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The View from My Kitchen

Benvenuti! I hope you enjoy il panorama dalla mia cucina Italiana -- "the view from my Italian kitchen,"-- where I indulge my passion for Italian food and cooking. From here, I share some thoughts and ideas on food, as well as recipes and restaurant reviews, notes on travel, and a few garnishes from a lifetime in the entertainment industry.

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Thursday, September 13, 2012

On Storing Eggs

I was visiting friends. Having offered to cook breakfast for my hosts, I headed to the refrigerator for some eggs. I opened the door and there it was.......<insert weird, shrieking “Psycho” SFX here> the dreaded egg basket! It wasn't really a basket at all. It was just a plastic bin that was supposed to be holding ice cubes in the freezer. But there it was......sitting on a shelf in the refrigerator......holding hostage at least a dozen innocent little eggs. Having tried on previous occasions to intervene on behalf of the hapless ovoid prisoners, I cried, “Why? Why is this abomination still here?” Came the chilling reply, “Habit.”

Eggs are often called “nature's perfect food.” Part of that perfection lies in their hardy little self-contained storage units. The shells are primarily made of calcium carbonate. Resting within is the nutrient rich yolk, surrounded by albumen or “whites” containing still more vitamins and minerals. These components are encompassed by inner and outer membranes and anchors, called “chalazae,” that all combine to protect the contents and keep them centered in place. (By the way, that's pronounced “kuh-LAY-zee” in case you were wondering. Or you can just call them the thick, stringy things you see when you crack open an egg.)

Egg shells may look solid, but they're not. They contain thousands and thousands of little openings, like the pores on your skin. The interior shell membrane keeps nasty stuff like bacteria out, but egg shells are still gas permeable. As a result, as an egg cools after it is laid, an air cell develops in the larger, blunt end of the egg. Over time, the air cell increases in size. In a fertilized egg, this is the place where the emerging chick would obtain its first breath. In an egg destined to be scrambled, fried, or poached, this is the first line of defense for overall freshness.

You can tell a really fresh egg by the set of the yolk. With only a small air cell – about 1/8-inch deep – inside the shell of a very fresh egg, the yolk presents as small and tight when the egg is opened. It sits high above the surrounding white and remains centered within it. As the egg ages, a degree of evaporation occurs and the air space increases. This causes the albumen to thin slightly and results in a flatter, more spread out yolk when the egg is cracked open.

Eggs will eventually spoil and if you ever crack into a spoiled egg, you'll know it pretty quickly. But it takes a long time for an egg to degrade to the point of spoilage. Properly stored, they'll last for weeks, sometimes months, although the quality will diminish as the egg ages.

The first point of proper storage is refrigeration. Yeah, I know. Grandma kept her eggs in a basket on the counter and nobody ever died from eating them. And as I said in the previous paragraph, it takes an egg a long time to spoil. That said, it should be noted that a fresh-laid egg will age about one week for every day it is left unrefrigerated. Do the math. Then put your eggs in the refrigerator.

Ideally, eggs should be stored at temperatures between 50° and 55° with a relative humidity of between 70% and 75%. At an average of 40°, home refrigerators are a good bit cooler – or at least they should be. So avoid storing eggs in the bottom of your refrigerator, as this is usually the coldest spot.

Refrigerator manufacturers are so clever. They put neat little egg holders right in the refrigerator door. How wonderfully convenient! Just don't put your eggs in them. Two reasons: instability and uneven temperature.

You open the door, you close the door. You open the door, you close the door. Sometimes you jerk the door open and sometimes you slam it closed. And every time you open and close and open and close the door, you jiggle the eggs around. Eggs don't really like jiggling. Sometimes they even get a little cracked up about it. Sometimes those little anchors – the chalazae – loosen up and the contents of the egg starts to float around inside the shell. And every time you open and close and open and close the refrigerator door, the eggs, parked in their convenient little door tray, get warmed and cooled and warmed and cooled. They don't much like that either. Will door storage affect the safety of the eggs? No. Not unless they develop cracks that allow bacteria to enter. But door storage, with all its vibrations and thermal fluctuations, can affect shelf life and quality.

The next worst way to store eggs is piled up in a basket, bowl, ice bin, or whatever else you have on hand. Again, two reasons. Again, cracking. You know what will crack an egg almost faster than anything else? Another egg. Think I'm kidding? Roll two of 'em together so they barely make contact. You'll see. And when you store them all jumbled on top of one another in a basket, they make a lot of contact. And this is a food safety issue. “But it's just a little crack!” Little cracks let in lots of bacteria.

The other factor is orientation. An egg should be stored “pointy” side down. This keeps the air cell up in the blunt, rounded end of the egg where it naturally belongs. And this helps keep the innards of the egg centered in the places where they naturally belong. Are you going to get sick and die from eating an egg that's been lying on its side? No. But here again, it's a matter of preserving the quality of the egg.

In both door storage and open container methods, eggs are exposed to whatever else is keeping them company in the refrigerator. You know how when you open the refrigerator door, that leftover onion and garlic and pepper casserole kind of reminds you it's still there? Well, it's been making itself known to the eggs in the open container right next to it ever since you put it in there. And remember what I said about egg shells being porous and gas permeable? Hey! If you want to pre-flavor your eggs with onion and garlic and peppers, go for it. Might be good in an omelet, but not so much in a cake.

Once it leaves the chicken behind – or the chicken's behind, if you prefer – the best place for an egg is an egg carton. The egg carton as we know it today was invented back in 1911 by a Canadian newspaperman named Joseph L. Coyle. See, in those days eggs were collected, delivered, and stored in open baskets – kind of like the one in my host's refrigerator. But there was a big fight going on between a local egg farmer and his customer at a local hotel. Each side blamed the other for the broken eggs caused by the prevailing primitive and inefficient method of storage and transportation. So Mr. Coyle, who was also something of an inventor, came up with a paper alternative that kept the individual eggs cushioned and separated. The concept was an immediate success, and other than some changes in basic materials, the idea hasn't been improved upon in over a hundred years.

Although I do still keep my mother's 1950s-vintage molded-plastic egg carton around, I generally prefer cardboard or molded pulp paper cartons. A lot of people like the “modern” Styrofoam alternative, but once it hits our landfills that stuff has a half-life equivalent to radioactive isotopes. Whatever type floats your boat, however, it is important to freshness and quality to leave your eggs in their cartons. The cartons keep the eggs stable, oriented, and protected from jarring. They keep odors out and they help regulate temperature and humidity. Ice bins are for ice; egg cartons are for eggs.

So if you're in the “habit” of inappropriately storing your eggs, stop! Change your ways before it's too late! Move into the modern age! Give your eggs a break! (Oooo. Sorry.)

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