One of my earliest culinary memories is that of my middle school best friend teaching me how to fry an egg. We’d spent the night terrorizing her siblings, frustrating her parents, gossiping about the cute blonde boy in our English class, and stuffing our faces with more pizza and gobstoppers than our poor bodies had any hope of processing. So by the time we manged to pick ourselves up off the living room and navigate through the minefield of pillows, sleeping bags, and greasy napkins, her parents had long since abandoned the kitchen and any semblance of an idea of making us breakfast. We were on our own. And as my culinary skills reached their limits at a bowl of Lucky Charms with a dash of Cinnamon Toast Crunch, she fried us up a couple of eggs. They were the best eggs I’d ever eaten.
What I didn’t realize then, or really until this year, was it wasn’t the beautiful pats of butter she fried them in that made them so delicious. It was the fact that they were real eggs.
Which begs the question – what was I eating before (and since!) then?
I thought I was eating eggs. That’s what they called them in the grocery store, after all. They came by the dozen, in a white Styrofoam container, marked eggs. Uniform, Grade A Large eggs – white, oval, with a pale yellow yolk surrounded by a clear-ish “white.” Eggs. From a chicken.
And, technically, what you get in the grocery store are eggs from chickens. Sadly, however, all eggs are not created equal. In addition to the choices of “Grade A”, “Large”, “Extra Large”, and “Organic”, you also have another choice when buying your eggs. “Natural.”
I know. It sounds silly to designate a category of eggs “natural” or “real,” but I’m not sure what else to call them so bear with me. When I talk of natural eggs, what I mean are eggs that are from happy chickens. The ones who crossed that darn road and ended up at Snow Hollow Farm, or any of the other local farms just like them.
These are chickens that aren’t confined to tiny cages, six or more to a cage, from the moment they begin laying to the day they die. These chickens, happy chickens, have a chicken coop that they can go in and out of as they please, whenever they please, all day, every day. The doors (not just a tiny whole in the back of a barn) are thrown open every morning at dawn. The chickens spend the entire day grazing in open pastures, eating as many bugs as they desire, supplemented with non-GMO, organic grain, going into the coop to lay their eggs when the urge strikes, and being led back in for the night to sleep in a secure, cozy coop protected from the elements and other predators. These? Are happy chickens.
And their eggs? Are DELICIOUS. They range from bright white to light blue to a brilliantly dark coppery color, depending on the breed of bird. Their whites are just a bit firmer, and their yolks are an appetizing bright, bright orangey yellow. Their size depends, naturally, upon the time of year and what kind of foraging they have found. But they are always hormone-free, antibiotic-free, and amazing.
So what are the eggs that they sell in the store? It depends on the type and brand you purchase, but here’s a bit of decoding:
Standard Care – These eggs come from chickens who are cooped up in cages, as many birds in a cage as can get stuffed in there, from the moment they begin laying till the day they stop. They have no exposure to pasture, fresh air, or anything other than the feed provided by their care takers. They are often de-beaked to prevent them from harming themselves or other chickens in such close quarters (an occurrence that can lead to cannibalism among chickens)
Cage Free – This means that the chickens are most likely still contained in a barn, just not in cages. They are often still de-beaked “for their own protection” and rely upon whatever grain they are fed as their sole source of nutrition.
Free Range – While this option sounds wonderful, it merely means that these chickens are cage free with access to the outdoors. Essentially, there is a small door (or doors) with openings to a small, fenced in yard/pasture – but there are so many birds in such a large enclosure that few, if any, ever find or venture out of that door.
Organic – Organic eggs come from chickens which have been fed certified organic grain. Which is a step in the right direction, as most chickens need some supplemental grain even when they are pastured chickens, but does not guarantee happy chickens, as standard-care, cage free, or free range laying hens may all be certified as organic without ever having stepped foot in a pasture their entire lives, based soley on the grains provided them.
Pastured – (Please note, pastured is not the same as pasteurized – fresh eggs should never be pasteurized!)You will most likely not find these in your standard grocery store. Harvest Market has a fantastic selection of them, as may your neighbor! These are Real Eggs like the ones I described above. You’ll want to rinse them off before cracking, as they will most likely still have a clear, barely detectable membrane of protection around them – which helps keep them fresh, but is always eradicated by normal production standards for your typical eggs.
If you’d like more information to research the best option for you and your family, here are some resources we found useful:
For information on the grading and sizing of eggs: http://www.eggsafety.org/retailers-a-food-service/fact-sheet/types-of-eggs
For information on the variety of labels on eggs: http://www.thevegetariansite.com/ed_eggs.htm
Information about pastured eggs: http://www.localharvest.org/pastured-eggs.jsp
If you are interested in raising your own pastured chickens, we recommend you start with The Small Scale Poultry Flock book by fellow Virginian, Harvey Ussery.