Perhaps the most versatile ingredient on the planet, is eggs. Whether you’re using eggs as a source of protein, or as a leavening agent in baking, or even as a decorative prize for a family fun hunting activity on Easter, there’s nothing eggs cannot seem to do. Sure there are many different egg-laying creatures in this world, such as ducks, quail, and fish to name a few, but by far, the most popular egg consumed by humans is the chicken egg. Therefore, our discussion for today will be focused on the chicken egg. Lesson six: eggs.

The shape of an egg is in a class all on its own. I’m sure everyone has heard the expression, “egg-shaped.” If you haven’t, just picture an oval where one end is larger and rounder than the other end. And if you still don’t know… google it. The anatomy of an egg is somewhat a little less understood. Yes, there is something yellow and slimy inside, and it is indeed the early stages of a baby chick. But, like so many evolved species, every structure has a very particular composition and function. For example, the shell of an egg, is a hardened, thin layer primarily composed of calcium carbonate, that allows for protection against microbes and the transfer of air and moisture to and from the external environment. This hardened shell is indeed so effective, that an egg will actually dry out before it spoils. Now, is there a difference between eggs with brown shells versus eggs with white shells? Nutritionally, no. Shell color, depends on the chicken laying the egg. Where white-feathered chickens with white ear lobes lay white eggs, red-feathered chickens with red ear lobes lay brown ones. The yolk is the yellow part of the egg, and contains the most vitamins, minerals, proteins, fats, and therefore the most calories. The yolk in a newly laid egg is typically round and firm, and as it ages, it absorbs water from the albumin causing it to increase in size. You may have noticed that some egg yolks are darker in color than others. Well, this little trait is dependent on what the momma hen had been eating. If she ate feed with an abundance of plant pigments, then those pigments eventually become deposited in her egg yolk. The egg white, also known as albumin, is primarily composed of water and protein, serving to provide additional nutrition for the developing embryo. The air cell is the small pocket of air under the membrane at the large end of the egg. As the egg ages, the air cell grows in size, which is why older eggs have the tendency to float more than fresh eggs.

The average laying hen produces an egg about every 25 hours for about 1-2 years. By the time the eggs have been collected, run through the processing plant, shipped to the grocer, and placed on shelves for sale, it’s hard for the customer to really know just how fresh the eggs they’re purchasing are. There are little tricks to check for though – check the expiration date (no-brainer), the grade (A or AA = fresh), and if it’s being properly refrigerated. An unrefrigerated egg ages in a day as quick as a refrigerated egg ages in week.

Unlike store-bought vegetables, store-bought eggs never need to washed before you eat or cook them. In fact, washing eggs will actually remove the mineral oil coating, which is applied to eggs at processing plants to extend their shelf-life. So now you’ve got your carton of shiny eggs, but need to crack the shell to get the edible parts out. One little tip I’ve learned on the Food Network, is to gently crack eggs on a flat surface. Most people (use to be me) opt for the edge of bowl or pan, but this can push shell fragments and any lingering microbes into your egg. Not something you want to do, especially if you plan on eating it in the raw. Now that I always crack my eggs on a flat surface, I also never seem to run into issues with broken yolks or swimming shell fragments. It’s changed my life.

If you plan on making some rich and creamy crème brulee (check out the recipe below), and need to separate the yolk from the albumin without causing a mash of the two, and as my friend Alton Brown suggests… use your hands. Okay, Alton Brown isn’t really my friend, he doesn’t even know I exist, but he’s a genius and knows everything about food and cooking, and Alton if you’re reading this… I’d really, really like to be your friend. And he’s right. Just wash your hands (well) and gently crack the egg onto the fingers of your upturned hand. Allow the whites to run through your fingers and into a bowl. The yolk will rest there, in its purest form, waiting for you to cook with it.

Due to their wide range of cooking applications, chicken eggs are mass produced worldwide. In the late 1980s, there were about 21 local egg farms in Hawaii, supplying 85% of the island’s egg stock. Sadly, there are only 4 local commercial egg farms on the island now: Ka Lei Eggs, Island Fresh Eggs, Maili Moa, and Asagi Hatchery. As with so many local Hawaii businesses, competition against Mainland industries that have the capacity to supply enormous quantities at cheaper prices, force them to close their doors. Local eggs are free of antibiotics and hormones, and are 10-15 days fresher than eggs from the mainland. But due to the costs of feed and other farming supplies that must be shipped to Hawaii, local farmers are forced to sell at higher prices. The owners of the 4 remaining egg farms are pictured below.

One of the things that make these local egg farms so special, is that they are all small family businesses. Take Maili Moa for example, every morning at early dawn, their small group of employees/family members collect approximately 5,000 eggs, wash and scrub each one, which is then sized and sorted by hand, and packaged and stored in a refrigerator until they will be distributed for sale. Businesses like Maili Moa sell their products only at farmer’s markets or for subscription, and not at grocery stores. Slightly larger local businesses, like Ka Lei Eggs, however, do produce enough eggs to sell at farmer’s markets, distribute to grocery stores, and sell at their storefront establishment on Waialae Avenue in the Kaimuki area. With only 4 remaining egg farmers on Hawaii, they need our support. If you can afford to spend a little more, buy local!

Since eggs are so versatile, universally-respected and so well-researched, one can literally carry on a discussion about eggs for hours. And no matter how you use your eggs, on a pan with butter, boiled in a pot of water, separated for baking, or raw for sauces, they will almost always taste awesome. Here are some really yummy recipes that caught my attention.

RANCHERO BREAKFAST TOSTADA

recipe

SPINACH FRITTATA

recipe

VANILLA BEAN CREME BRULEE

recipe

CROQUE MADAME

recipe

Images: basket of eggs, how to crack an egg, free chickens on ahualoa egg farm, hawaii egg farmers, james peterson of peterson’s farm, hilo’s farmer’s market, ka lei eggs.

Weekend Bites: Chez Meme Baguette Bistro
Weekly Roundup: Lobsters and PB&J