Whether you like your eggs poached, scrambled, or fried, you have farmers to thank for getting them onto your plate. Egg farming involves more than just waiting around for a hen to do her thing. The profession requires patience, knowledge, and a willingness to get your hands dirty. Here are some behind-the-scenes secrets from top eggsperts in the field.
1. WHAT YOU FEED THE CHICKENS MATTERS.
If you’ve made the switch from factory-farmed to free-range eggs, you’ve likely noticed the difference in yolk color. When chickens are free to roam they produce eggs with yolks that are a brilliant, deep orange. This can be explained by their diets. Factory-raised hens are primarily fed a grain-based diet, while free-range chickens enjoy plants that are rich in yellow-orange carotenoids. In addition to making for a more aesthetically pleasing egg, the pigment molecules have also been shown to hold antioxidant properties and can indicate the health of the chicken they came from.
2. DIFFERENT HENS LAY DIFFERENT COLORED EGGS.
Don’t listen to anyone who tells you that brown eggs are the healthier option—the only difference between white and brown eggs is the chicken that laid them. White eggs are usually laid by white-feathered chickens with white earlobes, and brown eggs by reddish-brown chickens with red earlobes. There’s no apparent difference in taste or nutrition between the two varieties, but brown eggs do tend to be more expensive. This is because the breed that lays them is larger and therefore requires more feed to raise. Another breed, the araucana chicken, produces eggs that are a bluish-green. These are also no different in quality, but some egg farmers like to keep the chickens around for buyers who prefer the colorful eggs.
3. SOME CHICKENS ARE CHAMPION LAYERS.
While it’s true that most chickens lay eggs, some breeds lay more than others. Hens used for commercial egg farming are normally hybrid chickens that have been cross-bred for maximum egg production. Certain varieties can lay as many as 280 eggs in a single year. Some heritage hens (breeds whose lineages date back before factory farming) can also turn out eggs in impressive numbers. Leghorns and Rhode Island reds are both capable of laying around 250 eggs a year.
4. A CLEVER LIGHT TRICK HELPS KEEP THEM LAYING.
The amount of eggs a hen lays directly correlates with the amount of light outside. During the spring and summer months when days are longest, egg production is at its peak. In the winter months when sunlight is scarce, some pure breed chickens will stop laying together. Egg farmers have found a way around this by tricking their hens with artificial lights. Incandescent or halogen lights that mimic the yellow glow of the sun can be controlled to keep the chickens laying all year round.
5. EGG SHELLS COME WITH A PROTECTIVE COATING.
An egg is delivered in one of nature’s most perfect packages. A protective coating called a “bloom” seals the outside of the shell, preventing bacteria from getting in and moisture from seeping out. Sadly, most commercial eggs are cleaned as soon as they’re collected, ruining the hygienic barrier they naturally come with. Egg purveyors will sometimes replace the bloom with a spray of mineral oil, giving the eggs a glossy look. Eggs farmers that raise their chickens in clean, organic environments can sometimes skip cleaning the eggs altogether and rely on the bloom to keep them safe. (If you purchase eggs from small farms that leave the bloom on, it’s a good idea to rinse them before you consume.)
6. EGGS ARE GRADED FOR QUALITY.
A supermarket carton of eggs comes with one of three different grades—AA, A, or B—based on the quality of the eggs inside. Grade AA eggs are top tier with firm whites and raised, rounded yolks. Grade A, one step below, are similar but with whites that are slightly less firm. Eggs that pass for B can have shells that are stained or misshapen and contain thinner whites and flatter yolks. An egg’s grade is not necessarily an indicator of freshness or taste.
7. ‘CANDLING’ LETS FARMERS PEEK INSIDE.
How is it possible for farmers to check the inside of an egg without cracking it open? They use a clever method called “candling” that involves holding a light up to an egg to illuminate its interior. This trick used to be done with candles, which is how it originally got its name. Now most farmers use special candling lamps or small flashlights to light up their eggs. Candlers with a trained eye know what to look for when checking eggs for cracks, imperfections, and quality yolks and whites. And should a farmer have any reason to suspect a rooster’s been in their hen house, candling the eggs will show whether or not they’re fertilized.