Does egg size or source make a difference in taste? And what about pasteurization?
Organic and Farm Fresh Eggs
We were curious how eggs from different sources might stack up when tasted side-by-side. Despite marketing hype to the contrary, a kitchen taste-test proved that shell color has no effect on flavor. Brown eggs and white eggs from similar sources taste the same.
But what about organic or farm-fresh eggs? To find out, we put the following four varieties to the test by cooking each sunny-side up: farm-fresh eggs (less than a week old), Egg Innovations organic eggs (“free roaming”), Eggland’s Best brand eggs from hens raised on vegetarian feed (the labels says these eggs are guaranteed to possess “25% less saturated fat than regular eggs” and “100 mg of omega 3 fatty acids”), and standard supermarket eggs.
The farm-fresh eggs were standouts from the get-go. The large yolks were shockingly orange and sat very high above the comparatively small white. Their flavor was exceptionally rich and complex. The organic eggs followed in second place, with eggs from hens raised on a vegetarian diet in third and the standard supermarket eggs last.
Our conclusion? If you have access to eggs fresh from the farm, by all means buy them; they are a special treat. Otherwise, organic eggs are worth the premium—about a dollar more than standard supermarket eggs—especially if you frequently eat them on their own or in simple recipes such as an omelet.
Getting It Right: Egg Sizes
Eggs come in six sizes—jumbo, extra-large, large, medium, small, and peewee. Most markets carry only the top four sizes—small and peewee are generally reserved for commercial use. There’s little mystery about size—the bigger the chicken, the bigger the egg. All of our recipes are tested with large eggs, but substitutions are possible when large quantities of eggs are used.
See the chart for help in making accurate calculations. For example, four jumbo eggs are equivalent to five large eggs because their weight (10 ounces) is the same.
Egg Sizes and Weights
We also wondered how freshness affected flavor. Egg cartons are marked with both sell-by and “pack dates” (the latter is a three number code printed just below the sell-by date and it runs consecutively from 001, for January 1, to 365, for December 31). The sell-by date is the legal limit to which eggs may be sold and is within 30 days of the pack date. The pack date is the day the eggs were graded and packed, which is generally within a week of being laid but, legally, may be as much as 30 days.
In short, a carton of eggs may be up two months old by the end of the sell-by date. Even so, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, they are still fit for consumption three to five weeks past the sell-by date. The dates, then, are by no means an exact measure of an egg’s freshness; they provide vague guidance at best.
So how old is too old? We tasted two- and three-month-old eggs that were perfectly palatable, though at four months, the white was very loose and the yolk “tasted faintly of the refrigerator”—though it was still edible.
Our advice? Use your discretion: if the egg smells odd or displays discoloration, pitch it. Older eggs also lack the structure-lending properties of fresh eggs, so beware when baking. Both the white and yolk becomes looser. We whipped four-month old eggs and found they rapidly deflated.
Pasteurized shell eggs were approved for consumer use by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 1995 and by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) in 1997. We contacted Davidson's Pasteurized Egg Corporation, a leading producer of pasteurized shell eggs, to learn more about the process. While the specifics are proprietary information, we learned from company representative Jenny Bartholdi that the process involves passing Grade-A eggs (the USDA classification for eggs with undamaged shells and high-quality yolks and whites) through a series of warm water baths. The combination of time and temperature heats the eggs enough to kill potentially harmful bacteria but not enough to cook the eggs. The eggs are then chilled and coated with an all-natural, nonanimal-based, FDA-approved wax sealant to prevent recontamination and to maintain freshness.
Because pasteurized eggs are slowly but surely appearing in grocery stores across the country, we decided to see how they measure up to ordinary supermarket eggs when put through the paces of frying, scrambling, baking, and whipping. Except for a little insignia (which varies from brand to brand) identifying them as pasteurized, the pasteurized eggs looked just like ordinary eggs. But when we cracked them open to fry and scramble them, we immediately noticed significant differences. Whereas the shells of the ordinary eggs were brittle and cracked cleanly, with little effort, the shells of the pasteurized shells were harder to crack-almost malleable-a result of the wax sealant holding the pieces together. More surprising were the cloudy, watery, pasteurized whites that poured out of the cracked shells. They did not have the body or jelly-like texture of ordinary eggs. Even so, once in the pan, the pasteurized eggs fried and scrambled at the same rate as ordinary eggs and cooked up in just the same way. In a tasting, a few tasters said the regular scrambled eggs were "creamier" and "more fragrant" than the pasteurized, but the distinction was slight. Most tasters could not detect a difference.
Next we baked two génoise sponge cakes-cakes leavened by whole egg foam-to see how the pasteurized eggs would perform in the batter and in the oven. The pasteurized eggs whipped up in the same manner and amount of time as the ordinary eggs, and the batters made with each type of egg were identical (though only the batter made with pasteurized eggs could be safely licked off a spoon). The final products, however, were not the same. The génoise made with ordinary eggs had a better rise and a springier, softer crumb than the cake made with pasteurized eggs, which was a bit sunken and dry. Tasters also found the latter cake slightly less rich tasting, but overall they thought the pasteurized-egg sponge cake tasted fine.
The results of the two remaining tests—for which we made a French meringue (eggs whites whipped with granulated sugar) and mayonnaise—would serve as our gold standard for performance and flavor. Getting fragile, finicky egg whites to whip up into a lustrous meringue can be tricky, and we doubted the runny, cloudy pasteurized whites would be up to the task. While the whites from the pasteurized eggs did take about twice the amount of time to whip into soft peaks (Bartholdi had warned us that this would happen), once they "came to," they were fine: voluminous, light, and airy. After sugar was folded into the foams and the meringues were baked in a moderate oven, the appearance of the pasteurized meringue suffered some, with a slight crackling on the surface, but there was no difference in taste. Both batches of mayonnaise were complete successes. The mixtures emulsified in the food processor with speed and little effort, and there were no noticeable taste differences. Both were creamy, silky smooth, and delicious.
Our conclusion? We still prefer and continue to use ordinary eggs for most recipes, especially those for baked goods. But if you are wary of making mayonnaise, eggnog, or dressing for Caesar salad using raw eggs, pasteurized eggs are a safe and acceptable option.