Eggs are the unsung heroes of the holiday season. They make our cakes rise, our custards thicken, and our pancakes puff. They transform plain old bread slices into decadent breakfasts and desserts, and they cook up in minutes to feed hordes of overnight guests. Isn't it time we gave them the respect they deserve? Though it may be tempting to grab that $1.99 carton of conventional grocery store eggs for your upcoming baking exploits, first take a minute to think about how they were produced. Just like beef, pork, and other animal products, the quality of an egg is closely related to the quality of life enjoyed by the animal it came from. Pastured eggs contain the most nutrients, cage-free eggs are slightly less nutritious, and conventional eggs are the least nutritious of the bunch.
Here are five frequently asked questions that will help you become a more thoughtful egg buyer this year, as well as ten eggy recipes to try during the holidays and beyond:
Are brown eggs more nutritious than white or blue eggs?
Nope. The only real difference between brown and white eggs—or any other colored egg, for that matter—is the breed of the hen who laid them. For instance, Leghorn hens lay white eggs, Buff Orpington and Black Star hens lay brown eggs, and Ameraucana hens lay bluish-green eggs. The nutritional value of the eggs is determined by what the birds eat and how they are raised (see below).
What’s the difference between cage-free and pastured eggs?
Cage-free eggs come from hens that are allowed to roam in large barns but generally do not have access to the outdoors. Pastured eggs come from hens that are raised outside on pasture, where they can roam and forage for bugs and natural vegetation. Compared to conventional eggs, which come from hens that are kept in cramped cages, both cage-free and pastured eggs are considerably more nutritious and more humane. However, pastured eggs have the most nutritional benefits of the three, since the hens that lay them enjoy the most natural diet.
How do duck eggs compare with chicken eggs?
On average, duck eggs are about 50% larger than standard chicken eggs, and they range in color from nearly black to grayish blue and creamy white. They have larger yolks than chicken eggs, which translates to a higher fat content and richer, eggier flavor. You can use duck eggs in place of chicken eggs in cooking and baking, 1:1, though the higher fat content in duck eggs will make baked goods rise slightly higher and taste slightly denser.
Why are pastured eggs more expensive than cage-free eggs?
It takes a lot more work to raise chickens on pasture. Unlike cage-free hens that are kept in a barn, pastured hens have to be moved from one foraging area to the next to keep the pasture growing and ensure that the birds will have plenty to eat. Plus, most farmers who raise their hens on pasture invest in more expensive, organic feed to supplement the bugs and grasses the hens scavenge outside. And finally, pastured hens lay fewer eggs than cage-free hens do, since more of their energy is spent on roaming free. (For more information on the price of eggs, check out this great article in Lucky Peach.)
Is there a way to determine the freshness of eggs?
All eggs should be marked with a sell-by date and Julian Date, which will help you determine their freshness. The sell-by date indicates how long they are fresh enough to sell, and the first three numbers of the Julian Date—from 001 to 365—indicate when the eggs were packed. (For instance, if the Julian Date on an egg carton starts with the numbers 032, you’ll know that the eggs inside were packed on February 1st of the current year.) Generally, eggs will keep for up to 5 weeks after the Julian Date and up to 3 weeks after the sell-by date. If you can’t find either date on your carton of eggs, try the float test: Fill a bowl with cold water, then gently drop in the eggs. If they sink to the bottom and lay on their sides, they’re perfectly fresh. If they stand on one end, they’re a few weeks old (especially great for hard-boiling!). And if they float to the surface, it’s best to toss them out.
Ready to eggspand your horizons? Here are a few egg-centric recipes to try this holiday season:
- Breakfast Strata Lorraine (from Williams-Sonoma)
- Christmas-Morning Casserole (from Food & Wine)
- Breakfast Casserole with Bacon (from Martha Stewart)
- Egg Pancakes (from Food52)
- Baked French Toast (from Epicurious)
- Classic Challah Bread (from King Arthur Flour)
- Challah Bread Pudding (from Serious Eats)
- Cranberry Clafoutis (from Mark Bittman/New York Times)
- Eggnog Custard Pie (from Jamie Deen/Food Network)
- Eggnog (from Alton Brown/Food Network)