Eggs are full of life: they provide nutrients, proteins, fats, vitamins and minerals, nearly everything needed for life. One ingredient that may seem less essential, but as we shall see figures pretty largely in the cooking of an egg, is air. It’s that tiny pocket of air that is directly related to the age and quality of an egg. Nature included this air pocket so that the tiny, developing chick could breathe.
However, when eggs are for consumption rather than hatching, they are cooled and stored and their water content starts to evaporate – and the air pocket gets bigger. It follows, therefore that, generally speaking, the larger the air pocket the staler the egg. (I say generally because sometimes a hairline crack, invisible to the human eye, can let air into a very fresh egg: but this is distinctly rare.)
The freshness of an egg is very important in cooking. Stale eggs, with their flat yolks and watery whites, spread themselves miserably to all corners of the frying pan . Not to mention the ones whose yolks in poaching water completely part company with their whites – while the whites in turn are reducing the water to a mass of foaming bubbles.
How to buy and store eggs: Number one on the list here (unless you happen to know the hens) is to buy your eggs from a supplier who has a large turnover. Boxes now (and sometimes the eggs themselves) carry a ‘best before’ date. What you should know is that this date, provided the egg box is stamped with the lion mark, corresponds precisely to 21 days after laying (not packing), so you are, therefore, able to work out just how fresh your eggs are.
Although it is now being recommended that eggs should be stored in the refrigerator, I never do. The reason for this is that for most cooking purposes, eggs are better used at room temperature. If I kept them in the fridge I would have the hassle of removing them half an hour or so before using them. A cool room or larder is just as good, but if, however, you think your kitchen or store cupboard is too warm and want to store them in the fridge, you’ll need to try to remember to let your eggs come to room temperature before you use them. My answer to the storage problem is to buy eggs in small quantities so I never have to keep them too long anyway. The very best way to store eggs is to keep them in their own closed, lidded boxes. Because the shells are porous, eggs can absorb the flavours and aromas of other strong foods, so close the boxes and keep them fairly isolated, particularly if you’re storing them in the fridge.
There is, however, one glorious exception to this rule. My dear friend and great chef Simon Hopkinson once came to stay in our house. He brought some new-laid eggs in a lidded box, which also contained a fresh black truffle. He arrived on Maundy Thursday, and on Easter Sunday made some soft scrambled eggs, which by now had absorbed all the fragrance and flavour of the truffle. Served with thin shavings of the trufflle sprinkled over, I have to say they were the very best Easter eggs I have ever tasted!
What about cholesterol? Eggs, I am very happy to report, are out of the firing line on the cholesterol front. It is now believed that the real culprits on this one are saturated fat and partially hydrogenated fat, which eggs, thankfully, are low in. There is more good news, too: even if you are on a low-fat diet, eating up to seven eggs a week is okay. Hooray!
How safe are they? Poor old eggs; just as they recover from one slur, along comes another. Eggs, as we know, can harbour a bacterium called salmonella. Cases of food poisoning, or even death, from eating eggs are isolated but do occur. Therefore, the only way we can be absolutely certain of not being affected is by only eating eggs that are well cooked, with hard yolks and no trace of softness or runny yolk at all. Ugh!
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