There’s nothing quite like farm-fresh eggs from free-range hens. I’ve gotten so spoiled, I find it really difficult to choke down “concentration camp eggs” when I need to order breakfast on the road. When hens have the opportunity to range freely, get plenty of exercise and fresh air, and eat a varied diet (which, in summer, includes plenty of greens and insects), the results are not only wholesome — they’re also delicious. It’s why the yolk of a farm egg can be so dark (and almost orange), while eggs produced in a concentration camp have such pale yellow yolks.
But, I must admit, the commercial egg producers get one part of the equation correct more consistently than the typical small farmer (including this one): they know the exact date on which each egg was laid, an expiration date based on that day is clearly marked on the carton, and their eggs are kept at a consistent temperature from “farm” to point of sale.
Things on a small farm don’t always go so perfectly. We might go to the barn to gather eggs, and stumble upon a half-dozen that some hen(s) have stashed in a new place. Have those eggs been there for a day? Or two weeks? Same goes for the eggs once they make it inside. During the most active laying periods, our flock produces far more eggs than even our family of seven can keep up with. Eggs begin piling up in the refrigerator. (Or, as the case may be once the refrigerator fills, an unheated room which in winter can be almost as chilly as a refrigerator. And I’ve known Amish farmers to store eggs in an unheated basement.) Good luck maintaining a perfect “first in / first out” rotation, especially as half-filled cartons add up. Someone will combine eggs from last night with eggs from three weeks ago, and then stick the carton underneath five other cartons. Then what?
If the farmer is selling eggs directly to the public, and is doing a brisk business, this may not be much of an issue. Especially in the summer, when hens slow down a bit, virtually everything can get sold off every day. If you’re getting your eggs from someone like that, you don’t have much to worry about. But what if you have your own flock, and (like us), have decided to keep the eggs for your own family for now? And find you have so many, you don’t know what’s fresh and what’s not?
For most people, the first move is to crack each egg individually in a small bowl before combining with the other eggs you’re planning to cook with. It’s usually pretty obvious if an egg is going bad, because the yolk will be coming apart (or worse). However, if you’ve ever cracked open an egg that’s truly rotten, you’ll want to avoid repeating the experience. Once in a lifetime is plenty for most of us, especially if the sulfurous gases have built up to the point where the egg literally explodes when cracked.
There are in fact ways to evaluate an egg before cracking it open. The first step is to pay attention to the egg’s weight. Does it feel too light for its size? If so, it’s probably getting pretty bad. The solids are breaking down, and converting to gas. Which brings us to step two: testing the egg in a bowl of water. A good egg will settle on the bottom of the bowl and lay perfectly flat and horizontal. The older it gets, the more it will begin to tilt and stand up on end. If you put an egg into water and it immediately snaps vertical, that egg is probably not worth cracking open. If the egg actually FLOATS in the water, and especially if it comes all the way to the surface, it’s definitely bad. Carefully remove it from the bowl, and carefully dispose of it. This is the type of egg that’s likely to explode on you.
The float test saved us a lot of grief this past Sunday. We’d taken three dozen eggs with us to my father-in-law’s house, and were preparing to cook brunch. I opened the first carton, and discovered a turkey egg along with the chicken and duck eggs. This was my first clue that there was a problem; we butchered our last turkey before Christmas. That meant this egg must be at least three months old. (Yes, egg cartons can get buried under other egg cartons for that long, especially when production is high.) I carefully disposed of the turkey egg, and then carefully put that carton’s other eleven eggs into a bowl of water. As expected, all eleven floated. The same was true for the second carton. The third carton was perfectly fine; all the eggs settled to the bottom as they should.
Fortunately, we only needed to cook 18 eggs, and we had brought a good number of extras the previous week. But it looks like we need to do some “spring cleaning” with the eggs, and get those things a little better organized. Thank goodness for the Float Test.