Eggs 101

We squeeze, knock and squint our way through produce aisles, searching for the best possible product; why do we so often grab whatever is in reach when it comes to our eggs? Those perfect orbs are just as fresh (or should be) as our lettuce, and are a mainstay in most of our diets, yet we don’t take the time to scrutinize them as we should.

No matter if you’re buying eggs for breakfast or for a cake, those eggs should be the best quality you can find. Fresh eggs, especially ones purchased from local farms and farmers’ markets, mean vibrant, Technicolor yolks and a clean flavor superior to that of eggs from industrial farms. Before you buy your next dozen, do your research to make sure you’re getting truly fresh and good eggs.

Photography by Jennifer Silverberg, illustrations by James Olstein

1. Cracking the Code: Egg Types

Egg Types

Chickens, How You Living?

Pasture-Raised: A pasture-raised indicator on your egg box means that the chicken that laid your eggs was, by definition, raised for some portion of their life with open access to the outdoors. Chickens have the chance to forage as they would naturally, but often get a majority of their nutritional needs met by vegetarian feed. The claim “pasture-raised” is an official USDA term, but with no agreed-upon set of standards to adhere to for chickens and their living space and no follow-up after initial approval. In order for this to really mean your eggs are coming from the best possible environment, the farm needs to be certified humane by a third party. Certified Humane on your box means chickens are encouraged outside into not only a space that’s at least 108 square feet, but one that’s regularly rotated to provide them with ample food sources: seeds, bugs and the like. It also means they have access to adequate shelter to protect them from predators.

Vegetarian-Fed: If your box of eggs includes a vegetarian-fed label, it doesn’t necessarily mean that chickens are fed a clean, ideal diet – it simply means they ate feed free of animal meat and/or animal byproducts. The term can be confusing for multiple reasons, most importantly because it sounds healthier than it is. Chickens eat more than seeds: When left to their own devices, they regularly forage for bugs, mice and even snakes, because they need the protein those small critters provide. Vegetarian feed is great because it reduces risks of disease spreading between animals, but its healthfulness comes down to the quality of the feed itself. It also doesn’t mean the eggs you’re eating are purely vegetarian: If those chickens are given access to pasture, they’ll eat any insect or rodent they come across.

2. The Perfect Egg for Every Occasion

Different dishes call for different egg consistencies and preparations, and every minute matters. 

Fried Eggs

Fried Eggs

3 to 4 minutes: Heat 1 to 2 tablespoons oil (not butter) in a nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Crack eggs into the pan gently and fry, 2 minutes, until the edges are brown and crispy. Cover and cook for 1 to 2 minutes more until whites have just set. 

Poached Eggs

Poached Eggs 2 Ways

In a high-sided skillet with a lid over medium heat, bring 1 inch of water to a boil.

3 to ½ minutes: Reduce water to a simmer, crack eggs, one at a time, into a ramekin and pour carefully into water. Simmer each for 3 to 3½ minutes.

5 minutes: Remove pan from heat, crack eggs, one at a time, into a ramekin and pour carefully into water. Cover and let cook 5 minutes.

Boiled Eggs

Boiled Eggs 3 Ways

There are two schools of thought on boiling eggs: Starting eggs in cold water and increasing the heat or dropping them into boiling water. When you’re timing eggs to the minute, everyone should have the same starting point: Different pans and stovetops will vary how fast your water comes to a boil, which is why – for eggs timed to the minute, we’re using the boil first method. To really nail your timing, begin with room-temperature eggs. Have an ice bath ready to cool your eggs slightly after boiling; pull eggs out at the designated time and let them cool 2 to 3 minutes before peeling.

5 minutes: A soft-boiled, nicely scoopable egg, the likes of which you’d see upright in an egg cup. Crack these with a spoon on top, peel away an opening in the shell and eat with a spoon.

6 to 7 minutes: A picture-perfect medium egg for ramen and salads alike: Six minutes will get you near-firm whites with a little wobble near the center with a runny liquid yolk, while seven minutes will nab you a jammy center with firm whites. Peel gently and slice in half, being mindful of the loose yolk.

12 minutes: A sunny yellow hard-boiled egg without a trace of gray. Firm yolk but not dry or crumbly, with nicely sliceable whites. Peel carefully and slice as you wish.

3. Conscious Uncoupling, Eggs & Yolks Edition

Separating eggs isn’t as hard as it seems: It all comes down to picking a method you’re most comfortable with and practicing until you nail it. No matter which method you choose, always begin with three bowls set close together: one for whites, one for yolks and a third for the discarded shells.

Methods to Avoid (regardless of what the internet says)

Turkey Baster Method

Exceptionally tedious and messy, and you need a gadget for it. If your egg is especially watery, you’ll never get it completely away from the yolk without breaking it. A disaster waiting to happen.

Funnel Method

Another gadget, and too much room for error: Too small a funnel and the thicker white will refuse to budge, while a too-large funnel will cause too much suction on the yolk, which may puncture it. Not worth the risk.

How to Flip Eggs

4. Flipping Out (The Right Way)

1. Begin with the right pan here: A nonstick with high, rounded sizes gives you your best chance to stick the landing. Heat pan over medium-high heat, then add the fat of your choice – we prefer oil for frying.

2. Crack eggs gently into hot pan; let them cook until the underneath is set.

3. Begin shaking the pan to loosen eggs, firmly but not so much you disturb the yolk, using a quick back-and-forth motion.

4. Once you feel the eggs release from the pan, put your game face on and quickly push the pan forward and up to slide egg forward and up; complete the circle with the pan – back, down and forward again – to ease the pan under the egg gently without cracking the yolk.

5. When It Comes to Scrambling, Butter or Olive Oil?

People have strong opinions about what fat to use when scrambling eggs: oil or butter. Depending on the dish and time of day, though, both can have their benefits. Here, we asked two chefs to share their opinions on when to use oil and butter for scrambled eggs.

Loryn Nalic

Loryn Nalic, chef-owner, Balkan Treat Box in Webster Groves, Missouri

“I cook eggs in olive oil for savory dinner dishes, usually to go with tomatoes and garlic when in season. That’s how my grandma did it. Otherwise, it’s butter for breakfast!”

Gerard Craft

Gerard Craft, chef-owner, Niche Food Group in St. Louis

“While olive oil in eggs can taste great and offer a healthy alternative, it doesn’t compare to eggs made with butter. Slowly stirring cold butter with cold eggs in a cold pan over a low flame creates the silkiest eggs on the planet. One of the keys is a knob of cold butter at the end to stop the cooking. Also, the better the butter, the better the eggs.”

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Shannon Weber is the creator, author and photographer behind the award-winning blogaperiodictableblog.com, and her work has appeared on websites such as Bon Appétit, Serious Eats and America’s Test Kitchen.

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