As a consumer of real, nutrient dense, whole foods you are well aware of the nutritional powerhouses that eggs are. The trickiest part about getting the maximum health benefits in each serving of these wonders of nature is to get the right kind of egg.
It can be frustratingly difficult to decipher which claims printed on egg cartons are worth paying extra for, however. Sadly, I can tell you that designations such as 'cage free', 'all natural', and 'free range' may not be defined exactly as you assume.
Some of these terms mean literally nothing. They have no definition that is regulated or enforced. It becomes a question of which claims are empty marketing and which are worth spending a few dollars more to support animal welfare, environmental sustainability, and nutritional superiority.
A brief rundown of egg carton labels claims:
No label denotes the use of 'battery' cage systems. On average, each caged hen is afforded 67 square inches of cage space (this is smaller than a sheet of letter sized paper) in which to exist for her entire life.
All eggs commercially produced in North America are hormone free, whether the carton says so or not.
According to the USDA, the word 'natural' refers to minimally processed, containing no artificial ingredients. This label means nothing on an egg carton.
This claim can be made if the hen has not ingested antibiotics during her growing period or while laying her eggs. Antibiotic free egg production is very common and is currently almost the practice followed most by the industry, whether this is mentioned on the carton or not.
These eggs have been rapidly heated and held at a minimum required temperature for a specified period of time. This process kills bacteria but does not cook the egg or effect color flavor or use.
The eggs laid by hens fed a diet including flax, marine algae and/or fish oils have a much higher omega 3 fatty acid content in their yolks. These eggs also contain a higher vitamin E content. More naturally occurring sources of these nutrients will always be utilized more efficiently by your body.
These hens are able to freely roam in an aviary (room, building or enclosed area in which they are housed) during their laying cycle. Sadly, cage free systems have nearly double the death rate of caged systems due to reduced air quality (thanks to dust and fecal matter in the air) and outbreaks of aggression and cannibalism due to being densely packed in this environment with unfettered access to each other.
Hens that are not caged and have some access to the outdoors are designated as free range. The type and duration of this access is not regulated and often is a small door or screened porch.
Vegetarian fed hens eat feed containing no animal products. Chickens are natural omnivores and these chickens are definitely not pastured as birds with access to pasture will forage for non-vegetarian inputs to their diets such as insects and grubs.
Certified organic eggs are regulated and must come from hens that have some outdoor access and are fed with a feed produced without conventional fertilizers and pesticides.
Pastured or pasture raised hens have access to an open outdoor area. This is the only egg carton label that guarantees the hen was given sufficient access to the outdoors with the space to forage, nest, run and perform other natural 'chicken-like' behaviors. If possible, these eggs should be primary choice – you will notice the difference both in how they look and how they taste. Your body will appreciate the true nutritional value of an egg from a hen having lived in her natural environment.
When I eye a dish so often I just want to add an egg on top – it seems to make it even better and more unctuous. What I usually have in mind is a poached egg. Poached eggs are cooked by slipping them naked into a bath of gently simmering water, and they come out with silky, easily pierced whites, and golden, gooey yolks.
As much as I love a well poached egg, they have a reputation for being difficult or finicky. This is my foolproof method for getting the perfect egg poach, every time:
The big difference between an easy poached egg and a slightly more difficult one may be in the visual details. Admittedly, I get how tough it is to achieve the perfectly round, satiny smooth poached eggs you see adorning restaurant dishes. As you perfect your technique, you can still enjoy an egg with a little extra white trailing off to the side or wrinkled top underneath the salt and pepper.
You can poach several eggs at once, but make sure you have a little extra space in your pan for each one. Crack them into separate containers and slip them into the water one by one. Extend the cooking time by about 30 seconds for each extra egg.
Use the freshest eggs you can get your hands on. Older eggs produce more ghost-like wisps in the water. A spoonful of vinegar helps the situation by encouraging the whites to coagulate quickly and will not change the flavor of your eggs.
How to Poach the Perfect Egg
- Fill a saucepan about 2/3 full with water and bring to a boil.
- Turn the heat down and let the water cool to a brisk simmer. You should see bubbles coming up to the surface, but there is no rolling boil.
- Crack your fresh, pastured egg into a small measuring cup, preferably one with a long handle. This will help you ease the egg into the water.
- Add 1 tablespoon of your choice of vinegar to the water.
- Use the measuring cup to carefully and gently lower the egg into the water and then tip it out ensuring your water is still at that simmer.
- Cook for 4 minutes to obtain a firm white and gooey, runny yolk. If you prefer your eggs more on the well-poached side, cook for longer or raise the water temperature slightly.
- If cooking more than 1 egg in your pan, carefully place the other eggs into your water and add 30 seconds to your cook time for each additional egg.
- Use a slotted spoon to remove the egg from the water and lightly pat dry if you would like.
- Place your perfectly poached egg over some well sourced, well made bacon, home-made hash, smoked salmon, salad, or a burger, whatever meal you feel you want to add a little something to. Season to taste with a little salt and pepper, eat right away and enjoy.