth it. Another idea floating around is to “boil” eggs in in the oven.I have yet to try these methods for myself, but I would be interested to see how they work!
As a huge fan of both Hell’s Kitchen and Kitchen Nightmares, I’ve heard Gordon Ramsey screaming about scrambled eggs more than once. I bowed my head for these poor, obviously hopeless, cooks. I mean, who doesn’t know how to scramble eggs?! Turns out though, according to Gordon Ramsey’s perfect scrambled egg tutorial video, I’ve been doing it wrong all along.
First off, I was taught to whisk my eggs, milk, salt, and pepper before pouring them onto a hot skillet. Apparently though, adding salt at this time breaks down eggs prematurely and can make them runny. Also, I shouldn’t have been pre-mixing – eggs should be broken into the skillet. But enough about what I did wrong, here’s how to do it right.
- 4 Eggs
- ½ Tbsp Cream Fraiche OR heavy cream OR sour cream
- Small “Knob” of Butter (4 tsp)
- Chopped Chives OR green onions
- Sea salt and cracked black pepper
- In a cold skillet, simply break eggs and add butter. (No stirring yet!)
- Turn on your flame and begin whisking with a spatula. Once slightly thickened, take your skillet off the heat and continue stirring. Alternate stirring eggs in the skillet off heat and on heat 3 or 4 times to prevent eggs from becoming too dry while they come together. Eggs should be creamy and fluffy when done.
- Once your scrambled eggs have achieved the perfect creamy, fluffy consistency, stir in your cream fraiche (or equivalent), season to taste with salt and pepper, and gently mix in your chopped chives.
Mmm… poached eggs. My parents had a special contraption for cooking them, but you don’t actually need anything fancier than a straight-sided skillet! As with boiled eggs, you can choose to leave the yolks runny or to cook them full through like a hard-boiled egg.
Heat about 2 inches of water in a 12-inch straight-sided skillet until it’s just about to boil and little bubbles have formed all along the edges and you'll be ready for egg prep. Crack eggs into a small bowl or cup and when bubbles start breaking your water’s surface, gently pour each egg in leaving enough room between them to avoid their merging. Wait 3 to 4 minutes for set whites and runny yolks. Wait 9 to 10 minutes for fully cooked eggs.
When eggs have achieved your preferred level of doneness, use a slotted spoon to remove them. Serve with a little butter, salt and pepper.
Odd Eggs: 3 Egg Dishes I'll Bet You've Never Tried
"For the Italian breakfast dish Eggs in Purgatory, eggs are baked in a spicy tomato sauce. In this Mexican-inspired take, Grace Parisi substitutes a vibrant, fresh green sauce made with tomatillos, cilantro and scallions"
"In his Sephardic Cooking, Copeland Marks reports having eaten ‘Jewish eggs’ among Calcutta Baghdadies, in Morocco, Tunisia, Turkey and Greece...The eggs are brought to a boil, then cooked over a low heat ‘for at least 5 hours, preferable 6′...The moment I cracked my slow-cooked eggs, my mind was blown. The whites had turned a distinctly brown color....I took a bite: meat. The egg tasted like a pot roast. Closer to the yolk, I encountered the distinct, nutty flavor I had read about in McGee’s article. Like hazelnuts and walnuts."
"You separate the egg, whip up the egg white, form a nest with the whipped egg white, and bake it with the yolk in the middle. 3 ingredients—egg, salt, and Gruyere. The hardest part is whipping the egg white. And the result? We loved it."
How do you like your eggs?
McGee, Harold (2004). McGee on Food and Cooking. Hodder and Stoughton. p. 70
Brothwell, Don R.; Patricia Brothwell (1997). Food in Antiquity: A Survey of the Diet of Early Peoples
Montagne, Prosper (2001). Larousse Gastronomique. Clarkson Potter. pp. 447–448
Stadelman, William (1995). Egg Science and Technology. Haworth Press. p. 1.