Thursday, January 6, 2011

Fresh Eggs: From Hen To House!

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by Meredith Chilson
I haven’t purchased eggs in about three years, not since my backyard flock of hens started laying. I’m happy to use fresh, flavorful eggs. I wasn’t worried a bit when the salmonella scare hit last year. I know my hens. I know what and where they’ve been eating; I know that the eggs are laid in nice, clean nests. I can trace the entire process from hen to nest to house to stove.

Wouldn’t it be great if everyone could trace food like this: from hen to house? According to an archived NY Times article written by Mimi Sheraton, this is what happens to “factory farm” eggs: “After being conveyed from hens, eggs are washed … in 110-to-120-degree water mixed with detergent, chlorine and sometimes ammonia … and … covered with a thin film of clear, odorless oil.” Huh! Detergent and chlorine and ammonia and oil. Huh!

No wonder “my” eggs taste better. Here’s how I store eggs:

First of all, I gather eggs twice a day. That’s partly because my chicken coop is not heated in the winter. I think, too, that the longer an egg stays in a nest, the more chance there is that it will get dirty or broken. It’s also because I like to gather eggs. Remember Easter mornings when you were small, looking for eggs? It’s just like that for me every day…twice!

I gather eggs in a coated wire basket, and place them carefully, the less handling, the better. I inspect each egg as I take it from the nest, too. Then, the eggs go directly to the house. Cracked eggs go in a bowl for baking use, within a day or two. If any of the eggs have mud or manure on them I set them aside. Clean eggs go in a cardboard egg carton, large end up. If there’s a piece of straw or shavings on the egg, I flick it off, and then that egg also goes in the carton. And a word or two about cartons: I do re-use them; my neighbors drop them off at my house by the bagful. But, I only use cardboard, and only very clean ones. The others I recycle (the Styrofoam ones make great packing material for mailing breakable items).

Now, each egg that I have set aside gets personal attention. If they are muddy, and it can be wiped off, that happens. Then, each really dirty egg is washed in warm water. No soap, no detergent, and especially no chemicals! I dry each egg carefully, and then these eggs are put in a carton.

All the eggs are refrigerated. I store them on the middle shelf in my refrigerator, and try very hard to keep them away from strong smelling foods. When I’m ready to use the eggs, I wash them thoroughly with warm water.

Fresh egg with the "bloom" washed off
Here’s why I store eggs the way I do:
Eggshells are porous. When an egg is laid, it is covered with a protective coating call the “bloom” that seals the pores in the eggs and therefore prevents bacteria and other nasty things from entering the egg. Washing, or even much handling, removes the bloom and the protection is lost. That’s the reasoning behind the factory farms adding an oil coating, in fact. In our own homes, with our own flocks, we still need to be cognizant of this. Thus, cracked eggs are used for baking -thorough cooking destroys most bacteria. Clean eggs and those with specks that can be brushed off are stored as is, bloom intact, and washed before use. Dirty eggs are washed after gathering, and should be used first, as their protective bloom (or cuticle, as it is sometimes called) will have been removed.

Store eggs with the large end up to center the yolk. Each egg has an air cell, small when fresh, and growing larger and larger as the egg ages. Fresh eggs will also have a dense, cloudy “white” or albumen. This is caused by carbon dioxide, which escapes as the egg ages. You can tell a really fresh egg if it has a cloudy, thick white around a high yolk. Even though “store-bought” eggs have dates on the cartons, it’s hard to tell for sure how old the eggs are. As I remember, though, the whites were always clear and thin on those eggs.

I have 20 hens in my flock. Some of the girls are now three years old, and not nearly the terrific layers they used to be. All but the three youngsters (new layers, less than 8 months old) are just coming off a molt, too, and just beginning to lay again. It’s cold here in Western New York, the nights are long, there’s not a lot of sunlight. So, on lucky days lately, I’ve been finding 5 eggs. Some days I can use 5 eggs, sometimes it takes me a week to use 5 eggs. I give the extras away to my neighbors, for a donation toward chicken feed. These days I don’t have many extras, of course, but each egg deserves to be stored correctly, and each has a history that can be traced directly back to the coop. You’ve heard of “sheep to shawl”? I’m promoting “hen to house”!

11 comments:

  1. I love the eggs from my chooks. The hens are allowed to free range and eat lots of green, and scratch for bugs and have a social life. They are happy girls. They even have a rooster to organise them Their eggs are rich and the yolks are golden yellow. I would never go back to store bought eggs.

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  2. I'm looking forward to the time we can have our own chickens.
    Why do you wash the eggs before using them if you know they're clean already?
    (Sorry to be stupid, but I'd like to know.)
    Thanks for this clear explanation of how to handle (or not handle) the eggs!

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  3. LindaG-that's not a stupid question at all. I should have explained that. If you think about where eggs come from, I mean seriously think of the logistics and the anatomy of a chicken...I wash eggs before I use them to remove any particles of mud or dust or bacteria or manure so when I break them into a bowl or pan the yolk and white aren't contaminated. I think it's just a safe habit to get into. All chickens can carry salmonella, for instance, and just because the eggs look clean, there might be something I missed or can't see.

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  4. Thanks, Meridith. I need to remember that for when we have chickens.
    Have a good weekend!

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  5. A very interesting blog - I don't think I shall ever keep chickens in my small garden, but it looks like fun.

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  6. I enjoyed reading your article! One thing to think about, though, is how you're washing your eggs. The shells have bacteria on them once they've been laid, and a gentle wash in warm water with a mild detergent cleans the bacteria. They even make mild powdered egg-washing detergents for home use. Just a thought. Cheers!:)

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  7. What I have read says NOT to wash until you are ready to use (if soiled). Just wipe gently with a cloth if soiled. I understood that the salmonella that was a problem earlier was in the chickens' ovaries, rather than the outside of the egg.

    I LOVE my chickens and their eggs! The chickens are fun to watch and their eggs are incredible. I have 11 RIR and Barred Rocks and I am averaging 8-9 eggs per day their first winter. I am following a suggestion of feeding them slightly cooked soybeans in addition to their laying feed, and have not seen the huge dropoff I was expecting. Anyone else tried this?

    My girls are enclosed for much of the day in a 1600 sq ft. enclosure--grass, hay, and an area they can go in to get out of the weather (chicken cave made of hay bales). When I am home I let them out to freely roam during the day.

    Lately one hen has been mounting the others as though she was a rooster and acting like she was mating. Is this something to worry about?

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  8. This was very interesting. Thank you! My husband and I are currently 'building' our chicken house where we hope in a few weeks to have our first chickens! I read everything with interest because we live on the island of Crete and this will be a whole new experience that we can hardly wait for. Thank you for this wonderful article.

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  9. Ginger: My resources tell me not to wash eggs first, too. As for feeding your chickens soybeans...I'll bet they love them! I hadn't heard that they would keep chickens laying but that might work...your breeds of chickens are also pretty good for winter layers, too. And, I wouldn't worry about your hen trying to mate with the others. I know that can happen, particularly if you don't have a rooster.

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  10. Thank you, Meredith. I think the eggs are even better with the soybeans fed to them! At any rate, I have about 10 families that are anxious for the eggs, which pretty well pays my "eggspences". I am enjoying the hens so much! I hope to get some buffs in a few weeks; now I am concerned about how to introduce them to the adults. Any suggestions? I don't want bloodshed.

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  11. Ginger, I just posted a new blog about introducing new hens to a flock. Maybe there will be something helpful in it for you!

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