Welcome to our new column, Shop Like a Chef, in which we ask chefs at Natural Gourmet Institute to offer expert tips on choosing vegetarian staples.
Think all eggs are created equal? Think again. There are many (often confusing) variables to consider when seeking out the best carton.
1. Know Your Labels
If you're shopping at the supermarket, you might see one of these common terms on egg packaging:
Free Range: This generally means that hens have access to the outdoors, but it does not guarantee they roam freely. Commercially raised hens can be as many as 10,000 to a barn, and the door is just a door. They are often uncaged within the barns, but still very crowded.
Certified Organic: Eggs with a USDA Organic seal must come from hens fed an organic vegetarian diet, free of antibiotics and pesticides. It is worth noting, however, that chickens are not naturally vegetarian—they love bugs—but it would be more difficult to qualify as organic if there were any animal parts in their feed.
Omega-3 Enriched: Feed has higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids than usual. If hens are barn-raised, their feed probably includes flax or seaweed; if pasture-raised, omega-3s can be increased by a natural diet of bugs and grass.
Pasture Raised: Hens are raised outdoors, typically at a ratio of 1,000 hens per 2.5 acres, and are fed a natural diet that can be supplemented with feed during certain times of year—like harsh winters. Look for the Humane Farm Animal Care Organization’s “Certified Humane” pasture-raised label.
Hormone Free: Mostly used as an advertising tool, since hormone use in egg production was banned back in the 1950s.
2. Head to the Farmers’ Market
Try to buy pasture-raised eggs at the farmers’ market whenever you can. Eggs at the market are extremely fresh, so they last over five weeks in the refrigerator. And, because pasture-raised hens eat a natural diet, the yolks of their eggs are a brighter orange and have a stronger flavor.
3. Don’t Judge by Color
Many people assume brown eggs are healthier than white eggs, but they actually have the same nutritional makeup. However, brown eggs usually cost more, and for a simple reason: hens that lay brown eggs are larger than those that lay white ones, so they eat more, and the consumer pays the price.
4. Size Matters—Sometimes
If you mostly use eggs for omelets and the like, size doesn’t really matter. But when it comes to baking, ingredient amounts are imperative to the final outcome—large eggs are the standard size used in most recipes.
Got an overload of eggs? Try one of these easy VT recipes:
Meet the author: Barbara Rich is a full-time chef instructor at Natural Gourmet Institute. She holds a bachelor’s degree from Washington University in St. Louis, Miss., and a culinary degree from California Culinary Academy. Before teaching, she worked at Cardwells Restaurant in St. Louis, Zuni Café in San Francisco, and Danal in New York City. She is also an avid athlete, and has competed in half-ironman triathlons, long-distance open water swim races, and trail races, including the Trans Rockies 6-Day Ultra.