Back in the day, we didn’t need to know how to buy eggs. If somebody needed eggs, she stepped out of the back door and made her way to the chicken coop. Even townsfolk kept several chickens, penned behind the house. It was a pretty fair exchange. The chickens were fed the scraps from preparation and then the chickens provided eggs for breakfast. Those old time chickens weren’t the egg laying machines that we are familiar with today, but they laid 150-225 eggs a year, for one to seven years. And when her egg producing days were over, she ended up in the stew pot.
As we became more urbanized and started buying our eggs at the grocery store, we only had a few options: one color, 2 grades and three sizes. As you learn how to buy eggs you’ll see that it’s just not about opening a carton and making sure that none are cracked.
Over the last several years there have been many changes in the chicken and egg industry. Who would have thought that the kind of eggs you buy could be a subject as politically volatile as your party affiliation, religion, and favorite sports team.
Here are some tips on how to buy eggs today:
How to Buy Eggs: Read the carton.
It will tell you how many eggs are in the carton, what temperature to store the eggs, the grade and the size of the eggs. The “best by” date is usually on the side of the carton.
If you buy your eggs at the grocery store, there is probably a USDA Grade shield. That shield insures you that the eggs were graded and weighed “under the supervision of a technically trained USDA grader.”
The USDA grading service is not mandatory and it is not free. The egg packer wants his customers to know that they the weight and grade of the eggs, as well as the onsite sanitary conditions are monitored by the USDA.
Eggs not graded by the USDA can still be graded by the egg packer. However, you won’t find the USDA shield on the carton. The sizing and grading as well as other requirements are then handled by individual state agencies.
How to Buy Eggs: Grade
Grade means quality. An egg’s grade is determined by two factors: what the egg is like inside the shell and by the condition of the shell itself. The egg is judged by the thickness and firmness of the egg white and how high the yolk sits above the egg white when placed on a flat surface. The grader also looks for a round symmetry and to see if the yolk is free of any defects. The shells should be clean and unbroken.
The highest grades of eggs available are US Grade AA. What you usually find in the big chain grocery stores are US Grade A. If presentation is important to what you are using the egg for, AA or A are perfect for your needs. But for baking, or general usage, US Grade B eggs are fine, although I have never seen Grade B eggs for sale at the market.
How to Buy Eggs: Size
Once you learn how to buy eggs, you’ll be able to determine which size is the most economical. Eggs come in 6 different sizes. According to the USDA, the size is determined by the minimum weight of one dozen eggs.
Jumbo: 30 ounces per dozen. The average egg weighs 2.5 ounces.
Extra Large: 27 ounces per dozen. The average egg weighs 2.25 ounces.
Large: 24 ounces per dozen. The average egg weighs 2 ounces.
Medium: 21 ounces per dozen. The average egg weights 1.75 ounces.
Small: 18 ounces per dozen. The average egg weighs 1.5 ounces.
Peewee: 15 ounces per dozen. The average egg weighs 1.25 ounces.
Most recipes call for large eggs. However, whenever I was fortunate enough to find peewees, I would hard boil them for my children to pack in their lunches. Jumbos make very impressive deviled eggs.
How to buy Eggs: Appearance
The USDA recommends that you only buy refrigerated eggs, and eggs that have clean and unbroken shells.
How to buy Eggs: But is it fresh?
Just remember who stocks the shelves at the grocery stores. Usually its high school kids. When they are put on egg duty, part of their job is to go through the case and open every carton. Then they are to remove the broken eggs and replace them with other eggs. I just don’t think I would trust them to pay attention of the “best by” dates on each of the cartons.
Check the ‘”best by” date on the side of the carton. It is grocery store policy to rotate the older product to the front. However, my son (who stocked groceries through high school) got tired of the older lady customers pawing through the eggs, stacking them precariously on top of themselves just so they could reach in back for the “new” eggs. He stopped rotating them. The ladies continued to wreck havoc in the egg case, but they were buying the old eggs. The moral of my story is to check the date on the eggs.
How to buy eggs: Politically Correct Terminology
In case you’ve been living under a rock, there has been quite a bit of controversy over eggs, the chickens that lay them, the farmer that raises them and the customers that buy them. Once you learn how to buy eggs, you’ll find that most of the labeling and stamps are made up by different factions of the chicken producing industry, and much of it is confusing.
Antibiotic free: Consumer Reports informed the public that the USDA does not approve of the term “antibiotic free” because: it is un-approvable.
Cage free: “Cage free” means that the chickens that laid the eggs you bought were not kept in cages. Basically it has the same connotations as “free range,” except it is considered “less misleading.”
Certified Humane: Refers to how the chickens are raised, not what they are fed. The label implies that the chickens that produced the eggs are treated humanely according to the guidelines established by Humane Farm Animal Care. HFAC, national non-profit organization who is a watchdog of the livestock industry, making sure producers meet standards regarding care, housing, feeding and handling.
Fertile: Fertile eggs are capable of developing a chick. Studies show that fertilized eggs don’t keep as well as unfertilized eggs and there is no known health advantage to eating them. Sometimes a fertilized egg will have a blood spot on the yolk.
Free range/free roaming: This term means that the chicken was either raised outdoors or that the chicken had access to the outdoors. This is an ambiguous term. Sometimes a farmer will place a very small swinging door in a building that houses 400,000 chickens. If the chicken wants to go out, she’s more than welcome. Most chickens don’t know about that door and where it goes.
Hormone free: It has been illegal to feed chickens rations laced with hormones since 1959. This is a standard feature for all eggs. It should not be a selling point, let alone a reason to pay more at the cash register.
Natural: The USDA still doesn’t have the definition of this term worked out. Some people interpret it to mean “found in nature.”
Omega 3 enriched: Any egg is affected by what the chicken eats. To cash in on the “Omega 3” craze, some chicken farmers are feeding their birds rations that are high in Omega 3 such as fish oil and flax seed. However, the eggs from pasture raised chickens have proven to be naturally higher in Omega 3.
Organic/certified organic: Eggs from hens that have been fed a diet that contains no chemicals, including herbicides, fungicides, and pesticides. The USDA certifies that the eggs are organic. Organic eggs are more expensive, but you get what you pay for. The chickens are allowed to free range and are provided nest boxes in which to lay their eggs.
Pastured/pasture raised: This is the term that most people associate with happy chickens. It means that the chickens were raised out in the open, allowed to pick and scratch for bugs and worms. These are eggs at their best. The shells are dense and strong shells. The egg whites are tight and the yolks are deep yellow.
Vegetarian diet: As the label implies, these are chickens that are fed a diet containing not animal products.
United Egg Producers Certified: the eggs are produced according to the United Egg Producers guidelines. The Guidelines dictate: size of cages, water and rations, lighting, temperature and the air quality.
And lastly, once you’ve figured out how to buy eggs you need to make sure your store them correctly. The USDA recommends that eggs be kept in the refrigerator at 40 degrees for optimum freshness. Keep them in the main part of the refrigerator, not in the door. Store them in their original carton. Raw eggs should be used by the “best by” or expiration date.
And remember, even though the humble egg has received a bad reputation for single handedly raising the cholesterol of most Americans, it is still one of the most economical proteins you can buy. Hard boiled eggs are a great addition to the lunch box. A platter of deviled eggs is a popular and inexpensive addition to a buffet table. An omelet can be a fast and filling dinner, or a breakfast-in-bed luxury. The egg really is incredible.
Sources: http://incredibleegg.org, www.aeg.org, www.ams.usda