A Better Egg

Now that doctors are letting us eat eggs again, farmers are working to make eggs taste like they used to

FEW people are better equipped to say “If I knew you were coming, I’d’ve baked a cake” than my friend Flo Braker, a gifted and nationally influential baker and writer. No baked goods awaited me, though, when I arrived at her house, in Palo Alto, for a visit last year. Instead she said, “Since you were coming, I bought six dozen eggs—I thought we’d do an egg tasting!” The idea had never occurred to me, but eggs are of vital interest to any baker, so I tried to overcome my longing for a piece of her incomparable blueberry snack cake. Fresh off a long flight, I labeled eggs with an indelible marker, simmered, peeled, and sliced them, and took notes for a few hours.

The eggs varied enormously in flavor, but not for the reasons we first thought of. We couldn’t chalk up the differences to proximity to the henhouse (some eggs came from nearby towns, some from Colorado) or shell color (all were white) or cooking time (all were the same size and hard-cooked for the same number of minutes, to allow the starkest comparison; frying or scrambling eggs introduces too many variables). Yet one had a distinct, and unwelcome, mineral flavor in the white, and one had a salty-tasting yolk. One had an unmistakable fishy flavor. Only one tasted exactly like an egg—that essence of flavor you know when you taste it.

It’s all too rare to encounter an egg that actually tastes like one. Luckily, I have a standard of perfection: the eggs my family used to buy at the farm across the street. After further research and more tasting, I’ve decided that this taste isn’t only, or even principally, a matter of freshness. Many supermarket eggs are very fresh, because of high turnover, but are so lacking in flavor that absent the clues of texture—the slippery white and the crumbly yolk—you wouldn’t know what you were eating.

My own conclusion is that feed is the chief influence on flavor, followed by the condition of the “layers,” as the hens are known in the trade. Small-farm eggs taste better than the big-farm ones found at supermarkets. Free-range chickens, allowed to forage for food to supplement their feed, generally produce better-tasting eggs than hens confined to a henhouse, and “cage-free” hens, allowed to roam around a henhouse, produce far better eggs than hens cooped up in tiny, stress-inducing cages. (If you don’t live near an enlightened egg farm, some producers will ship you fresh eggs.)

I COULD find little objective research to back up my findings—or, indeed, on just what makes eggs taste the way they do. Flavor comes far down the list of what concerns breeders and sellers. Research outside the egg business centers on cholesterol, the first thing that comes to mind when most people think of eggs—although not heart-disease researchers, or at least not anymore. An article in the Journal of the American Medical Association published in April of last year concluded that “up to one egg per day is unlikely to have substantial overall impact on the risk of [coronary heart disease] or stroke among healthy men and women.” In 1997 the chairman of the American Heart Association’s nutrition committee said in an interview that eggs need not concern people with normal cholesterol levels; it’s eating saturated fat that indisputably raises blood-cholesterol levels.

The egg industry has, naturally, welcomed this relaxation and the corresponding gradual rise in annual per capita consumption, from 233 in 1991 to 254 last year (still way below the 402 of 1945). This year alone at least two books dedicated to egg cookery have been published: by Marie Simmons, and by Gayle Pirie and John Clark. “Designer eggs” are appearing in supermarkets to help lure back fearful consumers; they variously contain less cholesterol and saturated fat and more vitamins and heart-beneficial omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids—the kind found in abundance in most fish.

George Bass, the founder of the egg company Country Hen, says that eating two of his eggs a day actually lowers blood-cholesterol levels—an attention-getting claim he bases on admittedly scanty "cheap Yankee" research consisting of very small studies. (Perfectly respectable studies have found, however, that eating two eggs a day did not raise cholesterol levels in young, healthy subjects.) Bass also says that he was the first to sell an egg especially high in beneficial omega-3 fatty acids, with four times the amount in ordinary eggs. I like his eggs, which are widely sold in the Northeast and even as far south as Virginia, and find them far better than generic supermarket eggs. So I recently paid him a visit.

Bass, a kindly man of sixty-nine with silver hair and patrician features, told me that he set out to build a better egg after years of adhering to the bad old ways on an industrial-scale egg farm he owned in the 1960s and 1970s in Bogotá, Colombia—packing in thousands of hens to a barn, dosing them heavily with prophylactic antibiotics, and treating them with as many drugs as it took to cure them of the stress-induced respiratory diseases they inevitably contracted. He got the organic gospel when a worker on his ranch died after a mistaken pesticide application on his own garden.

In 1986, eleven years after selling his Bogotá farm and returning to New England, Bass bought a medium-sized egg farm in the central-Massachusetts town of Hubbardston. He ripped out the cages that allowed the three barns to house 15,000 hens (modern methods, he says, would allow the same barns to hold 60,000) and renovated them as high-ceilinged homes for 6,600 birds. He cut long lines of windows into the sides of the barns; they remain open half the year and allow in ample sunlight year-round. When I stepped into one barn I could see right away that these were plump and happy birds—scratching the earth-covered floor, noisily socializing, and feeding at troughs on slatted platforms below which the floor is automatically mucked out twice a day. The barn was breezy and odorless.

“Do you want to hold a chicken?” Bass asked, as he petted one behind the ears. I took the bird by the legs and cradled it on my chest. I had already been sold on the wholesomeness of the birds and their eggs by their topaz color. Breeds that are brown of feather and earlobe (where the coloring predicts egg color) produce brown eggs, the only proper kind in New England. Nutritionists insist that there is no difference between brown and white eggs (or, for that matter, between brown, white, and the pretty pastel eggs from exotic hens whose colors Martha Stewart has trademarked for house paint), and I confess to being unable to distinguish between the two in blind tastings. Nonetheless, I remain convinced that brown is better, and the fact that brown hens are bigger and require more feed (brown eggs cost more) confirms my prejudice.

Bass casually scooped up some feed from the trough and popped it into his mouth, encouraging me to do the same. He mills and blends his own, using grains he buys from midwestern organic farms after visiting them and quizzing the farmers. His theory about the taste of eggs, he later wrote me, is that it “comes from a living, lively organic soil full of bacteria, fungi, protozoa, and nematodes, just to name a few.” The feed was gold-green, rather than the corn color I had expected, and ground to a medium grit. Bass several times rebuffed my questions as to what the mixture included, insisting on proprietary secrecy. The first flavor I detected was salt; Bass admitted that the feed did contain it. The second was unexpected—vaguely herbaceous, and reminiscent of marijuana. Bass denied adding any herbs to the feed (I didn’t ask about illicit ones), but later revealed that he puts in marigolds for their lutein, which can help to fight macular degeneration. The mixture did not taste fishy, as I had suspected it would. Many poultry farms give fish meal to chickens, resulting in fishy-tasting chicken and eggs. Bass adds ground oyster shells and calcium to strengthen the eggshells and to help the birds, which have no teeth, to digest feed; Country Hen eggs have sturdy shells that make supermarket eggshells seem like paper by comparison. Micalike chips of oyster shell glistened in the dark, loamy stacks of the farm's carefully turned compost, which Bass plans to sell to urban gardeners for a pretty penny. Country Hen eggs, at $2.50 a half dozen, are a good deal more expensive than most supermarket eggs (you can find where they're sold at www.countryhen.com).

Country Hen eggs can be labeled organic anywhere in the country, because of Bass’s feed. But standards for organic eggs vary by state and by certifying organization. Some groups allow farmers to give drugs to sick animals (Bass claims never to have had a disease outbreak in his eleven years at Country Hen), and some of them allow birds to be caged as long as they are fed organic feed. This is understandably a matter of controversy among producers, given how expensive it is to house cage-free birds and how much labor and land are required for free-range birds.

I VISITED Brookside, a free-range farm in Westminster, Massachusetts, where Russell Van Hazinga has recently given up dairy farming (which he calls “over-regulated”) on the farm his grandparents began, and taken up egg production. I could see why Van Hazinga, a burly man with a mane of hair and a long straggly beard and granny glasses, would object to strict regulation: the farm looked cheerfully derelict, with a small auto-repair shop near the chickens. The ramshackle henhouses were half open to the pecking yard, and feed troughs were filled with organic corn, soy, and wheat to supplement what the birds could forage. A sniff told me that muckraking was given low priority. Yet Brookside eggs had the best and most distinct flavor of any I cooked.

Being so temptingly near just-laid eggs allowed me to test the seemingly self-evident premise that fresh eggs taste best. Indeed, just before I visited the farms, an impromptu tasting at my friend Barbara Kafka’s Vermont house—of eggs fresh from the chickens of her carpenter neighbor compared with organic eggs I had found at a supermarket—led Kafka, logically, to insist that freshness is all. And certainly the Paul Kinney egg (as I will always think of it, for the Vermont carpenter) was every bit as good as my childhood standard of perfection.

I snatched several eggs straight from the nest at each farm, and then bought the same brand, presumably days or weeks old, at local markets. (Actually, I hand-packed six dozen Country Hen eggs to take to hungry friends as a stupefied Bass looked on; such excess clearly went against the Yankee thrift he boasts of in the homey little flyer found in each carton.) But blind tastings of the very fresh and the store-bought eggs revealed only that hard-cooked fresh eggs are more difficult to peel, because of their relatively high acidity. The superbness of the Kinney egg and the superior flavor of eggs from the small farms could be attributed, I decided, less to freshness than to good feed—organic feed is almost certain to have been chosen with more care—and to the hens’ coming into daily contact with the soil, as Bass finds so important.

HARD-COOKING eggs is one of those everyone-knows-how tasks that gets more complicated the more you look into it. Eggs should never be cooked at anything higher than the gentlest simmer, if the white is to be tender rather than rubbery, and the yolk deep-hued and still moist. Timing, of course, is crucial. Overcooking leads not only to an unpleasant texture but also to the sulfurous flavor many people mistake for old or rotten eggs, and to the dreaded green ring around the yolk (this results when iron in the yolk binds with sulfur in the white). There are two schools of thought described in detail in the revamped which has excellent information on eggs, and in the two new egg books: either bring cold water and eggs together to a boil and then let the pot rest, off the heat and covered, until the eggs are done; or lower room-temperature eggs into simmering water and cook them.

The first method is currently in favor, and is the one promulgated by the American Egg Board. Among its advantages are that the shells are unlikely to crack and that the eggs are unlikely to become rubbery or overcooked. Yet even trying nine minutes at rest rather than the ten to fifteen, depending on size, recommended in The Good Egg, I never found the white as delicate and pleasing as after the straight simmer—one of those frequent counterintuitive cooking surprises.

The rule I formulated is to simmer large eggs very, very gently for exactly eight minutes. True, you must take care when lowering eggs into the hot water; if you start them out at room temperature, they’ll be less likely to crack, but cold eggs rinsed under hot tap water for two minutes or so will do in a pinch (they will also need a minute or two more of cooking, however). I don’t hold with pricking the egg at the large end with a pin, a step that is said to release air and thus prevent cracks; in my experience you’re more, not less, likely to crack the egg that way. (A teaspoon of salt per two cups of cooking water will help to cauterize cracks.)

In all cases eggs should be plunged into ice-cold water as soon as the time is up and left to cool thoroughly, and then either stored in the refrigerator for up to a week or peeled. One trick to make fresh eggs peel easily is to plunge thoroughly cooled hard-cooked eggs into simmering water for twenty seconds. I seldom had much trouble, though, if I cracked the cooked eggs lightly and ran them under cool water.

Using the timings I recommend (nine minutes for the covered rest, eight for the straight simmer), either method will result in firm but still tender whites and deep-orange yolks that are just solidified rather than pale-yellow and crumbly. These eggs are perfectly safe, should you be concerned about Salmonella enteritidis, the bacteria in eggs that sickened many people starting in the 1980s. By the time the white is cooked firm, pathogenic bacteria have been killed, even if the yolk has just thickened. But the specter of them has caused blanket prohibitions on any preparation involving eggs not thoroughly cooked—notably homemade mayonnaise, aioli, pie-topping meringues, and ice creams.

This strain of salmonella infects perhaps one in 20,000 eggs. Nonetheless, as with fresh poultry and ground beef, consumers are being forced to pay the price when sanitation in industrial production is sloppy and stressed animals are easily infected. The Clinton Administration is proposing an egg-safety program that could lead to the wholesale pasteurization of eggs—which would bring about the ruination of any true egg flavor, and would likely drive small producers, including most organic ones, out of business. Tests conducted by the San Francisco Chronicle last April of eggs pasteurized by supposedly flavor-preserving processes concluded that they were markedly inferior for cooking and eating. The rate of infection from Salmonella enteritidis has been falling for the past few years, and with luck this drastic measure will be avoided.

IT’S a party-food truism that deviled eggs are the low-rent shrimp of the serving tray: they disappear fast. I discovered an ideal variation when making a periodic pilgrimage to visit Patience Gray, the oracle of the southernmost tip of Italy and the author of the classic Honey From a Weed (1986) and the new Work Adventures Childhood Dreams—a collection of wonderfully eccentric essays and memoirs of living in some of the most rural parts of the Mediterranean with the sculptor Norman Mommens (who died tragically last winter after a fall while tending his beloved land).

Gray invariably thrusts before visitors a ceramic plate of something seemingly so modest as not to bear description—chickpeas, say, or fried fresh sardines, or pickled wild asparagus—but invariably unforgettable. One afternoon she offered tapenade—the Provençal olive, caper, and anchovy spread that often includes tuna—colored a winy purple from the local black olives. I had never before tasted tapenade with such a gentle flavor: the tang of capers (tapeno is the Provençal word for “caper”) and anchovies and olive paste was refreshingly rather than oppressively salty. What was in it? I asked. Why, eggs, of course, she said.

Gray, whose house has no electricity, pounds her tapenade by hand, using olives from her own grove and capers she picks on bushes in the windswept Mediterranean macchia (heath) across the road from her terrace. I advocate compromising on the pounding but not on the hand-pitting, because the best olives are generally not available pitted. Little Niçoise olives are traditional, but I prefer fat purple-black oil-cured Kalamatas. For this recipe, combine in the bowl of a food processor five ounces (or a generous half cup) of pitted olives, a drained three-and-a-half-ounce can of tuna (I prefer oil-packed, and Italian and Spanish brands taste much better than American), three anchovy fillets rinsed and patted dry, and two tablespoons of rinsed capers. (By far the tastiest capers available here—or perhaps anywhere—come from Pantelleria, a small island off Sicily, and are packed in salt; Zingermans.com sells them.) Pulse for two or three seconds, until the ingredients are combined, and add the yolks of four hard-cooked eggs. Pulse again briefly. With the machine running, pour half to three quarters of a cup of olive oil through the feed tube, and add more olive oil as needed to make the mixture easily spreadable. The tapenade should rest in the refrigerator for at least several hours and preferably overnight before being piped or spooned into hard-cooked egg whites or spread on bread. Optional ingredients include a peeled and smashed clove of garlic added with the olives, chopped fresh basil or thyme, and a few teaspoons of lemon juice. Mustard is a frequent seasoning too. You can use Dijon, if you want the accent to be Gallic, or French’s, if you want to pay tribute to deviled eggs—which can surely get anyone to savor hard-cooked eggs.

Illustration by Katarzyna Klein.

The Atlantic Monthly; October 2000; A Better Egg - 00.10; Volume 286, No. 4; page 118-122.