As you can probably imagine, eggs are a huge part of my cooking repertoire. The folds in a classic Chef’s toque are there to represent the 100 ways he can cook an egg. Though I find the toque a touch gaudy and archaic, I could definitely come up with a three digit number of ways to prepare or integrate this versatile breakfast star. However, there are many different sizes, shapes, and colors of these compelling little ovum…along with some interesting facts and misconceptions. Let’s get started with a bit of history.
Birds have been domesticated for almost 5000 years according to many archeological records. The first farmed eggs were mostly produced to sustain flocks of birds for consumption. The travels of explorers in the 1400s also spread various breeds of chickens across Europe and The Americas. In the 1920’s and 1930’s during the great depression, people started to invest in chicken coops to help protect their flocks from intruders. Not only did it succeed in that aspect, but also protected chickens and their eggs from multiple forms of viruses and bacteria they were subjected to regularly when without shelter. They were predominantly safeguarded from disease, predators, and the elements, resulting in healthier birds.
That meant more eggs!
This is where the excess of eggs really took off, becoming more substantial and common food items in their own right. As technology progressed, so did production. The US currently produces about 9 billion eggs per year, and that’s only about 10% of the eggs that are consumed annually throughout the world. There are around 200 different breeds of chickens that have been domesticated today with the most common in the United States being the White Leghorn, which lay white eggs. Does egg color make a difference in the eggs? Not really, but there are some intriguing reasons that eggs vary in color. Science time.
It is a common misconception that brown eggs are more natural or healthier than their white counterparts. Much of this may come from the typical understanding that brown flour, bread, and rice typically contain more nutritional value and are more naturally produced and less processed than their white versions. There is also a psychological connection in many of our minds between stark white and chemicals like chlorine bleach. The differences in egg color however are determined by the varying breeds of chickens that lay them, not by any treatments, processing, or nutritional variances in the chickens that lay them. White eggs are just as natural as any others.
Egg shells are made of calcium carbonate, a common ingredient in antacids. The process of laying an egg takes a hen about 24-28 hours, and close to 20 hours of that time is solely dedicated to the formation of the shell. All eggs are white in the initial stages of forming. During the final stages before laying, certain breeds of hens can transfer different pigments to the shell, called porphyrins. The pigments are formed by the breakdown of red blood cells. These compounds absorb light at contrasting levels and may have been developed through evolutionary means to protect the delicate contents of the egg from differing types of light and UV rays, the same way melanin protects human skin. In brown eggs, this pigment only resides on the outside of the shell. Blue eggs come from a few breeds that initially resided in South America, which endured a viral outbreak thousands of years ago. The virus is long gone of course, but it did trigger a mutation in these breeds which instilled a blue/green pigment to their eggs known as oocyanin, created in the bile ducts. This type of pigment is integrated in the early stages of shell formation and therefore colors the shell inside and out. None of these pigments effect the eggs themselves, but do lend to some truly beautiful exteriors!
When most people think or talk about the egg, there are usually just three elements named. The shell, yolk, and the white. There are however several other key parts to the egg.
The shell of the egg naturally has a cuticle, or bloom layer. This layer protects the 17,000 plus pores of the egg from bacteria. Eggs in the United States are washed on the outside, which removes this layer. The washing process requires refrigeration afterward because the egg no longer has this protective coating. Many other countries don’t wash their eggs, and do not refrigerate them, because they don’t need to. The eggs are naturally protected.
The white of the egg actually consists of two parts. The thick or medial albumen, and the thin exterior albumen. This variation in thickness comes from absorbed oxygen and moisture. As the egg ages, the thin albumen becomes more prominent in volume. For perfect fried or poached eggs, gently crack the egg into a small, fine-meshed strainer and drain the thin albumen before cooking. Your eggs will look much cleaner for presentation.
The chalaza is a small white strand often seen connected to the yolk after cracking. This is simply a natural anchor that holds the yolk in the center of the egg when it is intact. They are a good sign you’re using fresh eggs.
The germinal disk is sometimes visible as a pale white, a very small impression, or not visible really at all. This can also depend on which side your yolk lands when you crack your egg. The germinal disk is where the rooster’s contribution to life enters the yolk if fertilization were to occur. Don’t worry, it is completely harmless.
There is a small air cell at the bottom of eggs. When the egg cools after laying, the liquids contract a bit, forming the cell. This is why your hard-boiled eggs always have a little flat or angled section on the bottom, and are never perfectly oval. Sometimes these air cells can move to the top of the egg as well. As eggs age, excess moisture and carbon dioxide are exhumed through the shells pores, and air fills the extra space. The older the egg, the larger the air cell.
In short, eggs are usually a staple item, and aren’t often given much thought. I do hope however that you found out some new interesting facts about this highly adaptable food here, and that you find yourself encouraged to explore more information. Next time you prepare or eat an egg, remember how fascinating they truly are! Thank you for reading, and I hope you enjoyed the first entry of my Chef’s blog. I will be posting here periodically about food, farming, production, cooking, equipment, and more. Please share this post if you appreciate the content.
See you at The Marie B&B!
Chef James Simmons